Archive for March, 2011

Good Night

03/25/11 – The Rural Alberta Advantage @ First Ave, Minneapolis

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When was the last time you were at a truly memorable show? If you’ve been to enough shows, you can start to tell the difference. I’ve been fortunate enough to see quite a few. The first one I remember was Semisonic in ’98 at RFK. Years later, I’d read Jake Schlicter’s book and he even had stories about that show, so I learned I wasn’t wrong. It’s a vibe. The only time I saw The Rosebuds, I felt that vibe. Last year, the best show I saw was Mono, and it didn’t have that vibe. I’ve seen Bright Eyes half a dozen times and seen it twice. I’ve seen Pearl Jam 9 times and each and every show was well above average (with the exception of Bonner Springs in 2000, which was an all-around odd experience), but really, only one of them felt like a singular event, and that was 08/03/2000, which was their first show after Roskilde, and it contained some truly genuine moments. Not that all the other ones I’ve seen haven’t been genuine, or cool, or whatever else one might ascribe to a show, but it was the only one that had a truly transcendent moment that seemed like it would never quite be the same. Of course each show is a unique event in it of itself, but they become rote at a certain point, and while the events at Roskilde were certainly tragic, they also led to one of those moments. In that specific case, it was the interpolation of “It’s Okay” by Dead Moon with just a really heartfelt speech from Ed about how it was for him to be playing again after the last time they had. For me, that’s why I go to shows. I always want to see technically strong sets, good song selection, and all of that matters too. It doesn’t matter how heartfelt a band is if their microphones don’t work properly or the mix is really poor or anything like that that can mar a show. But it is always something else to see a show that you know is not only meaningful to you (quite likely almost each time) but to the band as well (not a given). I belabor this point because tonight I saw The Rural Alberta Advantage for the 4th time (5th if you count that in-store at the Fetus, but let’s just skip over that) and it’s been this weird, wonderful progression. I don’t even know if tonight was musically the strongest of the shows I’ve seen by them, but it was certainly the most genuine.

Less than 2 years ago, they played on a rather hot Monday in June to a half-sold Entry. It was a great, cathartic experience that I absolutely needed at the time (come to think of it, they’ve all been like that). The next show, 3 months later, was for a sold-out Entry on a Friday night, a nice light growth, and then 4 months after that it was a sold-out Cedar. A nice progression for an up and coming band, from 100 to 200 to 400 in the course of about 7 months. Then they took some time off, made a new album, and something happened. See, I’ve been to a number of sold-out shows at First Ave., and I’ve come to learn there’s two different kinds. There’s the kind like in sports events where they sold the requisite number of tickets and they can call it a sell-out, but it just doesn’t feel like one. Of Montreal felt like that. Then there’s the kind where you know anyone who had a favor to call in did it to get tickets into that show. You almost can’t move, and certainly for at least one night, fire code was violated. That’s the kind of sold-out First Ave. was tonight. It was wonderful and bizarre to see all at the same time. So many people. A lot of factors came together, and I was initially a little worried there might be a big bump for the opener that would lead to one of those not quite full sold-out shows, which are always weird. But that wasn’t the case.

As for the mechanics of the set, well, I’d seen 75% of the material live before, and they weren’t quite as clean as they could have been, but it’s First Ave., they sounded great. They played pretty much everything from the two albums and didn’t have any surprises. I suppose some people might have thought of “Eye Of The Tiger” that way, but I’ve seen that 4 times now. “S.O.S.”, now that would have been a surprise, but that cover has probably been retired (sadly). Everyone needs a little ABBA. There were no extended versions trying to exploit us for hand-claps or singalongs, just the ones naturally structured into the songs. Nils said lots of comments that had that “holy shit!” tone in terms of the crowd singing back, how different it was 2 years later, this being why they played, etc. I really only had one question mark going into the show, and that was whether or not they could pull of “Good Night”

