Saturday, February 26, 2011

Julien Baker, Elizabeth Wise, and Holly Cole & The Memphis Dawls at Otherlands Memphis 2/25/11

            With a voice and skill far surpassing her age, high school sophomore Julien Baker captivities listeners even before her sound check is over.  Warming up with a Bill Withers standard “Ain’t No Sunshine,” young Julien sings with rich, soulful inflections.  After taking a step back from their first points of astonishment, listeners realize Baker is playing more than just simple chords on her acoustic guitar; technical and tasteful grace notes embellish her playing style as her fingers work the fret board.  Moving across multiple tempos and keys, Baker showcases her songwriting pallet; the slower songs are what caught my attention though, walking up and down chords note by note, intellectual lyrics and analogies like: “If you are the laces attached to my soles, then turn me around and string me solely to your arms,” baffle the crowd.  Two questions, how much does she practice and what literary masterpieces is she reading to inspire such profound songwriting?

             Uprooted from Virginia, Elizabeth Wise followed, accompanied on upright bass by Memphis local Alex Uhlmann.  Wise riled-up the audience to the point of yelps and whoops with her Bonnie Rait style roots music.  On one feature a saxophone was brought into the mix for a jubilant jazz number where Wise sang a short scat over thumping bass lines.  Wise brought out her guitar slide to close her set further demonstrating her rustic techniques.
            On to the headlining act, Holly Cole & The Memphis Dawls; who doesn’t love an all-girl string band?  Recently elected Hottie of 2011 by the Valentine edition of the Memphis Flyer newspaper, Cole sings haunting melodies through painted lips.  For such a pretty face, Cole can make the most awful grimaces at times, singing with an indescribable passion; these expressions are easily excused, actually making the songstress all the more real and charming.  Cole is accompanied by Jana Misener (Giant Bear, Sultana) on cello and Krista Wroten (Yazoo Shakes, Black Max) on violin and accordion, the two also contribute vocals padding a thick landscape of harmonies.  A mix of alternative country and indie folk, the Dawls’ genre resembles that of Cat Power or Midwesterners Murder By Death.  The debut of new song “Hickory” ended with a choir of hums from the three and reverberating boot stomps.  Breaking the sobering, pensive atmosphere initiated by their songs, when the last note resounds the girls crack smiles and glare at one another, joking and giggling, reminding watchers that adorable alternatives exist behind the grim hymns promenading through the repertoire of these southern sirens.  

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oxford Film Festival 8

One would think that a film festival in a tiny Mississippi college town would be nothing more than a few low-quality yet aspiring student films.  In it’s eighth season, the Oxford Film Festival is so much more.
In addition to student and local films the festival also includes feature documentaries, shorts, and narrative works from renowned independent filmmakers, an experimental block, and a block of animated films.   
Rubbing elbows, at an after-party I was fortunate enough to offer my lighter to one of the producers of a film called Prairie Love.  In small talk, she told me that the film had recently made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.  Astounded, I wondered what in the world a Sundance film was doing in little ol’ Oxford, Mississippi’s festival.  A dark comedy, with a Coen brothers flare, Prairie Love took home the festival’s Narrative Feature Award.
Speaking of after-parties, the Oxford Film festival knows how to throw one!  Opening ceremonies at Oxford’s Lyric Theater featured entertainment by Blue Mountain and the festivities the next evening were graced with the music of Fat Possum Records hill country blues legend T-Model Ford.  Mississippi’s own Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company supplied beverages for festival participants.
Now, on to the films!
Robyn Hitchcock in Memphis
            The first film I witnessed at this year’s film festival began with English songwriter, musician of psychedelic prowess Robyn Hitchcock belting an Elvis standard inside a Memphis trolley.  The film had several goofy moments but I simply dismissed them as skewed European humor.  Following Hitchcock through the creative process of songwriting, recording, and performing live, the film visited familiar Memphis locations such as the Levitt Shell and Ardent studios.  In his Ardent session, Hitchcock was accompanied by Big Star’s Jody Stephens on drums, harmony vocals, and conversations of growing old.  Watching a foreign figure enjoy a romp around my home court of Memphis sparked a realization that all we take for granted may be all that is sacred to others; especially something as miniscule and everyday as the downtown trolley system.  The most noteworthy comment of Robyn Hitchcock in Memphis was a folklore-documented parable, Are men more like buses, free-roaming, limitless and independent? Or are they like trolleys, restricted to remain on their predestined tracks?  Hitchcock added, if man controls the destiny of a bus in any direction using the steering wheel, isn’t it man that also determines the destiny of a trolley by being the one to initially lay down the tracks?

