Concerts, Music

Concert Diaries – Portishead Live At Shrine Expo

Picture taken by Flickr user corboamnesiac

There’s this thing I’ve noticed about live shows. The music on the sound system before the show is due to begin has nothing in common with the musical sensibility or genre of the band you’ve come to listen to. Sometimes I get the feeling that sound engineers at concerts, much like quiz-masters and bloggers, are very concerned about broadcasting their taste to the audience at large. Like, hey, I know you guys’ve heard this band and shit, but you are going to like this band more, because I said so. At the James Blake concert, the DJ played a bunch of dance music, while the person operating the sound system at the Portishead concert day before yesterday seemed to have a reggae hangover. We stood around for about 55 minutes listening to a playlist that, in the immortal words of B Stinson, went heavy on the  “mm hm chaka mm hm chaka” bassline. Ah, who’s “we”, you ask? I happened to run into old pal Richard and his fiancee at the Shrine. Tuning out the reggaethon going on in the background, we spent much of those minutes catching up – by which I mean we talked nineteen to the dozen about comics, movies and TV shows. Good times.

I had gotten my tickets to the concert just a day ago, thanks to a Craigslist samaritan who wanted to sell her extra ticket for cover price. (Yes, weep with envy, people, CL-trolling does have its virtues) I did not even know there was an opening band, but as soon as the three-member group began to play, I was struck by the Indian/middle-eastern sound, the glissandos, in particular. Echoey, spaced-out guitars that transformed into wall-of-noise level sonic mayhem, wailing vocals-sans-words that reminded me of Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack. It was because of this overly-familiar air that I did not enjoy the band as much, just seemed a little too predictable for my taste. Turned out their name was Thought Forms, and sure enough, the band does have Indo-credentials – the lead guitarist is a lady named Deej Dhaliwal.

When Portishead finally took the stage, at 9:30 PM, we had been standing around for almost 2 hours. The band launched into ‘Silence’, from their third album, and over the next hour and a half, they systematically managed to reduce me to a gibbering wreck that would have uncomplainingly waited for 2 hours more. Yup, that good.

Beth Gibbons, onstage, was totally into it. She hardly spoke anything between songs, and uttered maybe two or three sentences in course of the show. She wasn’t there for the audience, she hardly acknowledged the applause and the cheering crowd. Everytime there was an instrumental solo, she would face away and sort of tense her body, like she was using the music to recharge her vocal chords. When she sang, she crinkled her eyes shut and shook her head from side to side, in time with the beat. Her voice, oh dear lord, her raw, unprocessed, haunting voice gave me goose-pimples. It was only at the end of the final song ‘We Carry On’, when the rest of the band went apeshit with their musical denouement, that Gibbons unwound visibly, stepping down from the stage and reaching out to fans in the front row.

As a band, Portishead is fucking flawless. Not a single note strayed from the recorded version. Even the scratching was perfect. To me, this was a bit of a disappointment – a live show is meant to be about improvisation and reinterpretation just as much as about fidelity. However, a lot of the experience was enhanced by the video wall at the back, where swirling shapes and abstract patterns merged with a live video feed of the band’s performance. This was not just generic concert shots, this was footage taken from different stationary cameras placed strategically on the stage, spliced together and overlaid with filters. This resulted in strange and somewhat disconcerting visual effects – like a shot of the bass drum pedal dissolving to bassist Jim Barr’s fingers on the frets, overlaid with face-melting shots of Gibbons’ singing. Digital video is the future, people, it seems to have rendered recreational hallucinatory drugs redundant.

The set-list was a ‘best-of’ mix from all the three albums and also included the new single ‘Chase the Tear’. Seemed like the only two songs where the video was replaced by generic concert lights were ‘Glory Box’ and ‘Sour Times’, the most well-known of the band’s discography. My personal high-point was the track ‘Machine Gun’. The song is all staccato beat and aggression, and Gibbons’ voice possesses an ethereal wispiness that counterbalances that aggression, especially with a reedy, multi-tracked wail that percolates in the background. It builds up to an anthemic synth lead solo, which they totally totally nailed live.

A few words about the Shrine Expo center, the venue of the concert. Apparently it’s next to the Shrine auditorium, which was a Grammy and Oscar venue in the 80s and 90s, before the newly designed Nokia and Staples centers took over. Before that, the auditorium was also a temple devoted to a Freemasonry spin-off body called the Shriners, short for The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. As I slumped in my seat in the bus back home, gaping at the Wikipedia link, it crossed my mind that there was an Alan Moore story hidden somewhere in the history of that auditorium, waiting to be released. But it was past midnight, and I safely put that thought to rest.

