Billy Corgan and Spirits in The Sky
The Hotel Cafe, LA
August 31, 2009
"Fall into the grace of where you are. . ."
It’s not often a rock band plays The Hotel Cafe. I may have just pissed off some bands that play The Hotel Cafe. However, it is rare that a true, plugged-in rock show takes place at the small venue most often recognized as the home of outstanding singer-songwriters.
But, it has happened: Perry Farrell has made a couple guest appearances at The Hotel Cafe, including one time with his side project, Satellite Party; Billy Corgan has played there previously (although it was a mellow, acoustic, solo show); Pete Townshend has stepped foot on that stage a few times; Butch Walker had people standing on tables at one time; and Cypress Hill once turned the intimate room into a hip-hop club.
Yet, for the most part The Hotel Cafe is a place where people watch quietly as songwriters sing about break-ups and alcohol. The beginning of tonight’s show was in line with that vibe, although rather than droning on about heartbreak, Corgan sang melodically about love.
Navarro and Corgan during the electric part of the show
Corgan was joined on-stage by Dave Navarro, 19-year old Mike Byrne from Portland who was chosen to play drums in the band after Corgan placed an open-call for drummers online, Mark Weitz on keyboards, Kerry Brown on percussion, Ysanne Spevak on violin, Linda Strawberry on backing vocals, Kevin Dippold on flute and mandolin, and bassist Mark Tulin.
When the mellow set of songs about love, devotion, and dreams came to an end Corgan had a surprise for the audience. Well, it wasn’t a surprise to everyone, just to those of us who didn’t see his note on SmashingPumpkins.com today: “The tour ought to end with a bang though, as tonight marks the faux Halloween show! Everyone is expected to show up in costume and there will be a costume contest held during the show.”
Intermission: Costume Contest
Corgan said he only expected seven people to show up in costume. Instead, there were about 50 people dressed in costumes ranging from an elderly angel to a pregnant alien. While unnecessary, the costume contest was entertaining, especially with Corgan’s sarcastic banter.
Throughout the show there was “that one guy” who kept disturbing the peace by shouting out obnoxious comments. So when the guy belted out, “What’s your costume, Billy?” Corgan responded, “My costume is a guy who fuckin’ hates you. . . it’s a little subtle, but I hope you feel it. . .” That was the last we heard from “that guy.”
The costume contest wasn’t the only form of audience participation. Corgan also enlisted the crowd to sing along to one of the songs. He got everybody going, singing “oh, oh, oh” and then realized he may have asked the audience to sing too many rounds. “It seems I made a rare mistake,” Corgan admitted.
Navarro and Corgan
After the costume contest Spirits in The Sky turned on the rock show. Navarro and Corgan crushed it on electric guitars. At one point, Corgan requested the bow from Spevak’s violin – and I don’t use words like this lightly (or ever, actually) – shredded.
The band played for 2 hours. Or just under 2-hours when you factor in the costume contest. When the band exited the stage, the house music came on and the musicians all went back to the dressing room instead of staying at the side of the stage, behind the curtain. This is usually a sign that show has ended and at least half the audience left. But the loudest yellers remained and did not stop screaming or clapping until Spirits in The Sky returned for one more song.
“You asked for it. . . ” Corgan warned.
Corgan playing guitar with the bow of Spevak's violin
A few things were going through my mind as I entered the Echoplex tonight:
In a week and a half I’ll be standing in this same room, watching Nine Inch Nails perform their last show ever. . . or until Trent changes his mind.
I hope Conor’s show isn’t as boring as the last one I went to (several years ago). I want him to captivate me again.
How is the sound in this room?
I know that victory is sweet. Even deep in the cheap seats.
Here’s some history about Conor and me: I love Conor. I think he writes great lyrics. He’s written some of my favorite lyrics. Conor chooses words with precision and I have deep appreciation for that. Words are extremely powerful. And while I believe it’s important to say what you feel, the words you use to convey that feeling are even more important. Just one seemingly innocuous word can mean something entirely different to two people, depending on each person’s perception of the word and the previous experiences and meaning they associate with it. This is why I’m a fan of non-verbal communication. . . and Conor.
So in 2003, in New York City, when Conor asked me if he could write something in my journal, I didn’t waste time saying, “yes” – I simply placed the journal in his hands. He took a breath, looked toward the ceiling, looked back down toward the paper and wrote the following words before closing the journal and handing it back to me:
Never go to sleep. Always lie for love.
There’s a double entendre in there of course. For the past 6 years I convinced myself he meant one thing. And then 3 weeks ago I understood it differently. And that’s the thing about words – their meaning in an individual’s life can change over time.
Sometime prior to that moment, we were sitting on a couch, vowing to stay awake until we die so that we wouldn’t miss anything.
Even after all that, I’m able to remain objective about his live shows. And I will tell you this – the last time I saw Conor play it didn’t move me at all. In fact, I left the show early (which rarely happens).
