Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Triumph at the Aragon (MBV part 4)

Some of you are wondering what happened to MBV part 3. Well, wouldn't you know it, someone posted a review of the show on another website which just so happens to perfectly encapsulate my own thoughts on the show. Just for kicks, I'll reprint it here, followed by some other random thoughts I had about the show (thus, part 4):

They had told me that it would be the loudest concert I’d ever attended. They foretold of amazing sonic onslaughts. They said that it would be unlike any other show I’d seen.

They were right.

My Bloody Valentine came to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago last Saturday, and delivered a concert at a level of intensity I don’t expect to ever see again.

After being unable to satisfactorily follow up the legendary Loveless album, the group dissolved in the mid-90s amid Kevin Shields’ legendary perfectionism. Since then, lead singer Bilinda Butcher became a housewife, bass-playin’ Debbie Googe joined Snowpony and drove a cab, Colm O’Ciosoig played drums with Hope Sandoval, and Kevin Shields popped his head up only occasionally.

Shields produced a few songs on Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR and toured with the Scream when they came to North America. I had thought that was the closest I’d ever get to seeing My Bloody Valentine. Imagine how thrilled I was to hear that I’d get the chance to see them...and in Chicago! I had always regretted missing them the last time they came around, sixteen years ago.

Needless to say, I had high expectations. And each one was exceeded at the Aragon.

I’m happy to report that time has not compromised My Bloody Valentine’s marauding sounds one iota; it’s amazing to realize that for all the ungodly noise and sheets of sound, that it was only four people making all those sounds. Drums came at you like gunshots; snares pierced like buckshot through sheet-metal. The guitars sounded like baying hounds. Somehow, Kevin Shields is able to reproduce onstage all of the mysterious guitar sounds that he achieved in the studio.

And throughout, Shields and Bilinda Butcher stood nearly motionless on either side of the stage, peacefully blowing our minds with extreme sonic violence. Only Debbie Googe and baby-faced Colm O’Ciosoig looked like they were rocking; Kevin and Bilinda may as well have been reciting poems by Burns to a coffeehouse audience for all the excitement they outwardly showed. When they weren’t looking at the audience, they did indeed gaze down at their shoes. But they were smiling when they did it, probably just as thrilled as we were that they were there. The strobe lights deliberately obscured the band, intense and unrelenting, like the music.

They opened with “I Only Said”, and everyone immediately realized that this was going to be the loudest show we’d ever attended. I brought quality ear plugs, but even through them, I knew that only a small piece of foam was saving me from hearing damage. For four songs, I braved the full onslaught without the earplugs, and was shocked by the volume.

The crowning set piece was the stunning “You Made Me Realise.” For twenty-six minutes, they unleashed what’s known as The Holocaust upon the audience. In the studio version, they let a chord hang for about a minute; live, that chord is replaced with intense, unrelenting noise. Before the song started, I made a deal with the devil and decided to go this song without earplugs, fully aware that it would be long. For the duration of the song, I looked at the crowd. Many knew what to expect. There were people who chose to be taken by the moment, raising their hands heavenward. Some raised their fists to the sky, face scrunched up, just taking in the Noise. Others were peaceful, absorbing the scathing, undulating, phase-shifting distortion. About fifteen minutes in, I realized that this is what it must sound like being inside a jet engine running at full-roar. It was a noise so intense you felt it with your entire body. I honestly wondered if I would be able to leave the Aragon with hearing intact, but knew that if it had to be lost, a moment as unreal as “You Made Me Realise” would be one for the books.

The concert was an absolutely gargantuan, an unbelievable show. My wife gave the tickets to me as an early Christmas gift, and unfortunately had to pay triple face value. Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you we got every penny’s worth. I kept having to remind myself: against all odds, I am seeing My Bloody Valentine, something I never thought would ever happen.

They’re as amazing today as their legend suggests. It was an unmitigated triumph.

