Puscifer’s most recent tour felt like more than a bit of rock and roll theater performance art. From the press photos of the band dressed up like parallel dimension Watchmen futuristic noir superheros replicated for the live show to Maynard James Keenan performing in character in more than one role to the stage sets and interludes between songs it was a full production from its early public announcements and intentional and conceptual aesthetics and execution. Chances are much of this was planned all along when Existential Reckoning was planned for the roll out in 2020 before the pandemic put all the brakes on anyone doing any shows much less a full fledged tour on every logistical level. It’s easy to imagine Maynard and the rest of the band having these ideas ready but this live show had the energy of pent-up exuberance let loose so that while not rough around the edges, there was an intensity that felt real and not an act in spite of the performance art aspect of the show.
Of course the show included what seemed like the whole Existential Reckoning album in its entirety and set up as a concept performance with Keenan and Carina Round on the ground level of the stage and on an upper area for various songs and for the final sequences of the show. It all felt like a futuristic rock and new wave glam rock fusion with sly social commentary. For most of the show the band forbade people in the audience from taking photos and such as perhaps an attempt to keep the focus on the show and its content and, well, the reason we all showed up to see the art rock glory of the band giving an exuberant performance informed by humor and intelligence. But what stood out most in some ways were the regular interludes in which the music took a pause and the video screens were filled with the image of Keenan as a mutant hybrid parody of Max Headroom and a conspiracy theorist TV show host and unleashing some of the most cartoonish and ridiculous examples of the kind of rhetoric you might expect and done so with a surreal glee that was the perfect break from the rest of the show. And yes, the concert in general had a level of stagecraft and content one doesn’t often see outside of a Nine Inch Nails or Radiohead gig so Puscifer in delivering arguably the best record of its career thus far did so with a riveting live show and the mix of humor and bombast you’d hope to experience.
Kraftwerk went beyond the 3D presentation for the 2022 Red Rocks show. Seemed like it couldn’t work when the light was still strong well into the evening but apparently it was oddly effective and surreal if you got a pair of the glasses to fully take in that aspect of the performance. But even without the glasses whoever set up the sound for this night managed to give the renowned amphitheater a robust level of sonic fidelity adequate to one of the greatest and most influential bands of electronic and popular music.
On stage Kraftwerk walked on to a platform on the stage that gave the impression that we were watching the quartet on a television lending the whole show a meta quality that enhanced the group’s own implicit commentary on society, media and technology by employing the simple prop of a familiar cultural artifact write large from which to project the music to the audience. Behind the four members of Kraftwerk was one projection screen and when 8-bit graphic numbers counted to eight it was clear the concert would open with “Numbers.”
Across the evening with so many of Kraftwerk’s great songs from the breadth of its recorded catalog one thing that had to have struck anyone close enough to see the expressions on the faces of the band and their movements is how much they put themselves as humans into the music even though they appeared to be standing at consoles simply pressing buttons and looking impassive. But Ralf Hütter looked impassioned at points and with the projections flowing depicting the settings and actions of the song it was the members of Kraftwerk that kept this music grounded in a shared human experience of music made using science seemingly written for cyborgs but performed by physical people and not an A.I.. Not that Kraftwerk might not find that a useful element of its compositions going into the future.
It’s easy to think of songs like “The Model,” “Autobahn,” “Trans-Europe Express,” “Tour de France,” “The Robots” and “Spacelab” as existing and best enjoyed purely in the mind but the low end and the broad frequency range of the music hit strongly and moved through you in this environment in a way that made it feel like the most transcendent music in the world. This music many of us have heard for most or all of our lives but maybe weren’t fortunate enough to witness other times Kraftwerk made a stop in Colorado came to life as day turned to night and even when the wind rose precipitously and the group left the stage for an intermission and came back it seemed to accentuate how Kraftwerk’s sounds and ideas have weathered well the decades and still sound fresh, unusual and strikingly original.