“Good Night” is the closer on their new album Departing. The previous three times I saw them, they closed their show with it. It is an acoustic affair where they actually bring a couple instruments out into the audience, the audience forms a circle, and everyone has this intimate experience. The first time I saw it, I was of course surprised, the second time I saw it, I asked afterward if it was recorded, and the third time I saw it, Nils prefaced it with a very similar speech to the one he gave tonight. They had never done it for a crowd this size. That was at the Cedar, which holds a few people over 400 with the seats in place if memory serves. First Ave. holds 1600 give or take a few. And there was some spirited debate on stage between the band members as to whether or not they could even do it, a debate that didn’t even seemed forced for the applause or anything like that. It wasn’t showmanship, it was genuine concern as to whether they could pull it off. But they grabbed what they needed and went over to the balcony on the flight of stairs by the bathrooms, and they belted it out from there. It was weird, and wonderful, and I have no doubt there’s already some video footage on YouTube that someone took from their phone. No matter how many more times I see The Rural Alberta Advantage, nothing will come close to the weird, intimate, wonderful nature of those few minutes just after midnight.

The world, of course, collapses back to its normal insignificance after those moments. But they are reminders, reminders of the paradoxical power of great music. The ability to make you both always remember and forget at the same time. I don’t forget moments like that, any more than I forget that ineffable feeling when Ed was talking to us at Virginia Beach in 2000 or Conor smashing his guitar on the stage of Sokol Auditorium. I remember the emotions that I was going through at the times, but I also remember that for an hour or two, nothing else in the world mattered. Good music transports you to someplace where disparate, impossible feelings can coexist, where you can be both infinitely happy and endlessly sad all at once. Looking back, I’ll always remember those feelings, but at the time, it was nothing, just the moment, and all the bitterness and difficulty that this March has come to embody for me, it didn’t exist. A good song, a good album, a good show, they can all do that. A good night.

Why There Isn’t More Rock Clarinet

03/15/11 – The Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Show @ Varsity Theater, Minneapolis

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Don’t get me wrong. I respect the effort. But it’s hard to make clarinet rock. But if you’re going for more a ramshackle jam session, then it’s your instrument. Along with bass clarinet, several six-strings, a twelve-string, a bass, a banjo, two drum sets, some miscellaneous keys, a couple trumpets, a euphonium, a sousaphone, some kazoos, and a singing saw. That’s right, a singing saw. If you’ve never seen Julian Koster play the singing saw live, add it to your bucket list? What, you don’t believe me?. I know it’s out of season, but it’s actually a pretty good look at how it works. And if you’ve ever listened to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, you’ve heard it, you just maybe didn’t realize it. Anyway, it’s something that everyone should do.

Last night’s show was billed as The Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise show, which struck me as an odd title for a show in March. Not the Elephant 6 part, that I understand. Holiday Surprise I dumbly missed the meaning of until they opened, and I had one of those head-slapping moments because the opener was “Holiday Surprise 1,2,3” by The Olivia Tremor Control. As for the overall construction of the show, there were about a dozen people from a wide variety of bands such as The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Music Tapes, The Apples In Stereo, Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t, and probably a few others that I’m missing, and they had a lot of microphones and a lot of songs. They played a lot of their own songs, though mostly The Olivia Tremor Control stuff took center stage. I don’t just say that because they were the band I was most familiar with going in, I feel like they got about 6 songs by them in, including a pretty scorching version of “The Opera House” to close out the set.

As for the overall construction, lots of people did lots of instrument rotating, but probably the most notable thing was the show both starting and ending in the crowd. I walked in about 30 seconds before the dozen or so people gathered near the sound board started singing and meandered toward the stage, and the last song of the encore (running into the 11 pm curfew for a Monday night show at The Varsity). Not only did they find time for a lot of their individual songs as well as some odd humor, a shout-out to the coolest venue bathroom in the Twin Cities, and they even found some time for a few covers, including a Minutemen song dedicated to The Replacements, a Chris Knox song, and a pretty neat closer in Sun Ra’s “Enlightenment” which featured them milling about the crowd with instruments that required no amplification and occasionally breaking it down to just singing and hand claps. The crowd was rather involved, and I’ve come to believe that I’m just a sucker for bands coming into the crowd (The Rural Alberta Advantage, The Rosebuds, Mountain Goats) to perform very acoustic versions of things. There’s a sense of community, of belonging that goes along with an experience like that. The Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour didn’t sell out the Varsity, that’s for sure, in fact, I would say it was one of the more sparsely attended shows I’ve ever seen there. But everyone wanted to be there, and seemed pretty much okay that what was gonna happen on stage was essentially what happens any time any of those old friends in their now varied bands get together. They were gonna bust out some instruments, sing some old songs, maybe write a couple new ones, remember old friends, reminisce, and do all the things that they most naturally do with song. Why, the end of the show, they were hugging audience members, swaying back and forth, clapping, and encouraging us all to feel the enlightenment that only such moments can produce.

