Narcissy: 08.02.2012

The first thing I noticed upon walking into The Big Top last Thursday night was how great everything sounded in what is normally an acoustically quirky and unpredictable room.  One look at the stage explained everything, as front-and-center, relentlessly wailing on an electric guitar and crooning about how much he hates the south through a devilish grin was Jay Holland, the longtime front of house guru who helps make One Eyed Jacks the best room in the city to catch live music.

He was fronting cowpunkish rockers Narcissy, a band of scene veterans who have spent the better part of the last decade sporadically subverting genre titles and gently offending the sensibilities of more mild-mannered local concertgoers.  With bassist Anthony Donado and drummer Bill Rachel, the power trio unleashed a hilarious (and hilariously nimble) set that was equal parts experimental performance art piece and downright devastating rock n’ roll masterclass.

They bounced between every conceivable style and mood even before the band ditched their setlist in favor of a choose-your-own-adventure format in which Holland sifted through the Narcissy canon by asking the enthusiastic crowd questions like “Do you want a country song or a metal song?” and “Do you want to hear a Neil Young song or a song about Neil Young?”.  But no matter what kind of music they settled on, the rhythm section was tight, the vocal harmonies were bracing, and bouts of outlandish on-stage theatrics alternatively highlighted and brilliantly obscured the true virtuosity baked into even deceptively straightforward numbers.

There was something thrilling about watching these hyper-musically literate old pros manhandle their instruments, and an even more encompassing feeling of glee took hold when it became clear the players on stage were free from the confines of any one particular musical vocabulary.  These guys could play anything – southern roots rock, avant-garde drone, alternative country, light psychedelia – and did so with an unflinching panache that could have passed for insolent arrogance if Holland and co. didn’t consistently appear to be having even more fun than the truly delighted audience.

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The Lollies: 07.08.2012

If the Lollies were practically any other band imaginable, they’d be dead in the water. After losing a member like Brian Pretus, who could at worst be described as a fantastic guitarist and one of the most pitch-perfect vocal harmonizers in New Orleans or at best be considered the co-face of the band, the Noel to Zach Quinn’s Liam if the Gallagher brothers had a hilarious onstage chemistry and weren’t completely unintelligible, the Lollies’ flawless brand of highly complex, mathematical guitar-dueling pop punk could have been rendered virtually unplayable, forcing a depressingly early curtain call for this talented unit.

However, anyone who has witnessed even a messy set by the Lollies is starkly aware of the level of talent and confederacy running through the veins of this young band. With the Community Records Summer Tour with Nashville thrash band Stuck Lucky looming, and with no practical way of either replacing Pretus or retooling their material to fit a three-piece, the remaining three members did what possibly only they could be capable of doing: they wrote a wealth of drastically different material tailored to their new dynamic and road tested it.

Returning to New Orleans on July 8 for an Independence Day weekend-ending Sunday matinee show at the Big Top, the Lollies were a very different band than the lighthearted pop punkers we have come to love, naturally. But the personnel change – and the minor growing pains associated with it – is arguably the best thing that could have happened to them, as this stylistic shifting of trajectory takes them, at times, far from the comparatively sugary Descendents-influenced punk of Potential into something edgier, darker and heavier – a complex interplay that often finds Alex Talbot’s gnarled, muffed-out bass lines surprisingly becoming the driving melodic force behind Quinn’s note-for-note guitar perfection and Joey Mercer’s increasingly heady rhythms. As the sole vocalist, Zack is gruff, harsh, guttural and everything else that could generally describe someone who yells rather than croons, creating an ambiance that more often than not abandons punk altogether for unabashed aggressive rock.

The hallmarks of the Lollies, as they’ve come to be known, are their well-channeled penchant for snappy melodies and their nostalgic anti-conformist humor. Though the levity hasn’t been wholesale eviscerated (Quinn still exudes a considerable amount of charming swag in his inter-song banter), their pop sensibility isn’t noticeably present in their new material; but it genuine doesn’t matter when that new material is as compelling and perfectly executed as it was on Sunday. Certainly it’s relieving to see a band, when faced with personnel adversity, brave through it and attempt to retain some semblance of quality. But surprising in the case of the Lollies is that their change of gear has resulted in something that might be better than it could have ever been without the tumult.

Picture: from June 13, 2012

Donovan Wolfington: 06.14.2012

Though there’s much one can often glean from seeing a young band at their first show back from their first tour, I wouldn’t have anticipated the strides Donovan Wolfington has managed to make in a mere matter of days, the band’s short tour with pals ArchAnimals taking them only as far as San Antonio. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the golden era-harkening emo five-piece I saw at Siberia on Thursday evening is a unit markedly different than the one that has been performing in and around New Orleans for the previous six months.