Sunflower Bean has garnered some criticism for being icons of indie music rather than a genuine indie band from early on. But live its eclectic, multi-genre approach to songwriting somehow works even though it hasn’t exactly translated into a break into the mainstream. What this date in the support tour for its new album Headful of Sugar showcased the idiosyncratic band dynamic beyond the broad range of sounds and songwriting styles that spans the group’s catalog. The way each member had turns to shine throughout the set and within songs and the interplay like a handing off of the spotlight and sharing support roles seemingly effortlessly and without anyone seeming to push their ego into the mix unless the moment called for it.
Shifting between styles across the set wouldn’t be possible if the trio didn’t have a command of a range of aesthetics from shoegaze, post-punk, psych, garage rock, R&B and electronic dance music. At times it could come across as a new band still finding its own sound but with songs developed to a high degree and maybe it’s intentional but this aspect of the band, there from its early tours, brings to the show a built in quality of the uncalculated, something most bands shed often by the time of their first album and certainly by the second, settling into a sound and sensibility that can feel limiting but also provides a coherence that points to stronger creative development. For now it seems Sunflower Bean realizes that the period of a band still figuring itself out can be personally rewarding. Rather than rushing to nailing what it’s about, Sunflower Bean streamlined its performances yet for this show we got to see the band bursting off the rails of its own disciplined presentation and it is in those moments that point to the group’s possibilities and creativity. Much of the set list came from the new record including opening with the title track but plenty of the highlights from earlier albums like the title track of Human Ceremony, “I Was a Fool,” “Twentytwo” and non-album track “Moment In The Sun.” Somehow none of it seemed dated because maybe, as has been pointed by various critics, this band reflected indie trends at every point in its career it also didn’t get tethered to one in following its own instincts in songwriting and the material took on the shape of the energy put into it the playing of it which felt somewhat off the cuff and in the moment even if obviously well practiced.
Although we’re going to have to wait to see the full Failure documentary until 2023, for the 2022 segments of said cinematic biography of the band screened in lieu of an opening act for many if not all dates. In a sense the testimonials of Hayley Williams of Paramore, Margaret Cho, Jason Schwartzman, Tommy Lee, Maynard Keenan, David Dastmalchian, Troy Sanders of Mastodon, Dean DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots, Matt Pinfield, Butch Vig of Garbage and Brian Aubert of Silversun Pickups opened the show with pithy and often poetic commentary on the impact of Failure on their lives and their music. And as compelling as these tidbits were they were a simple approximation of the band the way a written review can only be an abstraction of the visceral impact of the music and Failure’s gift for emotionally gripping, cinematic soundscapes as songs.
Often a band will have the drummer placed in the background but not so with Failure on this tour or on recent tours and maybe going back to the beginning. No, Kellii Scott is the engine and the glue that holds together Greg Edwards’ quiet intense energy as a musician and Ken Andrews’ more luminously volatile yet introspective expansiveness. It’s what makes the contradictions of the band’s music make sense and come together as forcefully and as gracefully as it does.
Perhaps it was Margaret Cho who sagely referred to this music as “Space Goth” as it was melodramatic and dark and dreamlike, conflicted, gritty and ambient, industrial beats feeding into an evolving sonic infrastructure. There was something elegant in the underlying menace of so many of the songs and a sense that each song could scorch out from within. It all felt like it was on the precipice of an all consuming abyss and yet buoyed up by a desperate yet fatigued hope. The first two thirds of the set drew largely from the earlier albums and the more recent records and all of it seemed like a grand adventure through harrowing emotional spaces and built into each a thread of the promise of catharsis. And it all lead to the end of the show featuring the the final third of Fantastic Planet. “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” “Another Space Song,” “Stuck on You,” “Heliotropic” and “Daylight” were an arc of songs that felt mythic and like the kind of science fiction story you wish someone could make into a movie instead of the corny claptrap that passes for genre most of the time because it doesn’t often contain the weight of emotion and penetrating self-examination contained in those five songs. In the context of the album it was like hearing the epic conclusion of a classic science fiction trilogy but with modern sensibilities—like an art rock band helmed by Clifford Simak and A.E. Van Vogt.