An Attempt To Make March Better

How do I make this all work? That’s the question I’ve found myself thinking on more and more as March has wore on. My friends frequently comment on the number of shows that I go to, and they ask that same question in regards to that narrow slice of my life, but that’s not all of me. There’s also the part of me that cuts my rent check each month, there’s the part of me that’s trying to professionally develop into an actual fraud examiner, there’s the part of me that’s trying to figure out dating, there’s the part of me that just wants to sit on the couch and play Star Ocean: The Last Hope until it’s time to go to bed. And all those parts are tied. I need the money to go to the shows, to pay the rent. A better job would help me make more money. But it would probably leave me with less time. Which is fewer hours to allocate to meeting new people, to going out to see Wye Oak again, or to just sitting here, vegging and trying to get all the damn trophies in a video game.

So far, I’ve made it work, but it’s been tenuous at best. It’ll get better again, but I’m at a point where I’m financially conflicted between a lot of decisions that are smart, and a lot of decisions that are fun. Frequently, the two are not that closely related. My debt is only affordable in as much as I’ve managed to avoid other kinds of debt in life (no house, no student loans, no auto loans), and a fair amount of it built up because of surgery, and it is my hope that in a couple years, I’ll be back around to where I was before everything started in terms of my transition. But that doesn’t mean the costs don’t stop, and life keeps finding little ways to get more expensive, from the food you buy at the store to the gas you use to get there.

Can I keep making it work? Probably. Maybe it’s just a matter of realizing that I can’t purchase records at the pace I did the last couple years as well as go to shows. Maybe it’s a matter of cutting out all the unnecessary stuff that I don’t really enjoy, but do nonetheless (eat at a fast-food place when I deem it more convenient, go out to something that I don’t really want to see, or drive to hang out 20 miles away when I’m not really in the mood for it). And it’s a matter of being honest about it. It might still be taboo in our society to discuss finances openly, but it’s something that one should be honest with amongst friends. I’m not using it as a crutch. I realize I will still purchase and pursue many things with my money that one could deem unnecessary. I could make lots of decisions that make it easier, from canceling the internet connection in my apartment to moving to an altogether cheaper apartment. I could stop buying records, I could stop going to see Rachel every 7 weeks or so for a hair cut. Everything has a value assigned, though, not just the monetary one. I have to decide the worth I’m getting out of the things. My apartment, for example, comes with a number of amenities that I would have to pay for elsewhere, so I have to keep that in mind were I to decide to move. Not that I think I’m going to. I can afford it. As long as I’m cognizant.

This problem could very well sort itself out in a couple months. I am getting money back from my insurance, and the state of Minnesota still owes me a little bit more. I could have a different job, or increased responsibility that leads to increased pay. Or something totally unforeseen could come up. Who knows? Right now, I know that making it means it’s time to get back to the shows I’ve already purchased tickets for, to think about music again, to make a list. Maybe I can’t buy all the things I want. Maybe my pay cannot keep up with my dreams at this stage, but it’s not terrible, and I’m not going broke here. Probably it never quite will. I think it’s only natural for all of us to want a little more than we can have. It’s the matter of being smart enough to avoid having a little more when you don’t need it. I can’t decide whether the small break from shows was useful or not. Not that problems go away when I don’t focus on them, but I sometimes have a tendency to dwell, which is never useful. While I’m mostly past that as a person (not a whole lot I can do about what happened before), it still comes up from time to time, and maybe what I need is the kind of distraction that guitars, keyboards, and other assorted instruments can solve. Either way, I’ll know tomorrow night, when I make my way to the Varsity for the first time in a long time to see a show that I have no expectations for. Frankly, the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour could (and might) contain material from numerous bands. I don’t even know which people from the Elephant 6 collective will be there. But it should be fun, and I can revel in the where I’d have my wedding reception glory of the Varsity. And if I don’t have a drink while I’m there? Well, that’s not the end of the world, and maybe it’s just a slight solution to the other problems that I’m feeling right now. It’s good to wonder how I make it all work, but it’s better to just go out there and make it work. So let’s.

