Live Reviews: March 2015
Shabazz Palaces, Porter Ray, Dave B, Kung Fu Grip
Feb 20, WWU Viking Union Multipurpose Room
Bathed in soft blue light amongst vibrating synths and drum claps, Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro, took the mic. “I was born on the understanding/stars slung cross the heavens,” he rapped as bass shook the floor beneath the feet of some 200-odd WWU students and assorted 20-somethings.
The show, which took place in WWU’s Viking Union Multipurpose room on Friday, Feb. 20, featured Butler’s avant-garde afrofuturist hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, as well as three Seattle based hip-hop acts, Kung Foo Grip, Dave B and Porter Ray.
Kung Foo Grip, another duo, kicked off the Associated Students-sponsored event. Their set was short but sweet, packed with youthful energy. Kung Foo Grip managed to be the loudest act of the evening as well, nearly shouting their lyrics as they swaggered across the stage.
Follow-up act Dave B was a personal highlight of the night. His set was much more mellow, but his backing beats were unique and Dave himself oozed charisma. Clearly comfortable on stage, he wore an ear-to-ear grin for most of his set. Dave B’s performance just felt natural, and he established himself, in my mind at least, as someone to look out for.
Porter Ray, the final opening act, brought along another Seattle rapper, Nate Jack, to take the stage with him. The two had some nice chemistry with each other, however this was somewhat of an un-engaging set.
As is the case with most Seattle rappers, there was plenty of 206 love to go around. Not only did every performer shout out Seattle in some way, but Dave B also wore a Nirvana t-shirt and Porter Ray rocked a Mariners cap and a Sub Pop hoodie – the same record company that put out Shabazz Palaces’ LPs.
Shabazz took the stage around 11 to an eager crowd. Butler and his partner Tendai Maraire have an unusual set-up for a rap act: Maraire plays bongos, half a drum kit and a thumb piano, among other things, while Butler has little more than an MPC, a drum kit, a MacBook and a mic. With these tools at their disposal, Shabazz managed to craft an array of densely layered soundscapes. At times the beats bordered on hypnotic, the crowd surrounding the small stage moving as one.
Shabazz drew from their whole catalog of material for their 45-minute set, from 2009’s Shabazz Palaces and Of Light EPs, to Lese Majesty, the album they released last summer. Some of their earlier tracks like “Gunbeat Falls” and “32 Leaves” were some of their best performances of the night, though “Forerunner Foray,” from Lese Majesty, was an exceptional opener.
Butler took prominence for most of the show, but Maraire had a few show-stealing moments, particularly his two heartbeat-quickening bongo solos, and his live rendition of “Gunbeat Falls” on the thumb piano.
Shabazz closed the evening with “Chuch,” one of their older cuts, and though they played an extended version of the song, the moment felt altogether too short.
Dengue Fever, The Spider Ferns, Kurly Somthing
Feb. 8, Shakedown
Sunday, February 8 brought Dengue Fever, the Spider Ferns, and Kurly Somthing to the Shakedown. An eclectic grouping of bands, the night was a killer collection of music ranging from alt-punk to psychedelic Cambodian pop rock. The venue was packed, the bartenders were hustling, and the audience was dancing the rain off.
Kurly Somthing (from Seattle and includes members of the legendary A Gun That Shoots Knives) opened the night as a three-piece of guitar, drums, and keyboard (the keyboardist was dressed as “Death” and at one point gave me the middle finger). They got the night started fast, getting people moving to one of their newer tunes while Kelly (the lead singer) spit his verse into a vocoder. Their style is multifaceted, a sort of punk/everything else genre that makes for a high energy show of controlled chaos.
By way of Alger and Seattle, The Spider Ferns played second, bringing the mood down a bit into a darker theme. Surrounded by cool blue jellyfish light props, they played a lot with groovy bass lines and ambient guitars, while using programmed drums as the main driving force of their songs. The lead singer is great, using a fun rhythmic style that’s hypnotizing. This sounds bizarre, but they give a feeling of late 90s industrial but slowed way down and sultry instead of scary.
The final act of the night was Dengue Fever. Stopping in on their west coast tour, the Los Angeles six-piece brought an hour’s worth of catchy, dance-y psychedelic pop rock. The band is tight – no, extremely tight – balancing keys, horns, bass, drums, guitars, and vocals (sung primarily in Khmer) so perfectly that you only really notice their instruments when they want you to. They play with fire, pulling styles from jazz, rock, surf, new age, and Cambodian pop so effortlessly you couldn’t help but dance.
