NXNE 2012 (Thursday, June 13, 2012)
While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. I'm a nerd for not wanting to throw my full reviews out of sequence, so there'll be a fuller accounting of the night by and by that'll include even more details and recordings.
8 p.m.: Boxer The Horse @ El Mocambo (upstairs)
The first thing that struck me about Charlottetown quartet Boxer The Horse is that they still look fairly young — dapper vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Gaudet looked like he could have stepped away from some Rushmore-like private school to play with the band. The second thing that struck me as he began to sing is that accounts of Gaudet's Malkmus-ness are not inapt. But it would go too far to call them especially Pavement-y — the impression that he leaves is far closer to, say, "Jenny and the Ess-Dog" than "Two States". Which is to say that the band is working for a more straight-up rock'n'roll recipe book than something slanted and enchanted.
Closer observation also hinted at some other influences. Gaudet's economical body language — a wagging finger here, a hand on hip there — suggest, say, the archness of Jarvis Cocker. Some sublimated anglophilic tendencies were revealed when the band touched on both Edwyn Collins' "A Girl Like You" and some Billy Bragg. Note to young bands: in a showcase-style set where you're trying to show what's special about you, doing even one cover is questionable, but having two in the setlist is way too much.
The third — the above-mentioned Billy Bragg — came as a means for Gaudet to fill some time while guitarist Andrew Woods changed a string, so maybe that one can be written off to bad luck. The band was actually having a bit of a tough time in that regard, as bassist Christian Ledwell blew a string as well, forcing him to dash off stage mid-song to go hunting for a replacement.
When everything was in order, there were some good moments, and on the whole I dug the band. Definite potential being demonstrated, but it's not quite rounded out yet. Hopefully next time I see them, they have more of their own songs at hand then they have time to play.
Listen to a track from this set here.
9 p.m.: Jane's Party @ El Mocambo (upstairs)
Admittedly, I was sticking around to see local quartet Jane's Party because I was on hand for the bands in the timeslots before and after — although I had no particular preconceptions about them. They turned out to offer a slick retro-pop sound, with shades of, say, The Elwins cut with hints of soulful dad-rock.
Though there was an possibly-admirable lack of toughness in their approach, the restraint sometimes leaned a bit too far into bloodlessness. They have a good line in vocal harmonies and were nimble in switching instruments around, although none of the switches seemed to introduce any different flavours. Ultimately, this is a fine-enough band, but not particularly compelling to me. A little too safe and desexualized, and while there are some nice arrangements, none of the songs seemed to be about much that was really interesting.
None of these are fatal flaws, and in current market conditions they could do well for themselves with what they have already — although I'd hope that they have the time to get a little deeper.
10 p.m.: Carnivores @ El Mocambo (upstairs)
Atlanta's five-piece Carnivores, meanwhile, hit much closer to my sweet spot. Admittedly, there might not be anything more boundary-pushing with their throwback farfisa-y garage rock, but it's what I dig. A little sadly, as sometimes happens at these things, the band from the furthest away had the smallest turnout, though they were the best thing I'd seen at the El Mo on this night.
With vocals by committee, the band has a sound as vintage as the fringe on keyboardist Caitlin Lang's shirt. Her keyb sound underpinned the hazy guitars surrounding it, for a Nuggets-y feel that was more prominent than any "Southern" signifiers, though there is a long history of obscuro garage rock combos from down that way. In one sense, it almost felt as if working in that oeuvre, the band was some sort of time-displaced forerunner of a less straitlaced/more goofy regional blend — which is to say they probably sound a bit like some of the bands that influenced the B-52's.
Listen to a track from this set here.
11 p.m.: Grass Widow @ The Garrison
In the middle of a relatively high-profile bill, a nice full room at The Garrison for San Francisco's Grass Widow. Celebrating the release of Internal Logic (which was being sold at the merch table on vinyl and cassette), it seemed like there were some more people out to see the band than the last time they passed through town. I must confess: it's rather telling that I have very strong memories of The Raincoats, for whom they opened, but not much mental residue from their own set, which was a bit lacklustre. Perhaps I'm plagued by enjoying the platonic version of the band heard on their albums rather than the sloppier version that works in the flesh.
