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Tuesday, May 26, 2009 

Don't go home with your hard-on

(or, a tale of three concerts)

Last week was extremely busy - three fairly major concerts, the (beautiful) wedding of two dear friends, as well as music for that wedding and a bachelor party, and more old friends visited/visiting than I could shake a very fortunate stick at. This is about the concerts, though.

you've got so much inside, let it come right out

Live, Animal Collective were disappointing; this was 60-70% not their fault (I had never been to the Sound Academy in Toronto before, and if I have my way I never will again), but aside from the horrible sightlines and overdriven sound of the venue, I still wasn't impressed. The first twenty minutes or so was good - the extremely cut-up vocals on the verses of "Lion in a Coma" was a brave choice (and, given how clear the refrain was, a deliberate one), I thought, even if it rendered the song incoherent (but thrillingly so!). They opened with "Chocolate Girl," which was awesome.

But then they played "My Girls." This is a song where pretty much the whole fucking point is the bit where he sings "for my girls (whooooo!)" and the beat comes in. The beat never came in. For a show that was otherwise garishly loud (and not lacking in bottom end or percussive sounds), to have this song neutered like that, not to mention stretched out into what felt like an endless, dry-humping eternity (instead actually, you know, getting to the fucking) was kind of insulting. That they then followed it up by what felt like a dense, lengthy chunk of instrumental/abstract stuff, where they kept playing the intros to good songs ("Banshee Beat"! "In the Flowers"!) before segueing into worse/boring tracks instead - I was ready to go. What really sealed the deal was their last song, a full-blooded "Brother Sport" that was even better than those first twenty minutes and made clear that when operating at full power Animal Collective are pretty fucking special live. We didn't stay for the encore, and although we may have missed "Summertime Clothes" or whatever, we also missed the hours-long wait to get out of the parking lot.

To be clear, I have no problem with a band like Animal Collective playing some sort of avant garde/noise/obscure show, but they never committed to it; they kept flirting with things the huge crowd wanted to hear, but reverting to things that we were less into. Also, on the evidence of "Brother Sport" especially, they make a better pop band than an art one.

and here's a man still working for your smile

An Evening With Leonard Cohen, however... in at least one sense it might have been the best concert I've ever seen. 3 1/2 hours with someone I don't hesitate to call a living legend, 25 songs (the list will be in the comments, if you're a curious fan), a crack band, beautifully chosen and deployed backing vocalists (always one of Cohen's strengths), a gracious, generous, and joyful stage presence from Cohen.... the only real complaint you could have is that the crowd was too enthusiastic, frequently being overly loud when Cohen was introducing people or trying to have a Moment. The only spoken word was a spellbinding version of "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (still one of my favourites) and although he (sigh) didn't play anything off of Death of a Ladies' Man or anything but "Famous Blue Raincoat" off of Songs of Love and Hate, he did play pretty much every song you could expect to hear at this sort of show (and a few you might not have, unless you're a bigger fan of "The Partisan" than I am).

Words cannot express how sublime Cohen's voice and present were in person, even at the back of Copps Coliseum (great sightlines too); during his best material, like "The Future" and "Everybody Knows," Cohen seemed to be everlasting and omniscient, God manifest in the grinning flesh, kinder and surer of purpose than we deserved. And given how bloody and cynical those songs are you might think I'm being sarcastic, but no - to hear Cohen put flesh on those bones was among the best concert experiences I have ever heard in my life. Sentimental favourite song: "Take This Waltz," which I wrote about but which more importantly was warm and heartbroken and alive in a way the recorded version just isn't. Along with Neil Young, Leonard Cohen was someone I wanted to make sure I saw while they were still working and still in full command of their powers - now I just pity everyone who hasn't.

what makes you think I'd enjoy being left to the flood?

But the National had something Cohen didn't - the shock of the new. I'd seen them three times before, twice in clubs and once opening for R.E.M., and they'd become one of my favourite live bands. Some of their recent songs (especially "Abel" and "Squalor Victoria," which seems to be when their shows go from good to amazing and don't look back) are so much better live than in their excellent recorded versions that I wish they'd make a live album already.

Last Thursday wasn't any worse than any other show of theirs, but after a six-month live layoff, Toronto was treated to their first show back and (if YouTube can be trusted) the first airing of three new songs. "Vanderlylle Crybaby" was definitely my favourite and one that instantly vaults into my top tier of National songs (I've been playing that video on repeat a lot). "Blood Buzz Ohio," which I can't find a video of, was rockier than the other two and quite good as well, although it's naturally the one I have the dimmest memory of. "Runaway" (aka "Karamazov" aka whatever they settle on), which they also played on CBC's Q, was nearly at the level of "Vanderlylle Crybaby" for me. It was a great show.

But you know what, they seemed a little unhinged. Maybe a bit out of practice, but I've never seen Matt Berninger (great, great vocalist/frontman) lose his shit so completely on "Mr. November" (to the point of basically not singing the chorus because he's busy screaming), and a mic stand was (unintentionally?) flipped into the crowd with nary a backward glance (it broke, and Berninger gave the pieces to people standing there). No-one was seriously hurt and so the whole thing just gave the night a certain frisson, but they do seem like a band that's surprisingly on-edge live, so I hope all is well for them. But that combined with three new songs that make the next National album the most anticipated thing in my next year or so made for a pretty amazing night.

"Start a War" is still an amazing opener, and this is the second time they've pulled out the devastating "About Today" from the Cherry Tree EP in the encore. However, this is the fourth time they've done another particular thing I'm less fond of. There are two songs pretty explicitly about drinking on Alligator: "All the Wine" and "Lit Up." The former is perfectly fine, but the latter is one of my favourite National songs. Four times now, they've played the former and not the latter in Toronto. I know it's partly chance, but come on! It's not like I'm expecting them to play "City Middle" (my secret possibly-favourite National song) or anything.

I can't remember the order, but these are the songs Leonard Cohen played. His backing vocalists for the night were longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson and the British Webb sisters; he gave each a solo turn and both were beautiful.

Sisters of Mercy
So Long, Marianne
Bird on the Wire
The Partisan
Famous Blue Raincoat
Chelsea Hotel #2
I Tried to Leave You
Who By Fire
Dance Me to the End of Love
If It Be Your Will (intro spoken by Cohen; duo vocals by the Webb sisters)
First We Take Manhatten
Ain't No Cure for Love
Everybody Knows
I'm Your Man
Take This Waltz
Tower of Song
The Future
Waiting for the Miracle
Closing Time
In My Secret Life
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Boogie Street (Sharon Robinson solo vocals)

And the National setlist, in order:

Start a War
Secret Meeting
Baby, We'll Be Fine
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Vanderlylle Crybaby
All the Wine
Mistaken for Strangers
Blood Buzz Ohio
Apartment Story
Fake Empire


Mr. November
About Today

Cool, I checked out that youtube link but the sound wasn't very good and the picture worse, so it looks like I'll have to actually go...or wait for the new album.

That Leonard Cohen show sounds amazing.

I was kind of psyched about going to see Bowerbirds, but you have humbled me.

I kind of ignore the image and the sound quality is just barely enough since I was there in the first place, but yeah, it's a pale imitation.

I swear Jenny, if Cohen comes anywhere near you, jump on it. The crowd was great too (aside from being too loud) - people my age, people my parent's age, entire families out for the night, etc. Our seats were $70 each including taxes and fees, and were (quite frankly) cheap for what we got.

And you oughta be psyched about going to see Bowerbirds! I saw them open for the Mountain Goats and they're quite good (although I still resent the fact that their debut robbed Horse Feathers' Words Are Dead of exposure and acclaim).

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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