A tightening of the proverbial screws is only natural when a band begins to hit its collaborative stride, and with Chris Littlejohn’s ever-condensing percussion and the increasingly art punk-tinged lead guitar work of Matthew Seferian, D-Wolf has certainly begun to arrive. But that tightening has also drastically changed the sound and feel of emo-infused indie rock that the band has made its bread and butter. Where you could once hear a group of musicians whose creative ingredients may be just a little too varied for their own broth (a penchant for dissonant noise and guttural screams and shouts that often left little room for either Savannah Saxton’s peripheral synth and keyboard offerings or the general glaze of good-natured youth that endearingly hangs on each member’s face), it’s now all there in crystal vision — Christian Baraks dances around like a goofball while hitting every bass note with precision; Saxton is a demure counterbalance but no less obviously a key presence in D-Wolf’s blithe yet intensely heavy mis-en-scene; and at this point singer Neil Berthier could hit notes at will, thought he doesn’t necessarily try, since the charm lies in how arbitrary his delivery seems.

At the very least, this is a band whose desire to maintain their reverence for a decidedly rigid set of genre standards (after all, there isn’t a whole lot that technically separates Braid from Story of the Year, but the difference between the two is mind-bogglingly vast) has begun to intersect with their real-world personal chemistry on stage. But oddly enough, as Donovan Wolfington come closer to reaching the Kinsella bros. paradigm of “good emo” (a la the high-minded Joan of Arc), they seem to be progressively growing distant from any other band with the same modus operendi. Philadelphia’s Algernon/Snowing/1994 collectivists having made “rock n’ roll as fuck” their decided emo personage, the members of D-Wolf seem bent on a different path altogether, approaching emocore from a new angle, if from any angle at all. In the same way that the beloved Ted Leo and the Pharmacists arguably exist for no other reason than to be a totally kick-ass band in the sea of superficial attention-seeking indies and hyper-serious artistes, Wolfington don’t seem overly concerned with selling themselves short stylistically: whether it’s emo, indie or punk, it’s all rock and roll, which is all that really matters if you’ve hit your live stride. Emo’s often-alienating austerity be damned, a Donovan Wolfington live show is currently nothing short of spectacular fun – a kick-ass band just when New Orleans needs one.

ArchAnimals: 06.14.2012

Before I get lost in the flight of fancy that is to follow, let me begin by saying unequivocally that ArchAnimals are currently the most underrated live band in New Orleans. In a town practically run on a collective desire to hone and perfect a particular style of music designed to embody all that is “the Big Easy”, three young men are, at this very moment, in a precarious position that finds their milieu far from “perfected”, yet more fully realized than it might ever be in the future.

Sure, New Orleans is known for its brass and ArchAnimals are a brassless indie rock band, so the rules ought to be a little different; but even in the city’s underground rock and roll community there tends to be at least a little bit of homogeneity. Many of the newest wave of young college-age musicians that have slowly begun to make themselves known in the New Orleans underground of late – the majority of which are, unsurprisingly, imported talent from Texas and Tennessee – carry with them an ostensible tinge of southern drawl. Coyotes feel like an indie-glossed Gram Parson and Pals bring back the vague nostalgia of loose jaminess, while Gold and the Rush are almost specifically a southern rock band. Yet if I were to try and delineate the arguable influences of Dennis Sager, Christian Baraks and Matthew Seferian, I’d have a difficult time making a case for any singular – or even particular – reference point from which to place the band’s sound, save for Seferian’s revelatory penchant for the staggering balance between form and dissonance originally personified by Archers of Loaf guitarist Eric Johnson.

As baldfaced a comparison as that may be, Seferian’s (and, by proxy, Johnson’s) presence in ArchAnimals gives the fit of a puzzle tailor-made for its own pieces. Until recently, the band appeared to be nothing more than Dennis Sager’s voice and guitar surrounded by any number of musicians present at whatever venue he happened to be performing. Indeed, it’s tough to nail down a solid identity when your band comprises one guitarist, or two, or sometimes three, with the occasional bass or harmonica, and your only consistencies lie in a budding songwriter and a drummer (Baraks) who’s been banging on skins for a mere matter of weeks. Yet, with the addition of lead guitarist Seferian, ArchAnimals have parlayed their already-loose live approach into something more raucous than one can reasonably describe with text. At such a risk, it’s a fairly thrilling – and deceptively simple – broth of a songwriter whose intentional lack of grace in delivery probably couldn’t find better foils than in a drummer whose talent’s infancy frees hims from the constraints of style and formal technique and a guitarist whose systematic purpose is to create noise and antagonize the edges of melody and rhythm.

