29 August 2008

Judas Priest/Heaven and Hell/Motorhead/Testament @ Cricket Wireless Pavilion 8/28/2008

The Metal Masters tour. An audacious name for a concert tour. Matched by a star-studded lineup of some of the biggest names in metal from the 70's and 80's. But would the bands be up to the par indicated by that audacious tour name? I wondered that even as I stepped into the venue. But as I found my way to my seat, I found myself thrilled that I would be evaluating the validity of the tour's name in a prime seat, that would have cost over $130 if I had paid for it (a factor I felt important in determining the strength of the experience).

Testament was first in the lineup, and were quick to remind the audience of their dominant role in the late 80's thrash scene with a few older hits which left no doubt as to why they were standouts back then. Interspersed with older hits were a few tracks from the new album, but only a couple, which is no surprise given the band only played for half an hour. Unfortunately, despite the energy put in by the band, the performance never really clicked with the audience. Doubtless, this is in part due to the lack of an audience presence when they came on (probably less than 1/3 full), and due to the fabulous Arizona heat beating down so intently on those of us there that it was impossible to do more than sit and enjoy the music. So with these factors in mind, Testament did not perform as I was hoping such a Thrash legend would, but given their role as an opener, they were more or less successful in getting the crowd excited for what was to come.

Motorhead was next up, and I was a bit anxious about this performance, as the last time I had seen them was about eight years ago, and I had fond memories of it, but I had read that on this tour they were more or less an incoherent wall of noise. Perhaps my saving grace was the earplugs I was wearing, the band was certainly mind-bogglingly loud, but I quite enjoyed the performance, and the performance was not bogged down in a wall of incoherency. The fact of the matter is that Lemmy is god, and so I was relieved to see that such a god is able to maintain his performance standards over the decades. One of the highlights of this performance was the out-of-nowhere drum solo that came in the middle of a song and was surprisingly quite decent, and then the solo flowed well back into the close of the song, it was well-practiced and very entertaining. The band was also very good at extending and enhancing their songs live, adding dimensions not present on their albums. Additionally, a few rows in front of me were the cutest father/son grouping. Both going wild and singing along to every song. It's good some parents raise their children on good music.

Heaven and Hell I knew would be somewhat of a disappointment going in. As awesome as Dio is, there are just some Black Sabbath songs you really want to see when you see Black Sabbath, whether or not Ozzy is singing. No War Pigs was in fact the biggest disappointment, though I knew it coming in. That being said, I also confess an embarassing unfamiliarity with the Dio-era Sabbath material. I would say I only recognized about half of the song played during their set. But the set itself was great, whether or not I knew the songs. However, for all the elaborate stage setup, little was used in the performance (a combustible metal flame and gas-breathing gargoyles were among the stage props tested prior to the performance which never made an appearance in the show). All the same, the general environment set up on the stage defined a remakably evil setting which may not have enhanced the music, but it did look pretty awesome. These guys were also great with the live performance of their songs, as those songs I did know came off much better live, and I left inspired to dig into Dio-era Sabbath.

Judas Priest I had the highest expectations for. Not only were they the headliners, but they're big enough that even non-metalheads know of them (the same can be true of Sabbath, but Sabbath wasn't really on tour). Despite the high expectations I was pretty blown away. From the constantly changing backdrops (reflecting the album of origin for the song being played), to the extended live versions with a few extra guitar solos, to the motorcycle on stage, it was really all anyone could want in a Judas Priest concert. The set list was also great. A few tracks from their latest album, but I like for the most part I was listening to a "best of" Judas Priest compilation. As this was my first time seeing them live, I was more than content with such a playlist, in fact I was more or less thrilled to hear most of my favorite songs in one set. I think their decision to end the normal set with Painkiller was a bad one though, it would have been a better encore piece.

But at the end of the day, was this really a showcase of metal masters? Well, all the bands on this tour have certainly paid their dues, and the performances ranged from solid to outstanding, so rest assured their mastery was prevalent and clear, but was it a $130 worth mastery? Well, that depends on the size of your pocketbook.

03 August 2008

Pitchfork Fest Diary 2008

This past July 19th-21st weekend, COTMA correspondent Owen Marshall was in Chicago to
witness the 2008 installation of the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park. Here is his non-comprehensive and ill-informed account.

Saturday, July 19, 2008:

It was a short but noisy stroll from the Travelodge to the L stop. Someone was apparently grinding down some old rusty metal in the scaffolding above. We haven't even got on the train yet and I'm already reconsidering my decision to not bring earplugs. With two recent Dark Knight viewings under my belt, I was geeking out at the real-life rusty track girders and the old brick buildings set against those shiny black skyscrapers. I hid my nerdy southwestern provincial urge to gawk at buildings more than 80 years old. The plan was to arrive in time to hear the Fleet Foxes' vocal harmonies collide with the beginning of Dizzee Rascal's set. So far so good.