No, this isn’t a film about distance running; 25k represents the new face of grind-house feature films.  Purposely botched editing and extreme light saturation through the camera lens only add effect to the seemingly low-budget thriller. Quentin Tarantino style gunfights and crude southern humor guide our unlikely hero bounty hunters through hijinks to recover a mystery treasure at the end of a map scribbled in mud on the side of their pick-up truck.  Houston Nutt Jr., son of Ole Miss football couch Houston Nutt, makes his acting debut as lead in the film.

Queen’s Day
            At first this romantic short was too gushy for its own good.  The sweet comments and affectionate little caresses made me roll my eyes and gag a little.  But then I realized honest love doesn’t have a filter, people in love really are as disgustingly cute as the co-stars of Queen’s Day.
            The visuals in set and wardrobe design stirred curiosity as they directed viewers’ eyes to focus on actors, painting a sterile motif of white walls, white sheets, and white pajamas.  On another fashion note, props to writer and actor Jeffrey W. Ruggles for being remarkably stylish by wearing an identical sweater to mine the day of the screening.

            This film started with a lengthy monologue by a prison inmate, confessing his crimes in graphic detail.  When the opening credits and title screen rolled for a moment I was deceived into thinking the film was over.  The opening scene was impacting enough, well shot, great delivery. 
What came after first perked up my ears then made my stomach drop.  A portly, almost humorously repulsive seller bragged of his wares to a nervously somber buyer.  Curiosity gave way to disturbance when the audience realized that these items for sale were memorabilia from such historic and demented figures as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer collectables.  This chilling, twisted tale won the festival award for Mississippi narrative. 

Night of the Punks
            An all too real spoof of punk rock counter culture, Night of the Punks makes fun of hipster stereotypes then allows zombie-esque demons to shed blood and entrails while getting their mosh on to a brutal soundtrack.  Tricked into being an annual sacrifice to Satan, a naïve young punk band fights back, ultimately defeating the brood with their guitarist’s flange pedal.
“Demons hate jazz fusion music!”
“My drums are gone, Tommy’s dead, and it looks like we’re at a Gwar Concert!”
(Approximated Quotes)

(Possibly more film revues from the festival in later postings)

Haste the Day Farewell Tour, New Daisy Theater, Memphis w/ The Chariot, A Plea For Purging, & Parallels 2/22/11

