Birds of a feather
If Nashville songstress Tristen was proud to ready the stage for an outfit as cultivated as Bowerbirds at Exit/In Tuesday night, by the time the night was through the North Carolina trio were likely glad to have such a worthy opener. Both acts carry in their respective sounds a heavy dose of bright-eyed youthfulness that's both a reflection of the music they make—one a sweet-natured offshoot of girl-punk meets pop country, the other dealing in lush autumnal acoustics—and the relatively short time they've been writing that music. At times, Tristen may have come across a bit stiff, but her neatly counteracted vocal harmonies with backup guitarist/cellist Larissa Maestro, and basic knack for quaint yet durable song structure, lent every rosy hook the vibrance it needed. Whatever the reason for the band's slightly rigid performance, it can hardly be pinned on lack of talent. If anything, it could be forgiven for the joint-creaking cold that had settled into the venue. Most of it was broken by the time their second song, "Baby Drugs," was under way, though, and the stage had even a semblance of warmth by the time Tristen closed with her signature ballad, "Matchstick Murder."
Coming off their latest record, Upper Air, easily one of the year's most solid contributions to indie folk, Bowerbirds had more than a handful of amazing songs to share. But whatever anticipation the modest crowd might have had for those fresh tunes was delayed a bit, as lead songwriter Phil Moore opened by leading the band through a trio of tracks from their debut Hymns for a Dark Horse. "My Oldest Memory" or "The Ticonderoga" may have an inert beauty to their crisp fingerpicking and some soft accordion pumps from Beth Tacular, but the difference was palpable when the set list turned toward more recent favorites like "Northern Lights" or "Teeth." Even so, the bald-faced production qualities found on Upper Air seemed absent from their live performance, softening the stark heartache of Moore's cryptic lyrics and brisk guitar strokes into something a tad too easily absorbed. Maybe the vocals weren't quite leveled off correctly to match drummer Matt Damron's thudding three-piece, or Moore's closely mic'ed guitar drowned out some of the songs' subtleties. Despite all of that, though, the sheer emotional honesty of the Bowerbirds was not entirely lost, making for one memorable show.
Fifth Avenue freeze-out
The Spin can now confirm definitively: Bruce Springsteen is real. We know. We touched him. Five songs into Wednesday night's monster performance at the Sommet Center (where he last appeared a mere 15 months ago), as he crowd-surfed over our heads during the organ solo to "Hungry Heart," it was clear that his determination to outdo any other performer in rock is still unwavering. Now more than 35 years into their performing career, Bruce and the E Street Band can still pull out a relentless three-hour marathon of take-no-prisoners enforcement that—at least from an audience perspective—is still the most exhausting and exhilarating in rock 'n' roll.
The Sommet Center, at least as far as we know, is not currently slated for demolition. That didn't stop Springsteen and his "heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-shaking, booty-quaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, le-gen-dary" E Street Band from taking their wrecking ball to the stage and turning in yet another Middle Tennessee show people are likely to talk about for years to come.
After an opening run of songs that included his cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped" and the title track from his latest offering Working on a Dream—the album's only song of the night—it was time for the show's centerpiece: a start-to-finish performance of his landmark Born to Run. It is a big record, in both sound and scope, and its grandeur was only heightened in the live setting. We stood transfixed as we watched the 60-year-old Springsteen belt out show-stoppers like "Backstreets" with the same amount of passion and purpose as the 25-year-old Springsteen who wrote them. As if not a day had passed since the record's conception, the Boss and his E Street cohorts gracefully and handily recaptured the range of emotions that transpire through gems like "Thunder Road," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the title track, and ultimately the epic to end all epics: "Jungleland." Seeing this done before our very eyes is something we'll never forget.
After the emotionally draining performance of Born to Run, Springsteen thought it best to lighten things up a little, which he did with a run of poppy fan requests that included his rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"—a little more appropriate this time of year than it was at Bonnaroo last June—and "Darlington County," during which a chorus line of pink cowboy hat-wearing cougars bum-rushed the stage, inspiring an audible for The River's savage rocker "You Can Look but You Better Not Touch."