Although if you should ever find yourself at a My Bloody Valentine concert, you’d better bring your earplugs. I recommend Leight Sleepers, a fine brand that cuts the edge by 30 dBs or so. And be prepared for the most visceral show you’ve ever been to.

Set List:

1) I Only Said

2) When You Sleep

3) You Never Should

4) You're Still In a Dream

5) Cigarette In Your Bed

6) Come In Alone

7) Only Shallow

8) Thorn

9) Nothing Much To Lose

10) To Here Knows When

11) Slow

12) Soon

13) Feed Me With Your Kiss

14) You Made Me Realize

While I was there...
  • The opening band Hopewell put on a good show; it was dark, mysterious, and made you want to hear more. The other guy who went with my wife and I said that one of the dudes of Hopewell was in Mercury Rev. Wherever he was from, they were really good. Definitely recommended.
  • There was a security guard at the beginning of the show who hadn't been warned in advance about My Bloody Valentine's show; he didn't have any earplugs in. As soon as MBV started their first song, he put his fingers in his ears due to the pain, then covered his eyes because of the ultra-bright strobes, realized that his ears were in pain again, and couldn't figure out which to cover up, his eyes or his ears. Knucklehead. He came back two minutes later, trying to look like a badass, which was pretty tough to do after that display of cowardice to the mighty power of MBV.
  • The swath of people-types was amazing. I actually saw one Bryan Ferry shirt in the crowd. You had tattoed alterna-types mixed in with yuppies, teenagers to sixty-year-olds, mountain-man beards, white-guy afros, shaved heads, and everything in between. My wife counted at least three pregnant ladies. And yes, both the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot (loved it) and the Chicago Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis (hated it) were there.
  • I had a hunch that I might not have warned my wife about how unique of a show we were going to, so I sorta kinda gave her the gory details in the week before the show. She was none too pleased. And even though I warned her about the extreme volume, even she exclaimed at the start, "God, that's LOUD!!" She didn't think that the earplugs we'd bought were doing anything. Well, even though they cut the volume by 30dB or so, it's all relative when you're dealing with volumes of around 120 dB.
  • It was hot in there; quite hot.
  • My wife, who I thought would hate it, said that it was actually better than she thought it would be. She actually liked the parts of the concert that weren't pure noise, but thought that the strobe lights were a bit much.
  • After the 26-minute sonic Holocaust at the end of the show, I thought for sure she'd either a) bolt halfway through it, or b) divorce me. I asked her plaintively after all was said and done, "Are we still married?" She scowled at me, but then said yes, she wasn't going to divorce me over that, thank God.
Hopefully, Kevin Shields will make good on his promise that there's more to come; I'd go see them again. Except this time, I'd ask my wife first before shanghai'ing her without warning her!!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Desperadoes, Gorillas, and Thompson Gunners: Remembering Warren Zevon

"The purpose of art is not to educate. The purpose of art is not to proselytize or sway the vote. There's something else for that, and that's fine, but it's not art. Not fine art. The purpose of fine art is to say, 'Gee, this planet's not so bad.' " -- Warren Zevon, 1995

September 7th is the fifth anniversary of Warren Zevon's untimely death of mesothelioma (a rather painful and usually terminal form of lung cancer which traditionally is associated with exposure to asbestos) at the age of 56. That's way too young by my calculations, and from what I've been reading of the biography that his ex-wife Crystal Zevon wrote (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon), the man had a hard life; he was a tormented soul. Granted, a whole lot of it was self-inflicted pain, and his earlier alcoholism and substance problems didn't help his cause. Yet here is a man, creating such amazing yet perpetually under-appreciated music, both breathtakingly beautiful yet slyly wicked, bitingly sarcastic yet touchingly tender, angelic yet profane. The piano sequence in "Accidentally Like A Martyr" never ceases to fill my soul with gladness. I always smile at the wicked parting message he sends to an ex in "Finishing Touches". (I'll give you a quick clue about the linked video; the bleeped word rhymes with "rock".)