If you weren’t already completely drawn in by the whirlpool of melodic fuzz of “Another Space Song” then the strains of “Stuck on You” obliterated that resistance on into the tone grinder and transformative rumblings of “Heliotropic” and toward the epic heights and mythical denouement of “Daylight.” It was a musical experience that makes you forget other bands matter for a few days and that Failure had played the Bluebird Theater and not some gaudy enormodome like Ball or Wembley Arena because the music felt built for that scale.
The Body has long been a band that you could rely on to roll into town once a year or so for years before the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to live shows as we know it for a good long while. The band’s uniquely cathartic, experimental extreme metal, monolithic onslaught was something you could take for granted as an inevitability. And finally the duo returned to Denver for a show at Larimer Lounge that was not a bill of all metal or heavy bands in any conventional sense and that is part of why this show felt particularly impactful. On a personal note when I walked up to the merch table drummer/programmer Lee Buford complimented by Chari XCX t-shirt and it was sincere. I would have been surprised but The Body is a band that has made no bones about its appreciation for music far afield of that for which it’s known and its 2016 album No One Deserves Happiness paired heaviness with 80s dance tracks. For me this acknowledgment of a mutual appreciation for one of the more interesting pop artists of today set a mood for the show to come.
Less than a week prior Polly Urethane had performed with Rusty Steve for a powerful set opening for A Place to Bury Strangers. For this show Polly Urethane performed alone for a set of music completely different from her performance the previous Thursday. She had the long white cowl on hand for part of the set but performed much of the show in black with a t-shirt. Elegant piano work and operatic classical style vocals paired with an old Realistic Air Force Sound Effects record sampled directly and some of Polly’s electronic pieces.
The music felt like part of a greater arc of performance wherein Polly broke that stage and audience barrier by going out into the crowd with her extended mic chord and while on stage stood on top of monitors balancing there somehow as if setting an example of fearlessness vulnerability. When she brought her left leg up on top of the piano while leaning forward to play it and sing it challenged notions of how the instrument is “supposed” to be played in performance and gave a visual element to the show that seemed to change regularly so that you really had no chance to get bored not that the music itself gave that opportunity either as it fused classical convention with the avant-garde in equal measure and performance art as much as musical.
Anyone that hadn’t seen Midwife in a good long while, like many of us, couldn’t have been quite prepared for how much Madeline Johnston has honed her set. Not that she lacked for emotional power before and maybe it’s all just a matter of the weight of the past few years that went into the writing of the music and fine tuning its performance and presentation but every song hit deep. If your heart didn’t break from the way Johnston held pauses in the flow of the song to allow the unspoken emotional swell to build before heading back in to direct that energy to greater heights and depths you have probably lost the capacity to be affected by music. It’s just Johnston, her guitar and maybe some backing tracks and it’s spare stuff but it has all been refined for maximum evocative power at this point. You can feel the anguish and sorrow cathartically flowing through songs like the utterly crushing and devastating “S.W.I.M.” – the hazy soundscapes and perfectly accented guitar riffs coupled with Johnston’s warmly gentle vocals and ability to draw out the distillation of despair and memories of better times honors the loss she depicts in her songs in a way that hits all the emotional keys in your brain the way maybe they need to be more often.
The whole set felt like one, extended, beautiful exorcism for a few moments the sadness of the living memory of people and places and situations you’ll never get back. It was shamanic in effect and transcended simple music which is an utter rarity in live music with how Johnston is able to make your time with her feel so intimate, moving and healing.
Maybe it never hit full before but the colossal, gritty and unusual sounds that had made The Body such an interesting band in the past had always been something of an orchestration of sounds, textures, rhythms and moods that Chip King and Lee Buford orchestrate in a two person format to accomplish nuances that full bands sometimes don’t. King’s eccentric, screechy vocals have subtleties of their own and part of that is the syncopation of his vocals with guitar and percussion. Buford using both electronic drums and acoustic is somehow both utterly bludgeoning and elegant in execution like he is fully aware of how every aspect of what he’s doing has the potential to have an effect on the listener and his partner in crime King’s emotional state during the performance and vice versa. And yet it felt so spontaneous and raw it was easy to miss unless you were keyed into that dynamic between the two musicians and the crowd. King’s feedback sculpting spiraled out like a jet engine at times and within those scorched gyres of distorted guitar fragments there was a great sense of release and a joyful abandon that seemed like the reason to play and to witness music like this.