My memories of this show will be stronger, but it was still not an immaculate set. I am, of course, always an advocate for the shit-happens minor imperfections of live performance, but whether it was being at the end of their tour, or residual border exhaustion, the band was at about the far end of how sloppy I'd want to see a band playing. There were moments of great alchemy — a locked-in instrumental groove here, knee-wobbling three-part harmonies there, but there were also muffed guitar solos, dropped beats and the like to boot.
Those calling-card vocal interweavings are also a bit hard to get right on stage, especially in a quick-set-up festival setting. I was shaded to the side in the PA's sweet spot, so it mostly seemed all right for me, but there were people in the crowd shouting for more vocals throughout. All told, I'm still waiting to have my best-ever live experience with Grass Widow — but I like them enough that I'm eager to see them come back any time.
Listen to a track from this set here.
Midnite: The Nils FC @ Bovine Sex Club
There was a pretty substantial line when I left The Garrison, presumably to catch the next couple next-wave big-buzz bands on the lineup — but I was scurrying for a date with history. This time, the TTC wasn't on my side, and it was about a quarter-past when I got in through the door at The Bovine. There was a good crowd on hand, and definitely the first one I've seen at NXNE that I've felt at the young end rather than the old.
I must confess that I don't know much about Montréal's power-pop-via-punk The Nils — but I did know that founder/vocalist Alex Soria committed suicide back in '04, so I wasn't really sure what to expect from the band. It seems that this is a case where the band on stage knows that they're not the original thing and aren't trying to pass themselves off — although the festival has them billed as The Nils, Alex's brother Carlos Soria (bass) was at pains to tell the crowd that they were The Nils FC, and they were doing this for love, not money. (That said, they also wanted to sleep in a hotel and not someone's floor, so in the best punkrock tradition, they were hawking t-shirts from the stage during their last song.)
So I don't know if they were bona fide, but they were pretty good. Convened here as a quartet, I don't know any of the other members' relationships to the band's various incarnations, but they were in sync as a unit. Guitarust Marko Donato split vocal duties with Soria and the lineup was rounded out by Phil Gravedigger (guit) and Sebastien de Champlain (drums). They played with the devotion and energy that proved punk ain't a young man's game, and it was just rough enough to feel like a properly ragged tribute to Alex Soria's memory.
The Nils FC play again at The Great Hall on Saturday, June 16 @ 1AM
1 a.m.: Ivan Julian @ Bovine Sex Club
That was a satisfying excursion, but the main reason I'd come to The Bovine was to witness NY punkrock legend Ivan Julian. Julian was one of the guitar turbines that powered Richard Hell's Voidoids, creating some of the best rock music of all time. In the 90's, he was noted for his sideman work, most prominently with Matthew Sweet. And along the way, he's had some groups and worked as a producer, but never quite made a name for himself as a frontman. Seeing his name when I was going through the festival's listings, I was surprised there wasn't more chatter about his appearance, but I must confess that going in, even I wasn't sure if he'd have what it takes to pull it off as a solo performer.
That would turn out to have been utterly misplaced. Although his singing voice ranges closer to "functional" than "elegant", it fits the material well — and Julian was a live wire on stage with real presence — his face filled with emotion as he played before dramatically dropping to his knees. he also knew how to get the crowd onside, leading off with a fast version of "Love Comes in Spurts" before presenting some of the newer material from his revent Naked Flame album. Julian had some years on the members of his backing band, but they were all slashing foils and there was no shortage of dual guitar interplay. Stunning virtuosity, natch, but also real passion. A fabulous set, and I was rather glad that I went.
Listen to something old and something new from this set here. And n.b.: Julian plays again, tonite (June 15) at midnite at The Velvet Underground.