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Live Review: Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center

22 Jan

When you hear Jeff Mangum’s name, it’s hard to think of him as anything other than the “reclusive” persona writers have pegged him as. The truth is, I’ve seen Mangum first hand, and he’s nothing of the sort.

Last night, Mangum brought his highly exclusive, extremely anticipated tour to Houston’s Wortham Center in Downtown, and the place was sold out. It might go down as one of the most surreal, genuinely touching concerts I’ve experienced as of yet.

The crowd, which ranged from pre-teen to retired, dressed in their best “going out” clothes. There were no torn jeans, the tights weren’t ripped, and majority of the 21+ crowd was drinking wine or a cocktail versus beer. While it sounds like a strange way to gauge things, the same people sitting around me are the same ones that show up for $2 Lone Star nights and end up swinging their gorilla-sized hands in the air during a free show put on by the same production company, Pegstar. It was pretty nice to see everyone well-behaved at a venue that usually hosts events from orchestras and opera singers. Hell, one of the chandeliers probably costs more than my car.

The show started promptly at 8 p.m. when Tall Firs politely took the stage. The duo sat near one another in the middle of the stage, sharing a Fender Super Reverb and knocking out eight songs from their self-titled debut, 2008’s Too Old To Die Young and 2012’s Out of It and Into It.

In between tracks such as “Hairdo” and “So Messed Up,” band-mates David Mies and Aaron Mullan trade out guitars to get the right sound on each song while partaking in humorous banter. But among stories of stoned kids in OKC and prostitutes in St. Louis, Mies got the last laugh when he and Mullan snubbed Pitchfork’s Aaron Leitko for ripping apart Mies’ version of “I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face” by Arthur Russell.

Tall Firs have the airy, atmospheric chops of Explosions In The Sky, with more of a knack to sound like Sonic Youth or Pavement. Vocally, the two sound like they mastered the whiskey and cigarette routine while extensively studying every album in their personal collection. When stripped down, their songs left the crowd silent and transfixed in the dark of the room.

Following a brief intermission, Mangum took the stage wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and a hat while the house lights stayed on halfway – most likely at his request. But though he looked a bit more gray and grizzly when compared to the photos taken of him playing to Occupy Wall Street protestors a year ago, Mangum still looks relatively youthful.

As he sat in his chair aside four acoustic guitars, he dived straight into “Oh Comely,” sounding just as crisp and sincere as the recorded version we’ve all heard hundreds of times. After a long applause, Mangum prodded the audience to sing along with him to “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3,” which were played continuously.

Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center last night. Photo by Ed Abello (@sensitive_b)

Though backing instruments such as horns and accordions weren’t part of the set, Mangum’s voice left nothing to be desired. Instead, the crowd acted as an a cappella version of the track, singing back trumpet sections as the hall echoed with the intensity of the experience. And while Houston crowds are notorious for misbehaving, there were only a few that were unable to keep their composure or follow the rules. Some were seen running around the room back and fourth with friends they’d spotted, others forgot to take the flash off of their camera and could be seen by everyone going against his “no photography” rule.

Even so, Mangum took song requests with stride – either accepting them or politely explaining that he was without the proper pedal – and he even laughed at a man who shouted out “Keep Austin Weird!” after divulging that his family was from Texas. He could even be seen talking to people at the front of the house, and often asked the crowd the keep singing along with him or move forward if they felt the desire.

Throughout the hour-long set, Mangum pulled songs off both albums – On Avery Island and In An Aeroplane Over The Sea – and also found time to cover Roky Erikson’s “I Love The Living You.” Often times he stopped to use throat spray and guzzle down a bottle of water that required two hands. But aside from what looked like a minor cold, Mangum was in high spirits, often responding to a rogue “thank you!” or “I love you!”

“No, thank you,” Mangum mused as he placed his hand over his chest before diving into “Song About Sex.” “Thank you from the depths of my soul. I never expected this, I didn’t even think anyone would ever pay attention to me.”

At the end of his set, Mangum smiled and waved with sincerity as the crowd erupted in applause and gave him a standing ovation. And whether planned or not, Mangum came out one last time to finish the night with “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2.” That, of course, got another standing ovation.

And just like that, Jeff Mangum disappeared behind the curtains and the dream came to and end.

Set List
Oh Comely
King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 1-3
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Two Headed Boy, Part 1
I Love The Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
Song Against Sex
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Two Headed Boy, Part 2


Live Review: Pains of Being Pure at Heart, 4/8 @ Fitzgerald’s

9 Apr

Source Unknown

With their second full-length album, Belong, released on March 29th, Pains of Being Pure at Heart have embarked on a full-US tour.

After much anticipation, and a canceled session at Cactus Records, Pains finally stopped by Houston for the first time on Friday to play on the same bill as Warpaint, who headlined the upstairs room while Pains topped the bill below.

