Tag Archives: Pearl Jam

You say Arena; I say Urina.

A few weeks ago, due to a series of mistakes by both Delta Airlines and myself, I found myself sitting in first class, sipping on a complementary vodka Red Bull, listening to The Walkmen’s “Lisbon” and stretching my lanky legs to their limit without fear of kicking or bumping a nearby passenger.  For the first time ever, I was enjoying a cross-country flight.  As I motioned the waitress for my 4th complementary drink, I thought to myself, “I’ll never be able to sit in coach again.”

Of course, I will; for the rest of my life as a matter of fact due to my lack of funds. But just like other facets in my life, the finer things have tainted my opinion of the commonplace.  Why eat a Pink Lady when you can have a Honey Crisp? Why drink a Bud Light when you can have a Dale’s Pale Ale? Why feast on a corn-fed flank steak when you can have a grain-fed t-bone? I refuse to sit in the upper deck at Spurs games after my unforgettable experiences in the lower deck, including the time I sat behind the team’s bench and witnessed David Robinson’s final game (oh, and did I mention they won their second championship that night?).  Not only do I prefer the up close and personal experience over viewing the game from 100 feet away, but the people down below seem more passionate, and dare I say, more knowledgeable of the game.

I’m the same way when it comes to live musical performances, although it’s actually much cheaper to see a band up close in an intimate venue rather than the sterile arena setting.  On average, people pay much more to sit in uncomfortable plastic seats located far, far away from performers  than they’d ever have to dish out at a local venue.

I hold this same sentiment toward outdoor music festivals. Last weekend the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival took place, and like every other year, people who know me as a lover of live music always ask me if I’m going. Back in 2004 I attended the festival, and I haven’t been back since. The experience wasn’t all bad; I did get so see artists like Cat Power, Broken Social Scene, and The Pixies, but I just can’t find enjoyment in the disconnect felt between the artist and the audience.  The bands perform miles away on a double barricaded, bouncer infested monstrosity of a stage.  Frank Black and the rest of The Pixies actually resembled pixies from my vantage point.

I'm pretty sure Kim Deal sat out and let Tinkerbell play the set.

The mixture of people milling around ACL didn’t make the experience much better – a mish-mash of hippies, yuppies, and families with babies in tow (it’s never too early to introduce your child to pot smoke and loud music!).  I have friends who find ACL to be a yearly highlight, but it’s just not my thing.  I’d rather see bands up close in venues with character, surrounded by like-minded patrons who are there for the music and not just an excuse to break out their tie-dye shirt.  If a Sam’s Club style bulk performance weekend is the reason you enjoy festivals like ACL, the South By Southwest Music Festival offers more bands (over 2000 in fact) and the majority of the performances take place in the cozy bars that line 6th Street.

You can go to this:

Or go to this:

In the smaller venue, the “arena detachment syndrome” disappears, and memories are made: Man Man giving the audiences instruments during the set, Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington nuzzling both me and my friend’s beards mid-set,  The Very Best inviting the entire crowd onto the stage, Death From Above 1979’s Sebastian Grainger jumping off his drum set and bull rushing the crowd with microphone in hand. This is what live performance is all about. While arena shows have their pre-planned skits, laser lights, movie screens, and choreography, the primal unpredictability of rock and roll still breathes in the smoky bars across this country.

If Lady GaGa really wants to be unpredictable she can take a cue from Tim Harrington and accost her "lil monsters" on stage.

The last real “arena” show I attended was Pearl Jam way back in 2003 at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (just a hint: if you are seeing a show at a venue that is named after a corporate entity, the show will invariably stink).  Sleater Kinney opened for Pearl Jam, and they sounded great from row 83.  And that’s about all I can say: they sounded good. I wasn’t overtaken by the music, nor did I feel a connection with the ladies giving it their all on the enormous, barren stage.  There was such a wide fissure between the band and I that mid-way through the set I got up to grab some nachos and take a pee.  It’s not like I was missing much – I could always listen to their CD when I got home.

Fast forward two years: my friend PtheStudP and I were standing five feet away from the ladies of Sleater Kinney, doused in sweat and battling with the sea of lesbians that pogo-ed around us.  Sleater Kinney were tearing it up, sending the audience into a frenzy, all yearning in unison for more and more of Carrie Brownstein’s devisive guitar angst and Corin Tucker’s haunting howl that reverberated throughout the legendary SoKol Underground in Omaha, Nebraska.

After six songs, my friend informed me that he had to go to the restroom, an issue I had been dealing with myself.  Unlike my easy submission to nachos at the Pearl Jam show, I wouldn’t give in this time. We would tough it out. Two songs later, on the verge of peeing my pants, a decision had to be made. And here in lies the difference between an arena show and a small venue: at the Pearl Jam show I urinated in a urinal as the show went on; at the SoKol Underground my friend and I both pissed into beer bottles that soon after found themselves on the cement floor.  I can guarantee you’ll never see that level of commitment at an arena show.