I got into Warren Zevon the same way most people do; I heard "Werewolves of London" on either WXRT or classic rock radio, decided to pick up his A Quiet Normal Life compilation CD, and was hooked. I regret never having been able to see him in concert. Like most artists who pass earlier than we expect they will, I thought I'd have another chance. I'll admit that there are some gaps in my Zevon catalog; I still need to get at least five more before I could have a complete collection. But even when he wasn't at his peak, his music always let you know the passion and intelligence of its maker. Plus, it was just damn fun to listen to. We didn't need to see what life in the gutter was like; Warren went there for us, and sent back letters of life in those trenches every time he released an album. But with songs like "Searching For A Heart", we'd discover beneath that veneer of hardened cynicism beat the heart of a romantic. His final CD, The Wind, is indispensible for everyone; most of his original suspects came back one last time to say goodbye in the best way they knew how: in song. I am fortunate to own VHS copies of not only the VH1 documentary chronicling the making of his last album, but also of his final appearance on David Letterman. Zevon and Letterman had a long history together; David had Warren on as his first-ever musical guest when he (David) started back in 1983. Zevon was promoting his newly-released LP The Envoy, and Letterman was greener than a shamrock. When Letterman went to CBS, his first musical guest was... Warren Zevon. When Paul Shaffer was out for any reason, Warren Zevon was a frequent substitute bandleader. And when it was announced that Warren was dying of cancer, David dedicated an entire evening's show to Warren, celebrating his life and music. It was to be Warren's final public performance, and it's so heart-wrenching to watch that it always gives me a lump in my throat. Recently, David told Rolling Stone magazine about what happened backstage after that show:

"Here's a guy who had months to live and we're making small talk. And as we're talking, he's taking his guitar strap and hooking it, wrapping it around, then he puts the guitar into the case and he flips the snaps on the case and says, `Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it.' And I just started sobbing.

"He was giving me the guitar that he always used on the show. I felt like, `I can't be in this movie, I didn't get my lines.' That was very tough."

Watch that show here on YouTube: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4. If there is ever justice in the world, this show and the VH1 documentary will be made available (again, in the documentary's case) on DVD for purchase. All proceeds could go to cancer research; I'd buy it.

f you don't own ANY Zevon yet, shame on you; buy yourself the excellent Genius compilation. From there, Excitable Boy is the popular one with great songs, the self-titled one from 1976 is great as well, I really like Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, and give high marks to Mr. Bad Example and The Wind. So far, I'm halfway through his biography, and for those of you who already know Zevon's genius, I highly recommend that you read this book. There's an excellent long-form interview online with Warren which Goldmine magazine which was conducted in 1995, when Mutineer came out (permission is sadly not given to directly link it here, but if you click the first link on this Google search results page, you'll have it). And if you all could, please honor his final request: keep him in your heart for awhile.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thanks, Freddie!!

Certain moments remind me just how great music really is, and how cool it is to be a music geek sometimes. Case in point: last night, my 11-month old daughter woke up whimpering. You could tell she wanted to sleep, but because she's teething, she couldn't stay asleep. My wife and I gave her baby Tylenol drops, a warm bottle of formula, and I rocked her to sleep. And had I not used every ounce of self-control I had, it would have indeed been ROCKED to sleep. Let me explain...

My wife decided to drop off before me, so I put on VH1 Classic to watch Queen Live At Wembley, a 1986 show they did before Freddie Mercury got sick. He was in top form, the band was tight as a drum, and the first three songs were great. The one that really roused me was when they kicked into a killer version of "Tie Your Mother Down" that got me wanting to rock. But alas, my beautiful daughter is in my arms, and probably wouldn't appreciate me banging my head to this classic. I had to limit myself to raising my fist at the end of the song, going "Knock 'em dead, Fred!!" Wow, that looks like I gotta catch the rest of this show at some point. Great stuff!!

Scared straight

Music links on this blog do not work. It's too spooky out there these days. Do you really need to know the reason? Sorry, party's over. 'Nuff said.