Tuesday, February 07, 2012

2011: The Year In Live, Part 2

The final post on the year just passed. With 2012 over 1/12th over, it's time to get cracking on what's going on this year!

Besides the concerts I saw with Hannah (see Part 1), I was lucky enough to finally see Fleet Foxes, The Walkmen and Mastodon in 2011 - wow!

Going To Church - Ever since my wife and I saw an extraordinary Bob Dylan concert (yes, they do happen) at the United Palace Theatre in 2009, we have wanted to return to this storied venue. As we didn't get to see Fleet Foxes when they were touring behind their first album, there was no hesitation getting the tickets when they played there in May. We were sat far back, which is my wife's preference, and after enduring the lamentable Cave Singers, we were bathed in the warm harmonies and expansive sound-world of the Seattle band. The new songs sounded great, but perhaps even more remarkable was the passion and freshness of Robin Pecknold's engagement with songs he has sung hundreds of times around the world. It was a stunning show.

Going To Brooklyn - My wife doesn't much like going to concerts, but when Fleet Foxes announced more shows at the Williamsburg Waterfront in September, with our old favorites The Walkmen opening, she had no qualms about making the trek. And, boy, was it worth it. I have been a devoted fan of The Walkmen since their first album and my wife came on board with You & Me in 2008 but we had never seen them in the flesh. I knew singer Hamilton Leithauser was a suave dresser, but we were both unprepared for his fantastic command of the stage. His charisma is white hot and his commitment to the songs is total - and he manages to be charming at the same time. The band completely delivered, their minimal yet epic sound filling the stage and small gestures sounding huge as the sun set at our backs. 

As great as the first Fleet Foxes concert was, it was eclipsed by their Brooklyn performance. The new songs were road-tested now and sounded more of a piece with their earlier works. Also, as I was standing fairly close to the stage, I was able to pay more attention to how they produced their sounds and it was a masterclass. Certainly, you can play a Fleet Foxes song with a beat-up acoustic and it would sound good, but since they are steeped in 50 years of production techniques, they enhance their compositions with brilliant musical touches. The first thing I noticed before they even came on stage was the Hofner bass (made famous by Paul McCartney) on the left of the stage and the upright bass on the right. This told me that they took their bottom end seriously, which became even more apparent when they took a leaf out of Owen Bradley's book and used both together. Combined with J.Tillman's melodic drums, it enveloped the crowd in a rich low end that amplified the emotional impact of the tunes. The whole show was full of instrument-switching, instrument-doubling, and virtuoso flourishes. Robin was as charming and witty as Leithauser had been earlier in the night and made everyone feel included. We walked back to our car with an afterglow that seemed to last for weeks.

Going It Alone - The opportunity to see Mastodon at Terminal 5 in November was not one to be taken lightly - but who to go with? A quick visit to their Facebook page and I quickly learned that two old friends of mine were also fans. Cool! I messaged the first one and although he wanted to see the "saviors of heavy metal" he had to decline as he was in a windowless room in Costa Rica doing top-secret programming for an internet company I can't mention. One down. The other guy showed interest but was so lame about replying to my message that the concert sold out, which drove me to StubHub where I scored one ticket at slightly over face value. Yes, I was going to be facing the monstrous Mastodon on my own. 

Up close & personal
with Red Fang
Only Red Fang was listed on the ticket as the opening band so I was a little dismayed to learn that Dillinger Escape Plan was on the bill as well. Life is a little too short for two opening acts, but I knew they had been around a while and figured this was my chance to check them out. Before the place was half full, the hairy dudes of Red Fang took the stage and - whaddya know - laid it down in fine style. With guitars down tuned so far the strings should have been slack, they played rifftastic punk/grunge/metal songs with distinct melodies and a distinctive style of almost Brucknerian repetition. Along with much of the audience I was more than pleasantly surprised. After over 30 years of concert going, I have found the odds that an unknown opening act is going to be even good to be almost non-existent. When their set ended, I was charged up but a little concerned that the floor would not be the place to be for Mastodon, due to the higher volume of the headlining act. I headed upstairs and took my place along the wall of the mezzanine - and am I glad I did. 

I don't want to go into details, but Dillinger Escape Plan were one of the worst musical acts I have ever experienced. And it is an act. The roadies knew exactly when the lead guitar jackass was going to climb the amps and there were strategically placed apple crates (helpfully painted fluorescent green) for guys to jump up on. The whole thing was so canned - ugh. And the music, while precise, was dumbed down Helmet and I didn't much like them either. Next!

Mastodon - the aftermath
Finally, Mastodon, in all their glory. If you're not familiar (and you should change that - soon), this is the preeminent hard rock band in America today. Melody, weight, conceptual depth, emotional engagement - it's all there. A culmination, in fact, of many genres and micro-genres of heavy music from the past two or three decades. Yes, there are bands that are more abrasive, more bizarre, more obscure - but when it comes to the sheer love of music, Mastodon wins out. And live, it was no different. Just to watch how guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher assemble those jaggedly beautiful riffs was a pleasure. And the rhythm section of Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor swung like a mother. It was a great set ending with the perfect singalong of Creature Lives - see for yourself.

What did you see on stage last year? Here's to more great shows in 2012!

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