For nearly a decade, indie culture has seen a rise in lo-fi music that almost perfectly coincides with the reissuing of Pavement’s entire catalog. As a result, an entire generation of contemporary musicians tends to view that band as the reigning kings of college rock (which, frankly, they are), and these musicians’ wholesale emulation of said kings is at least marginally more impressive than their even clumsier attempts to draw influence from the more obscure pockets of 90s indie and noise. In that decade I’ve listened to and analyzed pocket band Archers of Loaf (and particularly their sophomore recordVeeVee) as the kind of perfect blend of simplicity in function, complexity in execution and against-the-grain progressive art rock conceptualism that no future band would ever be capable of doing justice. But (and this really shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering how correct young New Orleans indie rock bands tend to come these days) leave it to a trio of Tulane and Loyola students in 2012 to serendipitously grasp what requires years of intellectualizing from losers like me.

Jean-Eric: 06.06.2012

June 6 is a day etched in history for events occurring over 60 years ago, when, in 1944, Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, precipitating the end of World War II and giving way to an unparalleled era of peace and prosperity across Europe.  With all due respect to the Greatest Generation though, June 6 should now be remembered as the day local Scene Kings Jean-Eric played their last New Orleans show before invading the Island of Manhattan.

The Belle Époque came to a close with a raucous farewell show at Siberia that began with Jean-Eric’s aspiring heir apparent, Rhodes!!, offering a strictly clothing optional set that was equal parts music performance and performance art.  He made a respectable claim to the throne vacated by the departing headliners, energetically delivering his signature shouted vocals set to electronic beats against a backdrop of spastic dance moves, multiple forays into the crowd, green goo, and plenty of glitter. While the English language fails to provide words which satisfactorily describe Jean-Eric, the same can almost certainly be said of Rhodes.

But this was Jean-Eric’s night.  The public adores those who deliver peak performances; this is why soccer fans watch the Champions League, why the Intelligentsia reads Lost Illusions, why Renaissance Men and Enlightenment thinkers flocked to Cicero, and why those at Siberia attended Jean-Eric’s goodbye.  Emcees Frank Jones and Karen Wallace, joined this evening by a full backing band, launched headlong into a marathon set that featured old hits and new arrivals.  Memorable pieces included the mandatory dance-along “Elsa,” as well as the debut of their newest work, “Miami,” a demonstrative apex of Jean-Eric’s pure, distilled, lightning-in-a-bottle fun.  Crowd favorites “Real World,” “Better Than Good,” “Ooh Ah Ah,” and “Pickle” were delivered with typical flair, and resident dancer, Sheila Santamaria, brought the goods as well. Jones, Wallace, and Santamaria all spent their fair share of time inside, around and atop the crowd, being repeatedly passed along outstretched hands like Jesus fallen from the cross – though with infinitely more style.  The show – and an Era – came to a close with the catchiest, dancing-est and most exemplary of Jean-Eric songs, “Bull in a China Shop”, extended so that the moment might never end.

End it must, however.  Their local Fin de Siècle having arrived, Jean-Eric will move to New York City, where they will doubtless be embraced and deified.  We look forward to reminding the pretending megalopolis that New Orleans had Jean-Eric first.  As they strutted in and out of and through and around the crowd that night, Jean-Eric showed everyone how they did New Orleans and gave a glimpse of how they will fuck the wider world.

note: file photo (Jean-Eric at Siberia on April 16, 2012)

Hangout Music Festival, Day 3: 05.20.2012

Sunday seems to have been the lightest day of the fest for many people, and maybe that was for the best, because I saw a lot of fatigued faces in the crowd. For those with enough stamina (or maybe just sick curiosity) there was an early set by New Orleans’ own queen diva of sissy bounce, Big Freedia. To say she left the crowd (and the Gulf Shores police force) stunned would be a hilarious understatement. On a totally different note, Mavis Staples treated her unfortunately meager crowd to a little church service. Flaming Lips had a large, largely inattentive crowd present for their performance of Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side of the Moon. If you weren’t up front, it was sadly a bit hard to focus on anything but the jabbering going on in all directions (thanks, stoned teenagers!) Festival closer and final night headliner Dave Matthews Band was (as far as I know) the only act to come on significantly late (by about 15 minutes) and the crowd was, once again, mammoth. Unfortunately the sound wasn’t and a combination of long, quiet breaks between songs and poor amplification created a general feeling of “meh” around the whole set, which I had actually been looking forward to (my 15-year-old self has Dave to thank for introducing me to the idea of a band being more than just guitars & drums). So while things closed on a somewhat middling note, the weekend itself was quite a success (which you can read more about in the June issue of Antigravity!)

