VAST at Highline Ballroom

Filed under: Live Music — doktorjohn June 2, 2009 @ 2:42 am

May 9, 2009
by Doktor John
New York

Californian musical prodigy Jon Crosby a.k.a. VAST (or “Visual Auditory Sensory Theater”), accompanied by some really fine musicians appeared in New York in the Meat-packing District’s relatively new venue, the Highline Ballroom. This is a very comfortable venue, small enough to let all spectators feel like they are up-close-and-personal with the band. Unfortunately, this also attests to VAST’s declining popularity.

Once a big draw but dropped by Elektra Records in 2002, Crosby has had to resort to supporting VAST on his own independent label, 2blossoms. Crosby is a gifted but underappreciated composer and performer of great music. Creator of a bombastic style somewhere in between Nine Inch Nails and U2, his compositions are more coherent than the former and vocals more exhilarating than the latter. Crosby brings industrial music to a level that is genuinely symphonic.

The opening band, Into The Present was a real gem to come upon. And, man, do I regret not having bought their CD or having found a way to trace their link on the Internet. Fronted by a very intense, blues-tinted male tenor (a handsome, skinny youth with long, black hair), driven by a fanatical drummer and accompanied by two dark-haired beauties on bass guitar and cello, Into The Present’s looks, their style, their musical talents were excellent, reminiscent of Mars Volta, if only the latter practiced more or gave a shit about the audience.

Into The Present was a hard act to follow, but nothing could match the welcome Jon Crosby received from the ardent fans, many but not all of whom sported heavy-duty punk outfits and Goth attire. VAST opened with a wall of sound, guitar-driven, with all the auditory spaces filled in by loud-and-clear vocals, electronic effects and exotic samples over irresistible, mechanical rhythms. The effect was a true tsunami of sound— luscious sensory overload— but magnificent to experience

Crosby’s physical appearance has changed. Although he’s still only in his twenties, he is now sporting a double chin and stocky build, causing audible groans of disappointment from some female fans that remembered him as a slender, California pretty-boy. But so, too, has his musical style grown. He sang the hard-edged “You Should Have Known I’d Leave” from his most recent work “Generica” —a down-loadable collection that’s not on CD— and from all his prior albums, including “Music for People,” “V.A.S.T.” and “Nude.” A few slower ballads and one song with saxophone accompaniment added variety to the event. The best-received songs were those from the early albums, featuring eerie samples of chant, such as “Here” and “Free.” The beauty of Vast is that you don’t have to have any prior knowledge of the material to be totally caught up in their mesmerizing, saturated blizzard of sound.

The Shins at Wellmont

Filed under: Live Music — doktorjohn @ 2:26 am

May 17, 2009
Montclair, NJ
By Doktor John

These Portland-based indie rockers packed Montclair’s refurbished former movie palace, The Wellmont practically up to the last rows of the nose-bleed section during this metro-area stop on their current tour. The Wellmont has been resurrected as a classic venue for this kind of second-tier musical performance group in the past year, having lay in a dormant state of disuse for some time following its closure as a movie theater years ago. It’s nice and all that, but I can’t say that it really works.

When in the past there were motion pictures projected on an elevated screen, they were perhaps visible to the mezzanine and balcony patrons, but the slant of the stadium-style seating is such that the performers on stage are just below the horizon of bobbing heads seated in front of the viewer. If one of these buffoons in front decides to stand and gyrate or even to sit leaning forward for the duration, the entire section behind the inconsiderate boor is blocked from seeing the show.

Opening was a sincere but generic Southern rock band with a kind of Louisiana/Celtic flavor named Delta Spirit. They were well received, perhaps in part because of the unexpected appeal of the garbage can lid-banging and mega-decibel bass drum pounding.
The Shins put on 2 full hours of their music unique for its strange, eccentric melodies, syncopated rhythms and above all for frontman James Russell Mercer’s piercing tenor. Reminiscent of the plaintive, happy-yet-sad vocal style of Robert Smith of the Cure, Mercer has the ability to make every lyric tug at the emotions of the listener, and to imbue each song with a level of profundity unmatched in the alternative music scene. Popular pieces from the second album predominated along with such favorites off “Wincing the Night Away” as “Sea Legs,” “Phantom Limb” and “Australia.”

A cover of The Beach Boys was okay, but a melody-less number by The Mumps clashed with the Shins’ style, and it was a major miscalculation include it in the encore set where it produced an anti-climactic let-down.

Their performance style is far heavier and harder rock than ever is heard on their recordings, and it’s not all that pleasing for Mercer to strain and waste his exquisite voice with yelling or for the accompanists to grunge it up like Smashing Pumpkins. The mellow, folksy sound of the Shins was disappointingly tossed aside during overly enthusiastic, noisy, speeded-up versions of their favorites. The material itself is unquestionably great, original and among the best alternative rock around, but it didn’t always get the reverential treatment it deserved.

The National at The Electric Factory

Filed under: Live Music — doktorjohn @ 2:12 am

May 29, 2009
Philadelphia PA
By Doktor John

This Brooklyn-based quintet is easily recognized by their manner as originally from the Midwest—Ohio to be specific. Although now signed on the Beggars Banquet label, they retain an offbeat, creative, indie style. They came on stage joined by a small brass section bringing their number to nine and opened with a truly beautiful number in the unmistakable signature sound that The National has made its own— warm, melodious, thoughtful and original. Then, without interruption went right into “Start a War,” beloved by their fans who were clearly anticipating it.

The audience of mainly clean-cut collegians was surprisingly interspersed with many white-haired elders. This is music with appeal to a variety of tastes. Front man Matt Berninger— lanky, casual, in a tie and suit —was the perfect image of an intellectual grad student. His smooth baritone vocals usually deliver the introspective, poetic lyrics in a halting, conversational style. It soon became clear however that this night they intended to perform heavy, super-charged versions of their hits. Although The National is identified with a mellow, soft-rock style, on this occasion they raised the tempo and the decibel level, aided by a massive baritone sax, a trombone and a trumpet which accompanied the electric guitar-based regulars, imparting an ultra-heavy, deep bass quality to such ordinarily sedate songs as Slow Show and City Middle.

Long and hard-rocking instrumental interludes grew into oscillating, reverberating crescendos of rhythmic feedback. The rapidly paced “Abel” transformed into a furious, driving anthem. Berninger’s casual attire and demeanor became increasingly rowdy, as he and the songs underwent a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation into vehement hard rockers. The well-behaved crowd held back from an unruly behavior. The only thing that resembled a mosh pit was on stage, where Berninger wantonly flailed both himself and his sound equipment around.

Some new songs were mingled in, but most of the set came from the two great albums, Alligator and Boxer. After about 15 songs, which included Secret Meeting and Squalor Victoria, they took a brief break but were promptly pulled back on stage by the enthusiastic audience for another set of three or four encores, among which was the agitated and catchy Mr. November. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, Berninger smashed his mike, and they closed the show with fond farewells to the audience.