King and Buford performed with a zen-like intensity and focus yet released the energy they coiled up across the set with a dynamic force that was impossible to rest and in which to be caught up. After over a decade of seeing this band now and then this show made it obvious that The Body has built into its craft and its songwriting a lack of laurels upon which to rest and if its eclectic and prolific set of releases isn’t proof enough it’s that absorbing of disparate influences into its music that is channeled into the show that sets it apart from many other extreme metal bands experimental or otherwise.
For some reason Ezra Furman’s reputation as a more folky indie rocker persists to this day, certainly among people who checked out of the songwriter’s career during the period with The Harpoons. And then perhaps transferring that impression onto Furman’s early solo albums. But this performance wasn’t the kind of thing you leave with any impression other than Furman is a fiery and charismatic singer and guitarist whose passion and conviction is imbued with an irresistible righteousness of purpose and deep compassion for the tender and vulnerable sides of anyone that has ever had to deal with the persecution of a society and culture that too often denies full humanity to various groups of people that are dismissed as a minority group. With rising worldwide fascism it was the kind of show that felt like a solid strike against that poisonous ideology and an act of rebellion completely embodied in the energy of the music.
Australian singer-songwriter Grace Cummings opened the show with her full band. Anyone that got to hear any bit of Cummings’ 2022 album Storm Queen may have rightfully expected a fiery performer with a gritty voice and larger than life presence. The Cummings in person seemed extremely personable and authentic with a dry and self-effacing sense of humor. But that in no way undercut her raw power as a vocalist and musician whether she was playing guitar or sitting at the piano. There was a magnetic command of the material that was both vulnerable and nuanced and thrillingly powerful. Evidently due to health issues the band was a tiny bit off their game but having no frame of reference it sure didn’t seem like anything was missing from the performance and if one has to imagine a flaw it’s that you could tell Cummings and the band would grow and refine and hone their performance and the precision with which it delivered the material in ways not yet created.
A song-by-song or strictly linear breakdown of the Ezra Furman set wouldn’t do justice to the impact of the performance. The energy was like seeing a legendary rockabilly artist from decades ago that discovered punk in their later years and embraced the raw vitality of that music completely and plugged it into a body of superior musicianship and songwriting and took that challenge to write songs about life from the perspective of someone who had to live on the edge, on the boundaries of polite society because one’s authentic self isn’t ready for prime time. But no one’s life, presented with absolute honesty even emotionally is really built for dissection and scrutiny in order to pass judgment based on a questionable barometer of morality. Something about these songs gave one the sense that Furman had long ago figured out that rock and roll and thus a liberated human spirit isn’t something that fits neatly into a box crafted by people who seek a very narrow and specific sense of psychic comfort based on a sense of existence and identity that can feel like a straightjacket to most people if they’re not trying to conform in order to benefit from a fragile power dynamic that would collapse if it faced any real resistance.
Songs came from across Furman’s solo catalog including cuts from the forthcoming All Of Us Flames (which releases August 26, 2022) like “Forever In Sunset,” “Book Of Our Names” and “Point Me Toward The Real.” The studio versions of the songs are like a modern take on a fusion of R&B and Lou Reed. Live the material felt like anthems aimed to blow open a door to personal liberation because Furman didn’t skimp on the intensity and what felt like off the cuff yet punk spiritual banter between songs. Maybe the fact that Furman is a trans woman gave the show some of its edge but really the material and Furman’s presence as someone delivering insightful emotional truth rooted in a reality informed and driven by deep personal experiences but which flowed forth as uplifting. There was a basic level of human solidarity one felt from Furman that isn’t always there at a rock show and Furman’s willingness to put herself full into committing to a premise of seizing one’s own power and ability to connect with people to remind them of their own humanity and interconnectedness with community was impossible to ignore or miss.