I was just starting to wonder whether we were heading in the right direction when, two stops down the way, the doors opened and let in a SEA of indie kids. It was a sight to behold. In mere moments the average train demographic became about 5 years younger, 75% whiter, and 200% beardeder. The expressions of the non festival-goers on the train confirmed my hunch that this was an unusual occurrence.

Am I the only one who is surprised at how muscular Dizzee Rascal is? My impression of the world's most famous Grime representative's physiology has always been more Flava Flav than 50 Cent but I stand corrected. His set was impressive, summoning "Oi!"s from the crowd and more than doing justice to hits like "Fix Up Look Sharp" and "Jezebel".

New Zealand duo the Ruby Suns took to the Balance stage in the tree shaded far corner of the park. Their orchestration consisted mostly of bass, electronics, and spirited drumming from frontman Ryan McPhun. Their tropical and spacy sound set a tone that would continue to resonate through the fest in likeminded acts such as High Places.

I really wanted to like Elf Power. Their Elephant Six credentials and long history should have produced something more than what they brought to the lineup: competent but unremarkable rock music. Sorry guys, I like your name though.

After grabbing some expensive and watery veggie curry and some expensive but tasty Goose Island beer. We made our way back to the Balance stage (already becoming a favorite area of the park) to see some Kenyan tropical funk...

Extra Golden
was one of a couple World Musicky offerings at the fest. They brought African style jams with their large and lively band.

Animal Collective ended the day with a short but hypnotic set. New songs and drastic reworkings of older material mingled well with the familiar samples and melodies of "Fireworks" and even a brief foray into Panda Bear's "Comfy in Nautica". Their custom light and speaker setup pulsed pleasingly and when it abruptly ended at just short of 10PM people were still itching for more. Third time seeing AC live and seeing Geologist's headlamp flail around still brings a smile to my face.

After AC left the stage it was like a nightmarish reenactment of the day's earlier train event with thousands of people crowding the train platform. We took a cab.

Sunday, July 20, 2008:

Brooklyn experimentalists Dirty Projectors started the second day off with a perfect performance of their meticulously composed Black Flag tributes (as well as some older originals). Despite their vocals going out midset and their unenviable sun-facing stage position, the three part harmonies and elegant guitar arrangements impressed the heat-stroked crowd. This guy next to me was scribbling in his notebook about how the drummer wasn't very good but I adamantly disagree! The persistent drumbeat throughout "Rise Above" was the best I heard all festival.

Across the way from the Dirty Projectors, the Awesome heaviness of Boris was unfolding. Guitarist Wata's orange amp stack and the drummer's flourescent kit belied the dark awesomeness of their riffs and howls. The drummer's head-mounted microphone was also a nice touch.

After a couple hot and sunny hours at the two main stages, we decided to sit under tree by the balance stage take in the sweet sounds of High Places and HEALTH. The former brought some sample based jungle pop with plain but pretty female vocals. The latter brought scary LA noise with brutal tribal drumming. Having seen HEALTH in the confined industrial storefront of Phoenix's Trunkspace, it was refreshing to hear their din spilling out into a sun-dappled picnic atmosphere. It was nice to see that there are hundreds of people who are willing to listen to screeching feedback while sitting on blankets in a park.

The fest had a series of tents where concert poster designers were displaying their work. Next to that was a shuffleboard sponsored by Saucony shoes. I have to say, as someone who wears Sauconys, it was freaking weird to see EVERYONE wearing them. Is Chicago the Saucony capital of the world or something? On more than one occasion I was standing in line and noticed that two people around me were wearing Jazz originals. Yet another instance of the message I was receiving during the whole fest: "you are not as unique as you thought you were". That was, until I saw this t-shirt:

Which brings us to the musical highlight of the fest. The Dodos totally killed it with their tight set of kinetic folk rock. The inclusion of a third member on the xylophone did alot to expand the original palette of guitar, drums and vocals. Guitarist Meric Long's chair actually broke mid-song and he fell on his back... still playing. The drummer was crazy as usual courageously facing the sun sunglassesless with a fuzzy mustache on his face and a tambourine taped to his foot. The looped trombone interlude that preceded "Fools" was especially interesting and demonstrative of the bands talent for instrumentation. After their set, the crowd was filled with much warranted buzz over what may be remembered as the bands breakout performance.

That's all. Check back for next year's installation: maybe I'll even get press credentials next time.