– Erin Hall, Antigravity Magazine

 

With everything that is known about her long and storied history as a singer, songwriter and civil rights activist, it should be no surprise that Mavis Staples was one of the undeniable highlights of Hangout Fest 2012; nevertheless, it’s life-affirming to actually witness a 72-year old woman in total control of her musical faculties, hitting every screeching high note and every bellowing low note on the psychoacoustic scale. Joined by Rick Holmstrom’s sparse blues band of guitar, bass and drums, as well as by a trio of veteran backup vocalists that included fellow Staples Singer Yvonne Staples, Mavis interjected a playlist of soul standards, new era originals and Pops Staples-penned classics with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that belied that of such an insultingly early set time, the extreme burn of the weekend’s hottest afternoon and the noticeably thin audience. And though the crowd was small, it was packed with devotees who were thoroughly taken by Mavis’ hilarious inter-song banter (“It’s an honor to be down here in beautiful Roll Tide, Alabama,” she quipped at one point) or her straightforward preaching about modern American life (her ability to comfortably and apolitically claw at the Tea Party’s inherent racism was a revelation).

It can also be said that Mavis Staples wins the award for best running farewell to the recently-deceased Levon Helm. Her jubilant cover of the Band’s “The Weight”, which passed off verses to singers Vicki Randle and Donny Gerrard as well as to bassist Jeff Turmes before giving Mavis free reign to burn the entire stage to the ground with an outrageous vocal solo of her own pasted a grin on everyone’s face so wide that it hurt.

Taylor Gray, Barryfest.com

 

In both the years we’ve covered the Hangout Music Festival, electronic dance music has been given huge consideration by both those organizing the weekend as well as those attending it.  And if 2011’s nuanced offering shed light on the surprising diversity some of the more popular performers can squeeze out of the genre’s limited formula, this year’s relatively straightforward lineup of Skrillex, Sphongle and Zed’s Dead (among others), likely gave critics of EDM plenty of fodder to poke fun at what has become a ubiquitous part mainstream music.

But hopefully these faithful and extreme examples of dubsteb and trance also shed some light on why this electronic music is popular.  It’s the same reason Hangout Festival is held on a beach and not in a parking lot on the edge of town: When music is performed in a live setting it almost becomes as experiential as it is artistic; and while the merits of whether or not what electronic DJs do qualifies as making music or performing, there is not doubt they are creating an experience that is enormously appreciated by their swelling audiences.

– Matt Rosenthal, Barryfest.com

Hangout Music Festival, Day 2: 05.19.2012

It’s a good thing Friday and Sunday are packing somewhat less of a punch, because Saturday knocked me flat on my ass. There was a joyful morning set from Lafayette’s GIVERS to start off the day, followed by the knee-slapping, bluegrass goodness of The Devil Makes Three. Heartless Bastards and Gary Clark Jr. brought some seriously heavy, bone-shaking guitar. But the star of the show was a duo of bands with a few things in common: foreign lead singers, an expansive cast and, yes, accordions. Gypsy punks Gogol Bordello preceded Irish punks Flogging Molly to great success. It was a one-two punch of folk instrumentation meeting ragged punk sensibilities. (Side note: I want to see Sergey from Gogol Bordello have a fiddle-off with Bridget from Flogging Molly. That would make my day.) Both bands are masters at keeping a crowd engaged and even after all the exhaustive flailing and jumping I did in those few hours, I’m still rolling off the euphoria (though my body seems like it might be mad at me for this in the morning.) The great thing about festivals is that there is something for everyone. Today, crunchy hippies hula hooped in the sand to almost 3 hours of String Cheese Incident. Everyone but me (or so it seemed) packed the Xbox tent to twitch to Skrillex. Rave kids played with a delightful assortment of trippy light-up crap for an hour of Shpongle. But, me? Today, I was a happy little punk.

– Erin Hall, Antigravity Magazine

 

I knew it had to be a good omen when the driver of my shuttle bus, a 60-something year-old Alabama man, began blasting “Best Feeling” by the one-off collaboration between the String Cheese Incident and multi-instrumentalist Keller Williams on the way to Hangout Fest on Saturday. Until that moment it hadn’t really occurred to me that – aside from the obvious Wilco, Flaming Lips and Jack White pilgrimages I’d make – I might have been most excited to get my first real life Cheese experience under my belt, something I’ve lackadaisically allowed to elude me for nearly a decade.

Though I was probably somewhat at odds mentally with the crowd, an apparent 50/50 split between SCI fans who have seen the band perform dozens of times and young partiers who have never heard the phrase “Incidents Happen”, none of our preconceptions or states of mind would matter by the time the band was entrenched in a heavily Stop Making Sense-informed “Rosie”. In fact, in a first set that also included the Grateful Dead classic “I Know You Rider” and a rendition of “Joyful Sound” set to a sample of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”, as well as an encore enveloped by a 20 or so minute “Roll Over”, it became crystal clear to all in attendance that a performance as varied as this from a band as adept at balancing technical mastery with guiding crowd enthusiasm as the String Cheese Incident is literally reason Hangout Fest ever came into existence.d

– Taylor Gray, Barryfest.com