Pity+Fear (a travesty) was the latest original show from Grapefruit Lab and in general it might be described as a darkly comedic Greek tragedy that per the press release for the production explores “what it means to be alive, to tell the truth, and to change over time.” The set was in the modest setting of the Buntport Theater with some lighting, a low stage, a ladder, reams of documents that the characters use to consult for information and little else. One immediately thinks of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 existential play Waiting for Godot with its own minimalist set and two characters engaged in witty and conversational dialog about the significance of existence as well.
The two leads for this play, Miriam Suzanne and Josie Cool (who also performed music at various points to accentuate and complement the themes of the play), use the vehicle of delving into both the fraught mythology of the Greek mythological figure Agraulos in parallel with foundational stories from their own lives. There are three myths about the death of Agraulos, all contradictory, but all of which reveal something significant about the Greek view of women and identity with one myth saying how Agraulos and one of her sisters opened a box containing the monstrous offspring of one of the gods and going insane and throwing themselves from the Acropolis (in Athens) or off a cliff; another that Agraulos sacrificed herself for the good of Athens and in the third that Agraulos stood in between Hermes and her sister and was turned to stone for her trouble. All stories that extol blind obedience and sacrifice. But Suzanne goes deep into Greek theater history and in unraveling stories that serve as the foundation of our culture and to a large extent our own identities and relationships with one another between that mythological framing and deconstruction Suzanne and Cool examine and deconstruct the seemingly arbitrary rules for how we learn and build our own identities.
What made that exploration of myth and personal anecdotes from life that included stories of figuring out confusing and emotionally traumatizing situations and others finally illuminating and life affirming so poignant and effective is that Suzanne and Cool are both trans women. Suzanne’s story about how her mother had a dream of having a boy before her brother was born and not having a dream of gender for Suzanne beautifully illustrated how we subconsciously know we can know truths about ourselves before we have the language for them. Juxtaposed with the myths that represent cultural norms that often impose identity and mores even when they serve little but ritualized tradition.
Both Cool and Suzanne made the material which could have been perceived as academic or theoretical seem immediate with an obvious gentleness and awareness of how these subjects impacted their own lives in a very real and direct way. Maybe it was a reference or a quote from another thinker but when Suzanne said “The body has little regard for theory” it hit with the ring of truth because humans often have all these ideas that they insist are the truth merely because there is a consensus of the moment based on incomplete information and stating that one point in an evolving comprehension of a matrix of interrelated phenomenon and existences is static and eternal. Science is catching up to a non-binary view of gender in DNA as a spectrum but of course that’s been a fact that theory has taken a long time to account for and thus Suzanne’s aforementioned quote seems even more relevant.
With the right wing trying to erase the existence of transfolk or trivialize that identity as a choice like what clothes to wear, a play like this bypasses that analysis and offers real insight into the nature of how we construct identity whether you’re trans or not. It challenged, without aggression, the very stories we learn and internalize from culture going back centuries and in doing so suggests a more compassionate and human way to understand the personal, familiar, societal and religious stories that inform who we are and we who can be and chart a path to embracing are true selves beyond rigid categories as everyone has multiple identities they navigate every day of their lives whether or not they are conscious of that fact. Pity+Fear (a travesty) was, beginning to end, incisive, insightful, sensitive and at keen times humorous without trivializing anyone’s struggles and challenges.
Like many other musical projects A Place To Bury Strangers emerged from the early phase of the global pandemic a different band, certainly with a different membership other than guitarist and singer Oliver Ackermann. Following the highly experimental, even by APTBS standards, 2018 album Pinned the group probably had to have a different approach and lineup to avoid coasting into too familiar territory and musical habits. So we heard Hologram (2021) and what seemed more pop and garage rock in structure and sonics. Then the new full-length See Through You (2022) which felt like a reconciliation of Ackermann’s songwriting and soundcrafting instincts and channeling that through new creative filters and doing a sort of self-remix of a sound to expose a raw core that sometimes, if not for the obvious level of creative development, sounded like an early demo from a time before a band has settled on a sound that might appeal to some more conventionally-minded record label type. Then again APTBS doesn’t seem to have kowtowed that direction with any of its records. But whatever the motivations in assembling these sounds for the new record and whatever the methods for achieving these sounds both jagged and vulnerable how would this version of APTBS translate live.