Maybe I Am A Grown-Up

I am currently having a bit of trouble with this whole “being an adult” concept. Some days I wish things just happened like they used to. Whether that was because of a lack of responsibility on my part or a lot of work on other peoples’ parts, it certainly seemed like things just used to happen. Of course they don’t work that way. I know that. I have come to terms with that. But some days, I still wish they did. I wish the rent came out of some mystic account that didn’t make me groan on the first of the month. I wish that I could be a bit more cavalier about how and where I’m spending my money in 2011, but it is not shaping up like 2010 or 2009 where I had a lot of overtime, and therefore enough extra cash to cover that kind of stuff. So I have to make adult decisions about where and how I spend my money and my time. A lot of times I’m very happy with that. No one can tell me what to do with my money, and other than the 40 hours a week that I spend at work, no one can tell me what to do with my time. I live with the decisions to play too much Star Ocean, stay up too late, or have one too many beers at the Turf Club every day, and honestly, that’s pretty cool. A lot of that, though, is built on me being more responsible than not.

When I think about it, what being an adult feels like sometimes is having no safety net. Of course we have support networks that do just that, throughout our lives. But in many ways, we are on our own. Being single with family over 1000 miles away, it’s easy to forget that is an important role of one’s family. Sometimes, I’m forced to reassess whether I’m doing things that are putting me in danger in any number of ways, personally, financially, etc., and it’s really only my judgment that counts against it. I’m the one who’s culpable for all the decisions I make, whether that’s putting too much money on my credit card to take care of surgery or too much for a nice dinner doesn’t really matter. The end result is that I am constantly making decisions that are putting stress on my life, choosing between resources, occasionally over-allocating or planning for things that never come through; conversely, the decisions, at least at this point, are mine alone. Again, that whole being single thing. It has its perks.

March has been one of those times where being an adult has sucked so far. I have to make a decision as to whether I want to continue to live where I live. I do, but I have to think about it financially. I can afford it, but I could also pay less for a place. I would lose some of the amenities, and I love where I live, so I don’t think that’s going to happen. But it might and it’s still something I have to entertain. I’m not really sure what’s going on with my job. We’ve been told already to brace ourselves for low raises, but I shouldn’t complain. Any raise at all would be significant in the sense that plenty of people aren’t even getting that. What my raise looks like, though, isn’t my professional concern right now; where I’m heading professionally is. I am working on it, and it’s a slow process, but I don’t see much of a future in my immediate area. Of course, again, I’m lucky enough to be with a nice, big company that has a lot of opportunities. I get that, but it doesn’t make these things less real to my existence. Yeah, their 1st world problems, but their my 1st world problems, damn it. My problems aren’t whether I’ll eat, or get paid, or have shelter over my head, and I shouldn’t take that kind of stuff for granted. I know that. Currently, I’m an adult who lives pretty comfortable and is able to do a lot of cool stuff. I would do well to remember that. Still, I have to deal with all of this stuff, and I am. That’s what being an adult is. It’s plugging away at these things, even when they suck. Because how I feel about my job doesn’t just go away. I can’t just ignore it any more than I can ignore my credit card bill or the effects of saying I’m going to help my friends move and then not showing up. I don’t think March is going to be particularly fun. I have a lot of things to work on. But hey, that’s just all part of this whole being an adult thing. And if it’s not? Well, fuck it, April’s already looking fantastic for plenty of reasons.