Let me start off by saying farewell shows for metal bands are the best kind of metal shows.  There is a formula to make kids go from moshing to crying and hugging each other; and it only takes a short musical interlude mounted with encouraging words and thank you’s.
            Local outfit, Parallels started the show off with the heavy pounding of drums from not one, but two juxtaposed kits.  Fanning delayed guitars and twinned lead lines crept along the boundaries of post-metal genres while still remaining true to the two-step/break down structures that spectators are accustomed to.  With Second Chances Kyle Segars on guitar and former Currents member Cody Ray on bass, the next generation of Memphis all-ages heavy music has hope in Parallels.
            Nashville rockers A Plea For Purging followed and brought the hype.  Pumping up the crowd for the night that awaited them by encouraging stage-dives that continued until the final curtains dropped.  An unexpected addition to their set, vocalist Andy Atkins took a time-out for a short Q&A session.  The humor and charm sprinkled along through panting breaths for only four questions, ending with, “how can I be as heavy as you?” to which Atkins asked, in Socratic-fashion, “musically or by the pound?”
            And then came The Chariot.  I am more certain than death and taxes that no metal band will ever top the energy, the passion, or the antics of The Chariot. Guitars gripped, each member taking his turn, recklessly barreling off of the stage into a sea of sweat and outstretched arms. 
Bassist Jonathan “Wolf” Kindler gets the beast-of-the-night award for complete disregard for his own well-being, while flailing his bass and body with an inconceivable style and grace, embodying the music with every move.  At one point, the Wolf trudged through the crowd of black t-shirts to the very opposite end of the venue only to trade his bass for vocalist Josh Scoggin’s microphone.  Scoggin, no stranger to entertaining a crowd, proceeds to thrash through bass notes until a screaming Kindler made his way back to the stage, queuing Scoggin to hurl the instrument overhead, 30-some-feet across the stage.  Kindler catching the bass with one arm swings it back into position, next song.
A new bit added to The Chariot routine, stagehands hoist 5x5’ plywood signs reading “Hands Up;” the audience responds accordingly.  Then the roadies lay the signs down on top of the outstretched hands to form two free-floating platforms.  The two then launch themselves onto the crowd-supported planks, stand, and catch drums tossed to them from the stage and play along with the band allowing those in range to reach up, beating the drums as well, until a collapse is inevitable.
A special treat for Memphis, Atlanta transplant, Listener joined The Chariot for the third ever live performance of their combined version of David De La Hoz.  Giddy as a hipster at a mustache convention Listener’s Dan Smith seemed right at home leaping into the crowd twice before reciting his beat poet verse at an abnormal pace to stay on track with excited instruments.
The set closed with Smith at surrogate bass while Kindler swayed on his knees, slapping his legs with the rhythms of drummer David Kennedy.  A sampled choir track looped while Kennedy continued to play, Scoggin tearing down his drum-kit piece by piece until there was nothing but a microphone-less thank you and salute to fans.
Former Once Nothing drummer, Giuseppe Capolupo, joined Haste the Day for their final show in the Bluff City.  Dropping crowd favorite Blue 42 early in the set, I admit I couldn’t resist throwing a few nostalgic floor punches and donkey kicks.  A blast from the past as fans bounced back and forth singing along with American Love.  To preface the song, vocalist Stephen Kreech said that is what the service of Haste the Day has always been about, spreading love to a community of peers and praying that same practice will continue even after “Everything Falls Away.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jimmy Eat World and David Bazan at the Lyric Oxford, MS Feb 19

          Sixteen year rock and roll veterans, Jimmy Eat World, were greeted with a warm welcome at their first ever Mississippi show. 
            On Saturday February 19, the composers of such admired albums as Futures and Chase the Light played a high-energy, no-holds-barred concert at Oxford’s Lyric Theater.  Jimmy Eat World opened their set with two consecutive crowd favorites from their Bleed American album and without skipping a beat jumped into two new anthems from their most recent release, Invented.
            Maintaining their dive-in-head-first pace, the band blazed through an hour and a half of new songs and classic Jimmy Eat World fare. Only slowing down twice, once for sing-a-long slow jam Hear You Me, and once more to tastefully advise a flippant crowd-surfer to change his ways, front-man Jim Adkins demonstrated his performance pedigree with tactful delivery.
            The frequent flickering stage-light strobes is my one and only critical comment about the show.  The design of the light structure exceeded efficiency and intrigue, with some positions and color schemes complimenting their song counterparts perfectly.  However when the majority of the audience is forced to turn away, shielding their eyes, a presentation-revision may be in order to avoid the vibe of poor, automated club DJ trickery.
            With ever-escalating ticket prices, I don’t mind paying for a show when I can tell that members of a band are still having the time of their lives on stage, even after being on the road together for over a decade.  Rocker poses, guitar swings, and goofy smiles all present, this was no façade, only genuine expression.
            “What more could you ask for in a band,” local musician and journalist JB Clark said about Jimmy Eat World with confidence.
            Unfortunately, I only had a chance to be blown away by the last few songs of opening act, David Bazan’s set.  Accompanied by his rhythm section linearly configured on the front of the stage, Bazan, of Pedro the Lion fame, set the mood for the night with his signature weathered vocals and telecaster tones. Having seen Bazan play previously as a solo acoustic act, experiencing his songs live with a full band was a whole new animal.  The few minutes of raw honest emotion through music left me wanting more; my personal mission to find Bazan’s Live at Electrical Audio album is currently in progress.