by Raj Ranade
Audiences were in for a hell of a show at the Kentucky Theatre on Thursday, at least once they got in – which required doubling back and forth through a series of lines and then fording a stream of beer-seekers to get into the auditorium. But no one’s going to hold organizational quibbles against the Boomslang organizers given the incredible lineup that they’ve assembled for the festival this year – easily the most impressive since the festival began.
Thursday’s music began with a set by Nashville guitarist William Tyler, formerly of the alt-country group Lambchop. Tyler’s acoustic guitar instrumentals have prog-rock titles like “Terrace of the Leper King” and “The Cult of the Peacock Angel”, and the compositions feel a bit like what you might get if you condensed a King Crimson album onto that one instrument. The set was a virtuosic showcase in which Tyler showed just how versatile his chosen instrument can be – strumming, finger-picking ornate patterns, layering backdrops with a loop pedal, toying with feedback for atmospheric effect. But it wasn’t numbing in the way that some displays of musical virtuosity can be – Tyler loads drama into his pieces, setting up droning background phrases that crescendo into Appalachian folk melodies. It admittedly may not have been the best opener for the night – Tyler seems to be aiming for a hypnotic effect with his complex compositions, which was something of an awkward fit with the indie rock immediacy that was to follow. But it helped that Tyler was a gregarious presence on stage. Dressed in a very Wes Anderson tan sportcoat, Tyler regaled the audience with stories about the inspirations behind his songs – “Peacock Angel,” for example, was inspired by an ancient Persian manuscript, part of his father’s collection of literature that was destroyed when a nearby Quizno’s caught fire.
Tyler seemed to be suggesting that his music was a last-ditch attempt to keep pieces of the past alive, if only through the oblique method of music. This turned out to be a theme of the evening, although Julian Koster and his band The Music Tapes expressed it in a wackier form. Koster’s between-song banter involved a story about Romanian circus performers who could pull entire European cities out of their mouths – the trick involved dehydrated European city pellets and a musical code that has mostly been lost to the ages, save for a few songs (the Ace fact-check team is hard at work investigating the veracity of these claims). The story was mostly in keeping with the spirit of the set, which was as tied to vaudeville as it was to indie rock. There was a seven-foot-tall metronome (complete with its own audio instruction manual), an organ-playing puppet, and an array of eclectic instrumentation (with particular emphasis on the theremin-like strains of a singing saw). Koster himself was an engaging ringmaster of ceremonies – the lanky, mop-topped singer spoke with a giddy, sing-song voice, wearing an antique yellow wool getup that seemed closest to the yellow-suited dancer in “Gangnam Style” (at 1:45). You certainly could sneer at the preciousness of all this (plenty did), but it’s hard to argue that the show wasn’t consistently engaging and that the music itself wasn’t gorgeous. Koster’s music stews together everything from torch songs and European folk to B-movie soundtracks. It’s a fascinating mix that feels both totally modern and rooted firmly in the past, like a soundtrack for a Vonnegut character unstuck in time.
The Music Tapes set proceedly smoothly up until the very end – a fight happened to break out just as Koster was singing a plaintive tribute to his Elephant 6 colleague Bill Doss, who passed away in July. According to the police officer on the scene, the fight happened when one concert-goer got irritated at another loudly talking during the set and slapped him, leading to the exchange of a few punches. At the risk of speculating irresponsibly on the motives here, the thought that a fan would be moved to violence by fellow audience-member disrespect seems pretty much in line with the general audience reverence on display Thursday night. Jeff Mangum only needed to play the first few chords of “Oh Comely” to generate a wave of applause that nearly drowned out the music itself.
Mangum isn’t anyone’s idea of a confident stage presence, alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, flannel shirt, and unkempt beard. During songs, he generally stared out at a fixed point far above the crowd, as if to pretend they weren’t there; between songs, he mumbled a comment or three but seemed more focused on a deliberate routine of placing his guitar down on one side of him and taking a sip from a water bottle on the other. And he seemed ill-equipped to deal with the rapturous response from the kind of fans who have enshrined Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as one of the classic albums of the 90s.
But none of that really mattered, because Mangum has one of those voices. It’s a signature, utterly inimitable wail, one that stretches to raggedness as he reaches for the high notes but is more effective and moving because of it. And in the context of Mangum’s reclusive history and tentative demeanor, it’s all the more remarkable – this is a guy who manages to entrance an audience in spite of himself. Mangum ran through the highlights of Aeroplane along with a few rarities, and even had a mini-reunion with his former bandmate Koster, which got the audience to leap out of their seats and crush towards the stage – the crowd remained on their feet for the remainder of the evening.