The Watermarks opened for Pains, bringing energy to those who came early enough to catch them. The Houston-based band (who are giving their music away for free) have an electronic, pop-grunge sound. It’s hard to explain, but when hearing them live, you can hear remnants of The Smashing Pumpkins and Pixies, as well as bands like R.E.M. The band is set to play Free Press Summer Fest this June.

Twin Shadow, who is on tour and scheduled to open for Pains, had to cancel due to an illness.

At around 10:30, Pains finally took the stage. What first struck me is that the band had always performed as a quartet until this point. The group, which comprised of lead vocalist/guitarist, Kip Berman, keyboardist/vocalist, Peggy Wang, as well as drummer Kurt Feldman and bassist Alex Naidus, was quaint and minimal. However, Friday night they had Christopher Hochheim playing guitar.

I’m not sure if Hochheim, pictured above – far right, is a permanent fixture, but I will say that his additional guitar playing added to the aesthetic of the band more than took away from it.

In the crowded room, the sound came off of the stage in waves and proved to be more of an experience than I anticipated. The band was every bit as charming on stage as they are on record. Wang flirted innocently, peeking from behind her long hair with a smile that seemed to sum up the vibe of the band — blissfully shocked. Although I couldn’t hear the entirety of what he was saying, Berman spoke briefly between songs to mention their excitement to be there and how thankful they were that Houston came out for the show.

The band, who hail from New York City, brought an old-school feel to Fitz – a venue that has been around for more than 30 years. With walls that have heard their fair share of nu wave acts, Pains seemed as if they were paying homage to the history of the venue. Their flawless approach to the aging and increasingly hard-to-get-right genre made it all the more enjoyable. It was as if I were being time warped back to 1985, when hair was big and bands like The Talking Heads were dominating the airwaves.

For those who have yet to hear their latest album, it’s safe to say that the follow-up holds much more than a candle to their debut. As I said on Twitter, Belongs sounds more like The Cure and less like The Smiths. They’ve gone from a softer, more ethereal-sounding nu wave act to on that is teetering on the edge of the NYC punk-rock edge. The guitars are harder, but they’ve managed to keep their dreamy appeal and still manage to stay in tune with the band that so many have come to enjoy while taking great strides as musicians.

Perhaps I am a bit of a romantic, but being raised on Brat Pack flicks and my Dad’s flawless taste in music spoiled me to the point that I realized halfway through their set that Pains would be an excellent band to see on a first date. Without missing a beat, the band kept in tune with one another throughout the entire set, and it’s safe to say that they have an impeccable live show.

SXSW 2011: A recap of my personal highs and lows

25 Mar

South by South West (better known as SXSW) ended last Sunday, but people are still talking about the week’s events.

As a music lover and aspiring journalist based in Texas, I’ve been attending the music portion of the week and a half long festival for the last four years. Needless to say, I’ve seen my share of good and bad performances, but I’d have to say that SXSW 2011 takes the cake for not only the most versatile year, but the best year for me. That’s saying a lot – especially if you know that I spent 2009 catching every Cursive set – which ultimately led to my meeting the band’s lead singer and my personal idol, Tim Kasher, as well as hearing their 2004 album The Ugly Organ played in its entirety.

In its 25th year, SXSW held many surprises that even planners could not keep up with.

First, there was the unplanned performance of the Foo Fighters at Stubb’s on Tuesday night, the night before the music portion of the festival actually starts. Then there was the absolute shocker of a Jack White performance in the streets of Austin outside of his mobile record store for his record label, Third Man Records. Seeing as The White Stripes announced their retirement as a band in February, it was something that nobody could have expected.

Image by Trice

Last came the surprise performance from Kanye West, which had Twitter feeds jammed up and rumors flying from every news organization and journalist on the ground of Austin’s famous 6th Street. His surprise performance ended up happening in the old Austin City Power Plant, which has been abandoned since the 70s. It’s a surprise that anybody even got in to the concert at all, with the guest list even more chaotic than the back-and-forth rumors that he was even there. Needless to say, it wouldn’t be a Kanye performance without all of the hype. The rapper ended up hitting the stage around 2:30 on Sunday morning, thirty minutes after bars are supposed to close their doors in Texas, but it sounds like the concert was worth the wait. His performance featured acts such as Jay-Z, Justin Vernon from Bon Iver and a full marching band, to name just a few.

While I was badge-less and hopeless of catching any of these shows, I did catch quite a few sets that not even I could have imagined catching. I’ll try and point out my highlights and least favorites.

On Wednesday night I got lucky enough to catch a hush-hush performance of Portugal. The Man at the Do512 Lounge. The show was intimate and more stripped-down, but definitely on-point. The band mainly played songs from their 2009 release, The Satanic Satanists, but surprised all when they closed the show with fan-favorite, ‘AKA M80 The Wolf’ off of their first album, Waiter: “You Vultures!”.
Later that night I caught Rooney for the first time. While they are good live, I think that their 1 am set-time maybe have had something to do with them being the least entertaining of the week for me. I definitely want to catch them when they roll through Houston to give them a chance to redeem themselves, but for now I’ll just say that they were a little bit of a bore compared to the albums they’ve created.