Prom Queen, Ben Von Wildenhaus, Cheeto Dust
Jan. 30, Shakedown
It begins with a hot and ominous amplifier hum. Cheeto Dust, Jason Sands and Bradley Leckron of PRND, are crouched low in front of the stage, wearing demonic masks, creating a beautiful nightmare for Brian Eno: stretched-out ambient waves of deconstructed noise. Not music for airports, unless those airports were in the center of a war-zone. It exerts a strange hypnotic effect. The crowd gathers around smiling, watching the two masked musicians twist and turn like savants lost in a hyper-stimulated ecstasies.
Ben von Wildenhaus’ professional band takes the stage to celebrate the release of Ben’s brilliant new album, II. The first song, “Bad Lament I,” opens up a world of music that is a cross between Ennio Morricone and Brian Eno mixed with Angelo Badalamenti. Amanda Bloom’s mezzo-soprano vocalizations shimmer like haunting spectres above the transfixed crowd. Ben’s restrained guitar playing evokes images of polished fragments of melody twisting around and through each other like wind chimes. As the band plays through the first half of the new album, John Sampson’s mournful sax and wurltizer playing adds rich dimension to music. Andru ‘s percussion and Aaron Harmonsen’s bass measure out the languid time signatures of the von Wildenhaus world.
Halfway through, they play a Duke Ellington piece, the front portion of “Mount Harissa” from the Far East Suite that seems almost like a call to prayer in its introspected interpretation. Ben’s music successfully gathers into itself so many elements of various genres, jazz, surf, electronic, industrial, classical that it is as difficult as a kaleidoscope to lock into one frame. They end with a resonate and sublime cover of Liszt’s “La Lugubre Gondola.” It is music to make the cartoon moon cry happy tears and every sleeping dreamer smile.
Ben is also in Prom Queen, the excellent Seattle band whose most recent release, Midnight Veil, is a beautiful cinematic retro-lounge work of high musical art. Fronted by the lovely and multi-talented Leeni Ramadan, Prom Queen animates classic 1960s musical tropes with a wicked 21st century sensibility. They play “Daddy’s Got a Big Bad Gun” electric with dark carnal threat but grounded by the Dusty Springfield meets Neko Case tone of Leeni’s strong vocals. They follow with the countrified anti-love song “This Town Ain’t Big Enough” from their previous album, Night Sound and the vicious “Joe Lies.” On the brooding and incantatory “Lie to Me,” Jason Goessell’s guitar sounds like the precocious offspring of Dick Dale and Kenny Burrell. Tom Meyers’ drums sound the ominous footfalls of doom. And Ben’s guitar aesthetic melds perfectly into the Prom Queen sound, like a burning spring-coiled genie. They finish off with the incendiary “Pretty Little Thing” guitars screaming, drums beating and Leeni snarling like high priestess at the oracle of great music.
Thimble vs Needle
Jan. 31, Honey Moon
The Honey Moon is full and overflowing with an eager crowd gathered to hear Thimble Vs. Needle perform songs from their new release, Conversations Over Breakfast. There is a lot of joy in the room for Kat Bula and Chris Stainback.
They start the evening off with “Audrey,” a love song about Kat’s cat. It is poignant, humorous and informed by exceptional musicianship. Many of the guest musicians who performed on the album are present as a “one-night lineup,” including: Aaron Guest, Brit Keeton, Jan Peters, Kera-Lynne Newman, Mars Lindgren, Nora Hughes, Tom Caverns, Kera-Lynne Newman and members of Illogicians, Aaron Cramer and Todd Smith.
The effect of three beautiful violins being played by Kat, Britt and Kera-Lynne adds a near visible luminosity of beauty to the room. The audience, even those standing outside looking in, are just struck through with appreciation for the performance unfolding. The poetic and aching “Neighbors” is followed by “Here and O’Hare” with assistance from the lovely Nora Hughes. Chris’s guitar playing is aching and evocative. Kat’s voice is a thing unto itself, defying any easy comparison. In one moment, there are elements of Emmy Lou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsome.
I agree with the poet Robert Lashley who remarked that Thimble vs Needle’s music is a realization of an unfulfilled dream of California Country in the early 70s. This is borne out in the harrowing and haunting death ode “Open Casket.” It is simply stunning, its stark lyricism charged by the immediacy of live performance. “Blues Don’t Mean a Thing” works well as a call-and-response piece with the crowd as Kat’s voice soared a cappella. There is a brutal honesty, often under the cover an intelligent humor, to Kat’s writing, as exemplified by the song, “Sex in the Morning.”