Why I’m Not Pessimistic

One doesn’t have to look far to see a lot of doom and gloom as it pertains to the music business. Articles appear all the time these days, with varying degrees of slants depending on what side of the industry you fall on, but nonetheless, the theme is generally that it’s a tough world out their for music labels. Doesn’t really say much about musicians though. Sure, an article might have a lot of pretty graphs talking about “the death of the music industry”. I’m beginning to realize, though, that these people aren’t forecasting the end of the music industry I love. Certainly I enjoy major pop artists like Lada Gaga or Beyonce, certainly I own songs by them, but more certainly, I love a lot of bands that you have never heard of. Or maybe you have because I’ve beaten them into your brain, or just maybe, you really love music as much as I do and you are out there listening to the oddities that the music industry keeps churning out. Maybe you also thought Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti put out a pretty damn good record last year. Maybe you were at The Radio Dept. show in your town. Maybe you’ve seen The Mountain Goats play a mostly acoustic show when John Darnielle still called Ames home like me. I am trying to just be another bridge to those things I’m finding. I understand not everyone has the time and the passion to be digging because I don’t even do that myself. I let more qualified locations like Altered Zones do it. And I don’t think that the fact that Sony can’t figure out how to monetize its music division anymore is particularly going to affect a site like that. So the graphs can show all the downward trends they’d like, and people can lament the death of an industry that obviously didn’t have a ton of concern for in the first place. It’s almost like music was just something to do, and maybe it will be again. But there’s a lot of media competing for our attention these days, a lot of ways to consume that media in cheaper ways, and a lot of people who bypass the paying portion of consumption. But why be pessimistic? There are so many great shows coming to town, plenty I have tickets for and plenty more. Sure, how I’m going to pay for all of it is a bit of a mystery (that I’m working on), but that’s a problem that has nothing to do with music. They are not that expensive, not compared to the crazy shows that major labels trot out costing upwards of $100 just for mediocre seats. Other parts of my life may have to be reconfigured to make it work. Maybe music is like a drug to me. I’m not really sure. But I don’t think it’s in trouble. I look around and I see artists like The Rural Alberta Advantage who will never, ever be U2. And I don’t think that’s what they want. But as I listen to Departing on my record player for the first time (though not for the first time), I know that they will make it. Maybe making it is different. Maybe the days of bands selling out arenas are fading, and there’s never really going to be much of a crop to replace them. The industry that propped them up, major labels, might be going the way of the dodo, but to lump the entire industry together? An industry that boasts indie powerhouses like Merge, Matador, Sub-Pop, Saddle Creek, 4AD? Even minor players that no one has heard of that I keep stumbling across like Almost Musique. A bunch of 15 year old kids scratching enough cash to put out cassettes and 7″ are still going to exist, and they grow into those labels, and I think those labels are here to stay, if not in themselves, then in the sense that there will always be people who love music, people who find a way to put it out and who’s biggest concern isn’t the bottom line but creating something lasting. While it’s not financially advantageous for each and every label, some will continue to make it. These are the people who gave you Spoon after your beloved majors gave up at them, who bred such major players as R.E.M., Modest Mouse, and The Shins, who continually and proudly boast rosters of bands like The Pixies, Bright Eyes, and so, so many others. I look at the bands I truly love, and a lot of them proudly call so many labels other than the majors home. Maybe it’s all in the margins now, much like, well, poetry. But there’s still an audience. There will always be an audience. Maybe you didn’t by 75 pieces of vinyl last year, and the impact on you will be that a perceptible industry will go away. But there are so many new ways to make music happen, considering the lower entry cost, or the self-financing that sites like Kickstarter can provide. Or I guess not self-financing, but more accurately, direct financing from those that care most. I don’t need Arches to blow up. But I do need that album, and I’d love to own it physically. And the artists that make it past there get picked up by Secretly Canadian, or Kill Rock Stars, or Arts & Crafts, or whoever they happen to fall in with. So sure, we might be running out of big artists. Don’t get me wrong, as much as I poke fun at popular music, it’s important, but I think even that will always be there. Our expectations are what’s changing. And the part of music I care about the most, the part that produces songs that just shoot through me and pin me to the floor like “Good Night” (The RAA) or “King Night” (Salem), that part is just fine. Because it’s people who certainly want to making a living, don’t get me wrong. But it’s people who love making music, even if it’s only heard by 200 people. Even better, the technology to proliferate that music that might have only gotten to 200 people is everywhere, and now I’m not limited to Minneapolis for that. It’s a brave new world musically. But dead? Those people don’t have their ears to the ground.

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