For this leg of the tour Florida-based post-punk band Glove was to have opened the dates but something went sidewise in its camp and that left only the Denver-based openers Polly Urethane & Rusty Steve. It’s a relatively new musical entity though Polly Urethane at a minimum has garnered attention and praise and even recommendation in the local scene with unexpected people telling me I should check out her work and initially thinking it was Polyurethane of Zach Reini vintage, the Godflesh-esque industrial grind duo, upon listening to Polly Urethane’s 2021 EP Altruism with Rusty Steve, Altruism, it was obvious this was going to be something very different. The lush production of the EP and the emotionally refined and powerful vocals hit with greater dramatic effect and force live bolstered by Amber Benton decked out in a white, gauzy dress and long, black hair lending an aspect of one of those vengeful female spirits of Japanese folklore. When Benton crawled up top of some cases on the side of the stage and sang from there as well as going out into the crowd she broke the convention of the audience and performer barrier with a seeming fearlessness but also the intention of transgressing unspoken rules that protect nothing but a subconscious status quo.
The music combined with the theater of the performance was reminiscent of Zola Jesus and her own fusion of classical music and ethereal yet cathartic, darkly electronic pop. And Benton’s persona has to be compared to that of Diamanda Galás—that intensity and conviction perfected melded with a musical sophistication that helps to elevate aspects of the show some less charitable types that aren’t open to witnessing something different might call gimmicky to a realm of high art. At the beginning of the performance there was a projection of a the great, highly political collage artist Barbara Kruger—looked specifically like her 1990/2018 “Untitled (Questions)” piece—that calls into questions assumptions about society, challenging power and privilege. Seemed entirely appropriate to the current political climate even before the Supreme Court started to in full force dismantle civil rights in America. The performance seemed informed by the spirit of Kruger’s piece and if you take the time to give the EP a listen it’s a deeply personal and emotionally rich expression of the fallout of authoritarian influence on culture on the psyche. Really, an unforgettable performance that wasn’t the typical local band opening for someone with whom their music might fit.
From the flood of colored lights projected in shifting arrays and textures to the sheer controlled caustic sonics and brutally syncopated rhythms A Place to Bury Strangers unleashed its steady flow of electrifying sound and launched into “We’ve Come So Far” and didn’t much let up minus some breaks between songs and an unexpected and brilliant interlude toward the end of the set. It felt like being elevated into a different psychological space where your brain is stimulated in with a bright and dense energy pulsing with a driving momentum until we were let down at the end. The guitar and rhythm section just had that kind of rare synergy that is pretty much impossible to ignore with sounds that hit different parts of your listening spectrum.
Even songs you already know and have heard many times over several years had a heightened freshness like the band had learned to rediscover its music to deliver in a way that still felt exciting for them. Most bands probably do this especially after roughly two years of not being able to play live shows. Seeing the outfit going back to 2008 when it came through Denver and played the Larimer Lounge with its gloriously disorienting, scorching swaths of sound this performance felt like the trio was connecting to a new source of inspiration.
At one point toward the latter half of the set the band came off the stage to the center of the room where Ackermann had set up what looked like a self-contained sound generating device through which he could process vocals and his bandmates brought instruments to join in what certainly had to be a familiar experience for anyone who got to go to DIY spaces in America circa 2006-2012 akin to Ackermann’s own venue and studio in New York City, Death By Audio. In taking the show to people off stage in this way it was like the band recreated that experience in a more commercial venue thereby injecting the situation with some of that free form and free flowing spontaneous spirit and energy of the DIY world pre-Ghost Ship and pre-complete corporate/private equity firm takeover of the real estate market nationwide more or less ending that era completely into the foreseeable future. For that alone, this show felt exceptional and subversive. But of course there was more to come including the familiar strains of the always epic and enveloping “Ocean.” But the whole set came off like a scrubbing away of the mundane world and getting reconnected to one’s own raw emotions as expressed through this band that is inaccurately called a shoegaze band or noise rock or simply noise or dream pop or industrial. It’s all of that and beyond that. When the show was over that purging of regular life lingered for long afterward from two sets of deeply imaginative and creative music that directly challenged convention and that’s a gift no one should take for granted.