Buke and Gase and Deerhoof are a pretty logical fit together on a bill – both bands attempt to radically reconfigure the standard indie band paradigm while also stomping through lively sets on-stage. With Buke and Gase, the stomping is literal – the main element of this Brooklyn duo’s percussion is Aron Sanchez’s kick-drum, pounding away with industrial precision as he and singer Arone Dyer play their custom-made, self-built instruments (the “buke” is a custom baritone ukelele, the “gase” is a guitar-bass hybrid). Buke and Gase have gotten a lot of praise for their DIY ingenuity (I was particularly taken with Dyer’s “toe-bourine”, a mini-cymbal-laden shoe/contraption that could be an Edward Scissorhands era Tim Burton creation) and how it gives them a sound that’s fuller than you’d expect from a two-piece. But I mostly grooved on the raw, minimalist energy of the set, fueled primarily by Dyer’s punchy, soulful vocals.
If Dyer’s singing is the most immediate draw for Buke and Gase, Satomi Matsuzaki’s lead vocals are the most polarizing element of Deerhoof’s live show. On record, Matsuzaki’s childlike coo makes a sort of sense when put against the rest of her art-rock band’s colleagues – the simplicity and clarity of it makes for a nice counterpoint to the band’s complex, experimental-leaning wall of sound. On stage, there’s a similar split but it’s less effective – drummer Greg Saunier (in hot pink pants) and guitarist Ed Rodiguez (rocking a flamenco style frilly sleeved shirt) tear into their instruments while Matsuzaki focuses mostly on restrained, polite dance moves (mostly centering around hand gestures) at center stage, only occassionally picking up a guitar. But the band still whipped the Cosmic Charlie’s crowd into a frenzy with songs from their latest, most danceable material – that the band has become such an effective set of party-starters is yet another surprising evolution from this famously hard-to-pin-down group.
Dylan Baldi and his band Cloud Nothings could be a damn good pop punk band if that’s all they wanted to be – the way they ripped through their crowd-pleasing single “Stay Useless” at their Bar Lexington show Saturday showed that clearly. But the fascinating thing about this group is their commitment to pushing their sound in unexpected and abrasive directions. The most thrilling parts of their show were when they extended their songs into raw, improvisational-seeming instrumental segments, while maintaining the raw punk nature of the shorter songs. Baldi seemed like an unassuming presence off-stage – you’d have been hard-pressed to pick out the shaggy-haired, bespectacled kid in flannel amidst the similarly dressed Boomslangers surrounding him by the merch table. But on-stage, the 20-year-old is ferocious – screaming out lyrics with enough intensity to make you worry for his vocal cords. And as he screamed the refrain to set highlight “Wasted Days” – “I thought I would be more than this” – the band seemed to be achieving something special – millenial angst in extravagant, unique musical form.
It’s comforting in a way to know that even legendary rock stars are fully capable of being your tipsy uncle at Thanksgiving. The Jesus and Mary Chain set at Buster’s was certainly nowhere near the booze-fueled flameouts that made the band notorious in their early days. In the 80s, lead singer Jim Reid once hit a fan in the head with his mic stand – on Sunday, the tipsy singer mostly just kept knocking the stand over and accidentally yanking his mic cable loose (he blamed the mic stand for being “defective”). In a blazer and jeans, enshrouded in the mist from the fog machine, the greying singer kept up a kind of cranky-dad shtick that mostly stayed on the right side of the line between awkward and entertaining. There he was, snapping at guitarist William Reid (his brother) as the latter (passive-aggressively?) noodled on his guitar while Jim was attempting to speak with the audience (“You know, there’s an audience here, Willie!”), complaining about spilling his whiskey on-stage (this being a Lexington audience, someone quickly brought him some a few cups of bourbon, which may have been a mistake). In any case, the band sounded great for most of the set- with their own set of intimidating amplifiers on stage to complement Buster’s sound system, the band built up a powerful wall of distorted sound around Reid’s deadpan moan (which has begun to sound more and more like Lou Reed). The band held things together up until the encore, when Reid’s microphone came loose at the last time and he finally gave up, shrugging at the audience. In the battle between burning out and fading away, these guys seem to reside somewhere in the DMZ.