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Mastodon “Crack the Skye”

Mastodon
Crack the Skye
(Reprise: 2009)

8.5

I confess: Mastodon had lost me.  I mean, those dudes were wanking themselves completely off their fucken rockers.  The first thing that turned me off was all these dooshes started loving them (bound to happen when a band hits the big time, and I am stupid for holding that against them).  But then my buddy told me how he saw them live and they all had like 30 guitars and roadies tuning them (and doing everything else) for the band (huge turnoff for a DIY kinda guy).  The big deal breaker was reading that James Hetfield came up to Mastodon guitarist Brett Hinds, telling him he wanted to “pass the metal torch on to you guys.”  James, you pretentious fuck.  First off, there is no torch that goes to the best metal band passed on by the last best metal band.  And if there were a said torch, Metallica would not have had it in its possession for at least twenty years.  Mastodon acting like that was a compliment pissed me off.

Then I heard about the new LP: a concept album about some paraplegic who flies too close to the sun, causing him to go through a wormhole where his spirit goes into Rasputin’s body to warn him of his planned assassination.  Okay… I could handle Remission’s theme of nuclear holocaust and the drummer’s dream of the burning horses, Leviathan’s “Moby Dick” bent, even Blood Mountain’s stories of climbing mountains only to find blood thirsty ogres (and more challenges) at the top.  But this was way too much, if I wanted such progtastic themed wanky meanderings I have plenty of Magma, Yes or Genesis albums to put the needle to (in fact, the theme almost sounded like a rip off of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway).  After a couple of quick listens to parts of the album, I realized I didn’t need it from my once favorite metal-core band (I even heard keyboards!).  AND TO TOP IT OFF: gone were the throaty primal grunt growl scream vocals of past albums.  The boys were now singing, even harmonizing with each other (obviously, I thought, this was what happens when the band brought Brendan O’Brien, who’s done work for Pearljam and Springsteen, in to produce).  My NU-Metal radar was going off like crazy, and I could see that Mastodon were going the way of the heroes, Metallica, and were no longer relevant but completely over-dooshified.

So, last week I almost didn’t go see Mastodon even though they were playing like 5 minutes from my apartment (in fact if Baroness would not have been on the bill I probably wouldn’t have gone).  Would that ever have been a mistake: the boys are so fucken technically and the songs from Crack the Skye so compositionally sick that the show was altogether mind blowing.  After about twenty minutes of them playing Crack the Skye track by track, I forgave them for everything (even the somewhat harmonious vocals).  I began to see it: Brett Hinds’ confined hospital stay led to the astral traveling theme of the album (kind of like a Brian Eno or Robert Wyatt story).  I imagined him in a hospital bed, his only mode of travel psychic (I may be pushing this way too far, but it’s probably appropriate for such a far out album).

Crack the Skye’s seven songs clock in at just over 50 minutes, but I am lost in the maze, never do I check to see how much time is left. The proggy/jazzy time signatures (For the RIYL guys, it’s like King Crimson attempting to be Iron Maiden) have me changing my headbanging routine like every thirty seconds and the riffs crescendo and fall like the Andes Mountains.   Mastodon can be as indulgent and poppy as they want, as long as the riffs keep my fist pumping and my world turned upside down, which they are able to do for most of the album.  Although, I do find myself at times wishing for the harder hitting, death metal screaming band of yore, this is a more than welcome reprise.  And 50 minutes for me to contemplate on what conceptual them the guys will think of next.

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Pearl Jam “Backspacer”

Pearl Jam
“Backspacer”
Monkeywrench Records

Rating: 5.5

The cover to Pearl Jam’s latest album “Backspacer” is reminiscent of their 1996 release “No Code” with its collage of random images.  The big difference of course is that “No Code” featured blurry photographs while the new release displays well defined comic style drawings. The same comparison can be made about the music on the two albums.  The band that once blurred the lines of style and genre have transformed into a distinct, predictable caricature of their former selves. 

On “Vitalogy” and “No Code”, Eddie Vedder became the godhead of the group, writing the majority of the songs and taking their sound into more experimental territories.  After “No Code”, the band almost had a falling out, and Eddie realized he needed to pull back and let the whole group take part in the creative process. Their collaborative approach, beautifully captured on the documentary “Single Video Theory”, resulted in one of their finest albums to date, “Yield”.   From that point forward, the songwriting continued to be equal opportunity. Unfortunately, the process that once worked so well didn’t yield the same results on mediocre releases like “Riot Act” and “Binaural”.

That’s where we sit today with “Backspacer”, a collection of milk-toast songs with little, to no attempt to push the boundaries of their sound.  Instead we get arena rock anthems with paint by numbers guitar hooks that sound contrived and forced.  But maybe that’s the type of music they need at this juncture in their career where filling arenas takes precedence over filling their albums with sincerity and soul.  The majority of the songs on “Backspacer” would fit nicely on a concert playlist, while you’ll never hear a concert performance of such arty classics as “Bugs” and “Push Me, Pull Me”.  (I could be wrong on this point, although I doubt anyone wants to take the time to scour the collection of over 200 concert albums to prove it). 

 There are a few highlights on “Backspacer”, and they just so happen to be the songs solely written by Eddie himself.  “Unthought Known” is the pick of the litter while “Just Breathe” and “The End” sound like they were written alongside his work for the “Into the Wild” soundtrack. But even these diamonds in the rough seem a bit too produced. What made his solo work so great on “Into the Wild” was the barebones approach, no string section necessary, which are relied upon heavily in both songs.  Still, any overproduced Vedder song trumps a Jeff Ament song any day.  

 Eddie should be commended for sacrificing the self for the whole, the five against one approach, but writing music for “Into the Wild” may have been a bit of a blunder because it illuminated how much the band is holding Vedder back.

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