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Concerts, Music, Myself

Concert Diaries: James Blake, Live At The Music Box

One of the happiest aspects of moving to LA has been this – anytime I listen to a new artiste, or even an old favorite, I go to the corresponding last.fm page and look at their scheduled appearances. In nearly all cases, the artiste is scheduled to perform in this city. Maybe it’s just my choice of musicians, but the ones I’ve been to in the recent past have performed in small, intimate locations – the Wiltern, the Greek Theater, The Music Box. The last I went to was James Blake, last Monday. I had a great time.

Blake makes my kind of music. The kind that refuses to let me parallel-process as I listen to it. Moody, atmospheric synth-collages dance around his voice, which itself is auto-tuned, flange-layered, digitally masticated beyond recognition. Hearing his self-titled album for the first time was a sort of quasi-religious experience. I remember sitting in a corner that night with my earphones, my eyes closed, trying to take in every nuance of ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ as it played over and over. That particular song touched a raw nerve – a plaintive five-line refrain that whispered and stormed, echoed and warbled, as the world changed around it. I had associated Blake’s style with that of a solo music-smith’s digital experiments, that would lose its potency live. Sometimes, the mystery behind the curtain – the smoke, the mirrors – is necessary to accentuate the musicmanship. Intrigued by the idea of a live performance, I went looking for his videos online. And was blown away a second time.

As a venue, the Music Box falls into the mid-sized category, perfect for someone like Blake. I got there early – not a bad thing at all, as when the doors opened at 8, I headed straight to the front of the floor and stayed put. For what seemed like hours and hours, groan. Teengirl Fantasy took the stage at exactly 9 PM, and played a set that blew ears, minds and expectations. I had never heard of them before, but whew, their sound-cloud offering does not get a fraction of the vibe of their live set, where thumping bass loops mesh with otherworldly sounds.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/users/1448452″]

You knew Blake was coming onstage when the stage lights turned blue. (No, seriously. That’s the predominant color on his album cover. I was expecting that, yeah) Right from the opening song – ‘Unluck’, the first track on his album – Blake and his musical cohorts on drums and sampler/guitar seemed to bend the rules of sound and light that night, playing to an appreciative audience that cheered and woo-hoo-ed at every opportunity. Weirdly enough, there were cheers even mid-song, forcing Blake to break character and smile impishly, in the middle of some particularly soulful passages.

Random observations about the show:

  • The way the singer’s voice shattered my assumptions. It surprised me to see just how much of Blake’s voice is really his voice, not electronically manipulated or enhanced – especially in songs like ‘Give Me My Month’, where it’s just him and the piano. He is a tremendously gifted singer, and it was awe-inspiring to see how the vocal calisthenics that appeared studio-tweaked were just raw talent.
  • I liked the way Ben Assiter used both a drum machine and an acoustic drum-kit, sometimes simultaneously. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but I am obsessed with sounds, and this is what I mean by a peek at the bones of a song – the realization, for example, that the sound of the hi-hat on Blake’s cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to your Love’ is really a hi-hat.
  • ‘I Never Learned To Share’ and ‘Lindisfarne’, two songs where Blake actually sequences and layers his voice, gave me goosebumps.
  • The new songs they played, one to close the show, the other in the encore, sounded more upbeat, much unlike Blake’s usual style, making for a concert where the melancholy, sparse melodies were punctuated with very peppy, head-bopping sequences.  And it also makes me happy to know that Blake is not sticking to the style that has worked for him, and is trying out different things. It’s also made me fairly sure that I am going to see this guy the next time he performs in LA.
  • The throbbing bass, oh dear god, especially on the encore track ‘Anti-War Dub’ and ‘Limit to your Love’. Think about the deepest, most gut-rattling growl of a subsonic frequency you’ve ever heard, and you’ll probably understand. Maybe.
  • Blake introduced drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist Rob McAndrews as his high-school friends, who have been accompanying him since the very beginning of his career. That made me smile.
  • My favorite Blake song, in case you haven’t figured it out already, is ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. It was the last song (pre-encore), just like I had expected, but maybe because I had already you-tubed it, the song did not have the level of spontaneity to it as the others. Perhaps that is not so surprising after all, considering how much these guys must have played the track live.
  • This did not however prevent me from recording the song myself, on the phone.

Note: the pictures were taken off the iPhone, please excuse the poor quality.
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