Photo by Heather Kaplan

Thursday, I saw The Strokes at Lady Bird Lake. They played a number of their older hits and discography highlights, as well as a few songs from their new album, Angles, including the first single “Under A Cover of Darkness”. What surprised me, however, was that the newer songs sounded a lot better than the old ones. I’m not sure if it was because of the bad sound, but they definitely weren’t as on-point and tight as they were previous times. Then again, a bad show for The Strokes is often better than a lot of bands’ best.
Later in the evening I caught Noah and The Whale at Stubb’s and again, I wish I could see them again. While the rest of the band seemed to really be giving it their all, there was something about the lead singer, Charlie Fink, that seemed as if his heart wasn’t in it entirely. His vocals sounded a bit lazy, but where he lacked in vocals and guitar playing, violinist and back up singer, Tom Hobden, made up for, bringing in elements of their album with whistles, clapping and just spot-on violin playing.

Photo by Enrique Fabela

After watching a few more bands on the bill, I walked over to Red Eyed Fly and caught Maps and Atlases open for Menomena at the Barsuk Records Showcase. Needless to say, Menomena were my absolute favorite act of the entire week. Without missing a beat, the band played songs from each of their albums despite the recent departure of founding member (and one-third of the band), Brent Knopf earlier this year. Instead, the band brought in friends Matt Dabrowiak and Paul Alcott from Dat’r to tie up the loose ends from Knopf’s departure.  Lead vocalist and instrument extraordinaire, Justin Harris, was spot on with not only his vocals, but also his bass, guitar and saxophone playing that mimicked  an exact replica of that on their albums. Drummer and vocalist, Danny Siem, brought in the perfect base-tempo for the songs, standing up for some while he played.

Friday night gave me the chance to catch Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears, before I made my way to watch City & Colour play at Stubb’s. The solo project of Alexisonfire‘s guitarist, Dallas Green, was absolutely charming live. Although his fans might not be fond of the slowed down, acoustic style that he has pursued with the act, it is definitely worth catching live.
Later in the evening, I caught Austin-formed band, Okkervil River. The band, whose lead singer Will Sheff was nominated for a Grammy for his work with Roky Erikson sounded as truthful in person as he does in album form. His sincerity was not lacking in vocals or his musicianship, despite his 1 am showcase time at Antone’s.

Photo by AllSongs

Saturday, I got to see Bright Eyes play at Lady Bird Lake. For anybody who is a fan of the band and have yet to see them live, I would definitely suggest it. The show was held at the same outdoor stage that The Strokes played on earlier that week. The band covered a multitude of songs, sans sound issues, under the lighting of the “super moon”. With hits and gems being played off of nearly every release, including the title track of their latest effort The People’s Key, Conor Oberst and co. were so in-tune with one another that it felt an almost flawless performance. It didn’t hurt that the show, which was being streamed live on NPR’s website, ended in a fireworks display that lasted nearly 20 minutes after the band went off.

However, what occurred later that evening is probably the craziest and luckiest encounter I had of the week when I caught the mayhem and absolute wonder that was the Death From Above 1979 secret reunion show. Although the band is scheduled to play at this year’s Coachella Festival in California, Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler – also known as MSTRKRFT – literally and figuratively brought the house down. Fans of the band who couldn’t get in to the ‘Badges Only’ showcase stood outside dancing and singing along in the alleyway of Beauty Bar before they eventually tore down the back fence. Cops were called and arrived not only by car but by foot, bike, horse to tame the crowd. Within minutes of the fence coming down, officers both on horse and foot made their way through the crowd using taser guns and pepper spray. Regardless, nothing could disperse the fans. After a few minutes of banter from the band while security got the fence back up, the cops left and the music – and dancing – continued. Still, throughout all of the chaos and short set time, the duo only got to play about seven songs of off their only two recorded efforts – their full-length You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine and Heads Up, an EP.

In the video, you can hear Grainger claim “Welcome to the party!” and “Leave the horses at home.” – a clear stab at the cops who had begun beating, trampling, macing and tasering some of the audience. While bands have little to no control over capacity size of a venue, it is evident that the band was more than excited for the turn out and welcoming they received from their fans, while opposed to the amount of cops that reported to the scene. A better view of the crowd size, as well as eyewitness accounts, can be viewed here.

If it weren’t for that kind of commitment of fans and musicians alike, SXSW may not be as successful as it has been for the last 25 years. But with as much chaos that comes with a festival of its size, it’s safe to say that those in the music scene wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which leads me to ask this question: What are you most memorable moments of SXSW – good, bad, chaotic or ugly?

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