Chris and Kat have a dextrous musicianship, nimbly shifting from folk to country to jazz to bluegrass as exemplified in the next two songs, “For Amy” and “Meat Drink.” Mars Lindgren comes up to play trombone on the Finnish folk song, “Metsakukkia” with Kat on accordion and Chris on guitar. Brit and Kera join in on violin with Jan Peters on bouzouki. The final song, “Appendix,” is a finely detailed (clever) elegy that sounds as if it came from an alternative version of The Third Man.
At the end, the capacity crowd seems unwilling to move, heads full of beautiful music, hearts full of love for the musicians.
Scott H. Biram, Jess Dayton
Feb. 15, Shakedown
A great Sunday night crowd at the Shakedown for the stellar double-whammy rockabilly honky tonk hillbilly backwoods blues bill of Jesse Dayton and Scott H. Biram. Both performers are well-known with many albums under their belts and are fine-tuned touring and performing machines. Thankfully, Bellingham is appreciative and ready.
Jesse Dayton starts off with rockabilly shake thunder and roll – the ghost of Carl Perkins with a shade of Reverend Horton Heat. After working for years playing guitar for Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, he takes over the stage with strong presence, singing, “the devil’s music set me free,” invoking with East Texas trinity of the devil, alcohol and women. Chris Rhoades and Eric C. Hughes on the stand-up bass and drums are respectively thundering behind him like a ‘57 Chevy.
Next up is the crowd pleaser instant classic, “I’m out getting hammered while she’s getting nailed.” The music is its own thing entirely, more punk than rockabilly, more rock than country. Jesse tells the crowd that “this is what happens when punk rockers figured out that country music would be a good retirement plan.” Then he launches into a song called “Boystown” – white hot lightning guitar riffs mixing with spooky Roky Erickson style singing. Music to be possessed by.
Not many people could follow Jesse Dayton, especially if they are just a one-man band, but Scott H. Biram is one of those few. There is some weird voodoo with his sound because it just seems impossible that one guy with a guitar and stomp pad can make that big of sound. There is the earthquake foot stomp and the R. L. Burnside meets early ZZ Top thick guitar rolling out tumble bucket riffs; and then, that hollering voice that seems to have been born out of a hurricane of blues. Imagine the Devil calling out demonic moves at a square dance of death. The Shakedown suddenly shimmers into something like a Mississippi juke joint. Dark songs like like “Dontcha Lie to Me Baby” and “Blood, Sweat and Murder” electrify a heart attack pulse in the heart of murderous blues. Even when he slows it down for songs like “Slow and Easy” there is still this hypnotic spell being cast over the crowd.
Scott H. Biram’s music is a cross between the desolation of a midnight desert highway and backwoods voodoo. It’s the devil’s music and it’s all everyone wants to hear tonight.
Valentine’s Day Cover Band Show
Feb. 14, Make.Shift
Make.Shift’s annual Valentine’s Day Cover Band Show on Feb. 13-14, featured 10 bands each night.
I attended the Feb. 14 show and arrived to a sparse crowd a couple songs into the Death Cab for Cutie set. The room felt tired, as the acoustic set failed to excite many. But a few fans of Death Cab sang along quietly to their favorite songs.
Then the crowd was woken up by the next set of bands, The Replacements and Rage Against the Machine. The Replacements got the crowd to dance, and as more people flowed into Make.Shift, many were disappointed when Rage Against the Machine cut their set short for the sake of time.
Ween’s cover band took the stage, and the crowd seemed to disperse again. But those who stuck around seemed pleased by the electric violin and altered vocals. I felt sucked into the pulsing rhythm many of the songs had.
The next group covered Weezer, and the crowd was immediately drawn back to the sounds of their teen years. Audience members didn’t hesitate to belt out their lungs to “Say It Ain’t So.” The wave of excitement that hit the crowd was intoxicating, and it was hard to stand still or quiet during the set.
The Hold Steady faced a Weezer-high crowd, and did not have a very memorable set in comparison. The Circle Jerks’ cover band fulfilled the needs of the audience members who love being in mosh pits. The band covering The Promise Ring was good, though nothing stood out. In their defense, the sound was unbalanced and the vocals were hard to hear over the guitar.
Then the band everyone seemed to be waiting for took the stage, and some were even in costume. As the radio hits of Sugar Ray filled the room, we were all engulfed in a wave of nostalgia. The crowd responded well and sang along to every song.
My Chemical Romance closed the night. Groups of friends linked arms and sang along to the songs that got many through their teen years, and it was definitely a great way to end a long night.
Even after the event was split into two days it felt like a marathon trying to make it through the whole night, which ended after 1 a.m. Regardless of your relationship status, the cover show may be one of the best unconventional ways to spend Valentine’s Day in Bellingham.