Apropos of Nashville, Springsteen started off a long run of encores by pulling a request sign for "Ring of Fire"—a song he claimed the band has never before played. What followed was a ramshackle full-band sing-along that was far more spirited than it was tight, but what other rock 'n' roll band are you ever going to see attempt such a thing in front of 14,000 people? Among other highlights were ever-reliable live staples like "Badlands," "The Rising," "Dancing in the Dark" and "Rosalita." Springsteen delivered each with all his classic hijinks—from knee-drops to guitar-throws and windmills—while E Streeters Max Weinberg, Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and former Nashvillian Garry W. Tallent propelled him into the sonic stratosphere. While it has not been officially announced, word on E Street is that this tour, which ends on Sunday, is the last for the classic lineup of the band. The sense of finality was not lost on the crowd—a mix of traveling tramps, graying boomers and recent converts—as Springsteen declared near show's end: "You've just seen the last of, for a little while...the E Street Band." We can only hope that the end has yet to come as this was more than just a concert, it was a joyous celebration of life in the face of all the fears and hardships that make it tough.
The friendly Goats
We arrived at Mercy Lounge for the Mountain Goats show early enough Friday night to catch most of the first band—if it weren't for the line that awaited us as we strolled up the Cannery Row parking lot. The line wasn't nearly as epic as the queue for the Protomen release show a couple months back, but it did stretch as far as the chain-link fence. We kept ourselves busy by counting how many people uttered a variation of "It's sold out? Fuck!" before skulking back to their cars, clearly pissed that they blew $3 on parking for a show they couldn't get into. (Eight, not including the hangers-on hoping for a spare ticket to fall from the sky.)
As far as we're concerned, the show really started with Final Fantasy, the alter ego of Owen Pallett. With nothing more than a violin and a loop pedal, Pallett creates incredibly intricate soundscapes composed from bits and pieces of violins and keyboards that sound like they're being played by a much larger band. We've given loop pedal users a lot of shit in the past, maybe justifiably, for being pretentious prog rock douchebags, but Pallett's use of looping was honestly mesmerizing. We didn't go into this show knowing much about Final Fantasy, but we were impressed. Really impressed. The keyboard programmed with his own voice was weird, but we'll let that slide.
After Final Fantasy, we turned our attention to that favorite pastime of rock dorks, "guess the setlist." Would the Mountain Goats bust out some old school lo-fi classics like "Evening In Stalingrad" or "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton"? (No.) Would it be too on the nose to play "Going to Tennessee"? (Yes.) Or too topical, with the release of that Twilight movie, to do a song with a vampire metaphor in it ("Alpha Rats Nest")? (Yes.)
John Darnielle and the rest of the Mountain Goats came onstage at around 11:15, greeted us with "Long time, no see, Nashville" (they last played here in 2004 at Exit/In) and kicked the set off with "1 Samuel 15:23," the first of eight tracks they would play off their latest, The Life of the World to Come. There was a time when we'd have shied away from a band churching it up and borderline preaching onstage. But something about Darnielle's earnestness makes his singing about Jesus come off with convincing sincerity. The fact that he provided a counterpoint to "Romans 10:9" with "Cotton," a song that, as Darnielle pointed out, runs directly opposite the message of "If you believe with your heart and you confess with your lips, then you will be saved," reassured us that we hadn't stumbled into a Christian rock show masquerading as indie folk. We've got to give the man a lot of credit for putting conflicting ideas out there and telling us to deal with it.
We have to say that we were surprised at how charismatic and funny Darnielle was. This is a guy who, to paraphrase, "kinda enjoys and specializes in uncomfortable disclosure," so we expected him to be quiet and brooding. We were completely and utterly wrong. He joked about obscure video games, and not once did he lose the intimacy of the moment, even as his voice was starting to fail him toward the end of the set. As cheesy as it may sound, there were times where it seemed less like he was singing to us, and more like he was singing with us. When the band started in on "No Children" to close the show, Darnielle let the crowd take over and, for a moment, a sad song about the collapse of a marriage became a couple hundred people's fondest recent memory.
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