Partial Set List We’ve Come So Far (Transfixiation) You Are The One (Worship) My Head Is Bleeding (See Through You) Hold On Tight (See Through You) Everything Always Goes Wrong (Exploding Head) Let’s See Each Other (See Through You) Never Coming Back (Pinned) End of the Night (Hologram) In Your Heart (Exploding Head) I Live My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart (Exploding Head) Have You Ever Been In Love (new song) Ocean (s/t)
Nearly 30 years into its career, Spoon could be one of those bands that is doing fan service with a live show. But fortunately most bands of its era haven’t exactly done that and its show at the Mission Ballroom in Denver seemed both a celebration of being able to do live shows again, for now, and still proving itself touring for Lucifer on the Sofa, a rock and roll follow up to the luminously moody Hot Thoughts.
When Geese opened the show it seemed as though more than a few people found it to be a bit of a head scratcher. The performance was somehow both focused and shambolic, driven by a jazz quintet’s dynamic precision and a jam band’s free flowing aesthetic, part punk, part prog. Almost always within the same song. Vocalist Cameron Winter strode about the stage like wandering around, bemused, relating unusual stories with a free association improv flair. Pretty much the whole set was comprised of tracks from the group’s extraordinary 2021 debut album Projector but seeing this presentation of the music added another dimension to Geese’s widely expressive aesthetic. The energy felt like seeing some friends rehearse for their big stage debut for mutual acquaintances with no pressure and the freedom of that and seeming to be unmindful and not overly conscious of playing to a crowd mostly there to see a band with a fairly lengthy legacy. If you’re going to the UMS in 2022 this band will perform on some stage and likely in a smaller venue setting.
Spoon has probably played thousands of shows across three decades and in a wide variety of settings. The last time this writer saw Spoon was somehow in the fall of 2002 at Tulagi’s in Boulder during the touring cycle for Kill the Moonlight. The group then was impressive enough in a small club with songs that seemed so sophisticated and well crafted for a band playing a venue that often then featured music much more raw and noisy. Fast forward some twenty years and Spoon seems to have injected its current performance style and songwriting with some raw edge without losing its elegantly arranged songwriting. You could tell that everyone seemed happy with not just being there but with the crowd response. Britt Daniels regularly interacted with people in the front row directly and with people further back from the stage by making eye contact and acknowledging people who were giving back the energy Spoon was putting forth. Bassist Ben Trokan looked genuinely in awe of what the band was doing collectively and the mutual emotional dynamic between the crowd and the performers. He looked a little like a young Scott Baio with a wardrobe choice seeming to come right out of an 80s movie. It made for an interesting aesthetic like we were seeing a band that had some consciousness of how they were dressed but let the rock theater of the musical performance speak loudest.
And we were certainly treated to selections from a wide swath of Spoon’s career with a slight emphasis on the new record at roughly a third of the set of twenty-one songs (including the encore). “My Mathematical Mind” was a standout of the night with its reworking into a song that expanded into epic proportions giving the musicians some space to stretch the song out without spilling over into gross self-indulgence. For a band with such tight songwriting and sensibilities that always seem to put exactly the right touches on songs so as to not waste a moment in the listening it was a welcome change into a different side of Spoon’s collective musicianship and one that allowed for variations in arrangements and to go off the established map of the original song to that degree. The whole set seemed like hit after hit even when it was lesser known songs. Something about the forcefulness of the show like an inner emotional momentum was pushing the band into giving it an extra push into cutting loose around the edges while coming back together in perfect sync. It all proved why Spoon has maintained more than a simple cult following and with its new batch of songs, some of the best and most immediately appealing of its long career maybe it’ll garner a new generation of fans.
Well over a decade into his career as a fairly prominent musician, Kurt Vile remains someone who seems to have an uneasy relationship with the spotlight. And throughout his set at the Ogden Theatre in Denver on May 23, 2022 he demonstrated that reticence to court attention even though he was playing a venue much bigger than a small club while also providing ample examples of why his work has garnered more than a small cult following.
Denver psych Americana band Honey Blazer opened the show. Usually you can catch this band at clubs like Hi-Dive, Lost Lake or Globe Hall and the like. With artful guitar builds and laid back dynamics, Honey Blazer was able to turn what might otherwise be an elongated jam into energetic, sunny melodies with an expansive dynamic. Prior to this act Gann Matthews had been in and around the Denver scene often as a singer-songwriter but one whose talent was obvious if not as fully appreciated as he should have been but with this band he, Brad Grear and their bandmates looked pretty comfortable on the big stage and giving us songs that imagine a life beyond the rat race of late capitalism.
When Kurt Vile and The Violators got on stage their presentation was no more elaborate or theatrical than Honey Blazer. It was just shy of looking like a group of guys who got on stage for a big show in just their street clothes, unless of course it was their street clothes. And it didn’t seem like some faux humble pose either. To compound this impression Vile himself engaged with the crowd tentatively and completely unvarnished, unpracticed and without pretense. Like someone who almost feels embarrassed that they have to take up your time with their unpoetic thoughts. No grand statements and mostly Vile and company let the music speak for itself.
Maybe it was his usual deal but for those of us who had never seen Vile perform live prior to this show he skirted the line between self-deprecating and eccentric pretty well. The set included songs from across a broad range of his career going back at least as far as Smoke Ring For My Halo (2011) with “Peeping Tomboy” as well as “Overnite KV” off of God is Saying This to You… (2009) and offering cuts from newer records with “Check Baby” from Bottle It In (2018), “Pretty Pimpin” from b’lieve i’m goin’ down… (2015) and ample material from (watch my moves) (2022) and “Going on a Plane Today,” “Flyin (Like a Fast Train)” and “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone).” But beginning to Vile and the Violators delivered a rich tapestry of guitar styles, uniquely constructed lyrics with relatable and insightful sentiments that get you to think about everyday life in ways maybe you hadn’t quite considered before. There is a freshness to the music that is easy to take for granted if you’ve heard any kind of indie rock playlist since the late 2000s but in the relatively compressed confines of this show in a 1,600 capacity venue and a set that brought together the various strands of Vile’s songwriting it hit as striking and Vile as an unlikely and gifted guitar hero with a knack for songwriting that is imbued with truly inventive wordplay. The humanity and sense of humor underlying songs about coming to terms with oneself and trying not to be in the world as someone making life harder for others and making social commentary in a way that seems so personal and interwoven into stories of daily existence its easy to look past it. It never seems preachy. But the guitar tones and song dynamics are also where the group shines combining texture, atmosphere, orchestrated rhythms and intricate, inventive melodies that come off very simple and spare yet un-obviously lush.
The music of course being outstanding it was Vile’s between song banter that made the show more endearing. Yes, we all saw the merch coming in and there was a cool t-shirt design and vinyl and other items for sale but people forget and maybe someone told Vile that he should remind the crowd there was stuff for sale and he seemed so reluctant to mention that because he was obviously aware that most people probably knew that and there was likely no need to stump for his own product. And as he was doing so it felt like we all knew he had to say it even if it felt for him a little awkward. Oftentimes on stage Vile would retreat from the mic to take a solo and his abundant hair regularly obscured his face all to make for an informal camouflage into the shadows of the performance, well aware that he is a member of a band and not a solo artist. At some point in the show flashing emergency vehicle lights paused in front of the venue, maybe from an ambulance picking someone up because of a medical issue, visible through the theater doors and Vile remarked, “Looks like a lot of cops out there” with a hint of concern. Near or at the end of the show Vile remarked that they’d been on the road for a month, five weeks “but it feels like a couple of years. It feels good. But this feels great.” Certainly for someone who is one of the great musicians and songwriters of his generation, Kurt Vile knows how to set aside any insufferable rock star persona and be real while not skimping on the power of the music itself.
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