Thankfully, he won me over again tonight. First with his lyrics, then with his band (unassuming talented musicians from around the country), and then with his lyrics again.
I know I'm alone if I'm with or without you
In fact, I was so in tune with the lyrics that when Jenny Lewis came on stage and performed “Portions For Foxes” with the band, I heard things in that song I had never heard before.
During dinner my friend and I (both having recently seen The Dead Weather) were talking about how shows really don’t need to be longer than an hour. Just give us one solid hour when every song you play hits hard. The Dead Weather nailed that. But after seeing Conor again (and knowing that I’d like NIN to play all night), I changed my mind. Just as I changed my mind about the words Conor wrote to me in 2003. . .
You know about this band, right? Another Jack White side-project. When I first heard about The Dead Weather I was scared. I’m not afraid of references to death, the dead, nor the weather, but definitely skeptical when even the most talented musicians begin launching multiple side-projects. I love the White Stripes and have fond memories of seeing them play intimate shows at The Troubadour long before they signed to V2 and exploded to the forefront of mass consciousness.
The Dead Weather rocking The Wiltern, LA
Then came The Raconteurs. Another group I enjoyed – both live and recorded. Along the way, of course, I’ve seen The Kills and Queens of The Stone Age several times. So effectively, we’re talking about a super group comprised of musicians from four different bands I really like. You see why I’m scared, right?
What if it sucks?
An unlikely scenario considering the fact that I’ve been enjoying The Dead Weather’s debut album “Horehound” since it was released. Even a less likely scenario when you consider how talented each of these musicians is individually, let alone collectively.
Still, I was a bit hesitant.
Well, my skepticism was short lived because the second I saw the set design and the aged family photograph on the drum, I was instantly reminded of the artistry of these musicians. Yes, this night was going to be about the music first and foremost, but it would also be a show.
And indeed it was. It didn’t hurt that I recently saw the documentary, It Might Get Loud, which gave some great insights into Jack White’s character and his musical influences, detailing the specific Blues song that helped define his sound. Then, to see him drumming in The Dead Weather with such passion and energy, while at the same time reflecting back on the endearing observations Jack shares when discussing Meg White’s style of drumming in the movie. . . But even if I knew nothing about Jack White, I’d be mesmerized by his sheer talent – on the drums, on the guitar, and on vocals. Another thing I love about Jack White is that it’s truly about the music. He doesn’t need to be “the star” of the show and in fact, he seems to recognize that they’re all stars, so he can just sit in back on the drum kit and do his thing.
Alison Mosshart takes the lead
Alison Mosshart is a large presence. Her voice sounded great, she moves around the stage, grabs the attention of the audience, and holds on tight throughout the 75 minute show.
Then you have Dean Fertita (QOTSA) and Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs). Both are amazing.
The Dead Weather. Even though it was a relatively early show (9:30 – 10:45 pm), I was so amped when I got home that I stayed up until 3am. And then the alarm went off at 6am… So off I go. But I don’t need to tell you much more anyway. Check them out when they come through your town. Or watch some videos from the show last night:
Sometimes I see live music just for the sake of it. For example, if I really like the venue or some good friends are going (the ones who I would follow if they jumped off a bridge). The music is, of course, always important but sometimes it’s not the primary reason I go to a show.
Flaming Lips at The Greek Theater LA
Take, for example, The Flaming Lips. I’ve seen them a dozen times before. The thing about The Flaming Lips is: the show is essentially the same, tour after tour. The set list may change, but the typical theatrics remain in tact: crowd surfing in a bubble; confetti; balloons; dancing aliens, creatures, and furry animals on stage. Feeling I’d seen that show plenty of times, I took a break from The Flaming Lips a few years ago. However, when I heard they were playing The Greek Theater in LA (one of my favorite venues) and that Ghostland Observatory was opening, I decided it was time to reunite with the Lips.
That said, I knew nothing about Ghostland Observatory prior to the show. However, their name has been mentioned numerous times by people I trust, followed by accolades such as: “They’re great!”, “You’ve got to see them live!”, “I love Ghostland Observatory!” Last night’s show at The Greek gave me the opportunity to reconnect with an old standard and get introduced to a new favorite.
Ghostland Observatory at The Greek Theater LA
Ghostland Observatory: If you haven’t seen this band live, I highly recommend it. First of all, they have an exceptional light show – and I fall for that every time. Secondly, the music doesn’t suck. In fact, there were some great guitar rock riffs and some good dance tracks. Third, I found the band (well, the 2 guys who make up Ghostland) to be mesmerizing to watch. One guy was wearing a cape, jamming on the synthesizers, and the other guy was busting out guitar solos and then dancing like he was in some European techno club.
To the purists out there who say, “It should be all about the music – music first, then production” – well, in my subjective opinion, the music was really good. In fact, more often than not, the songs distracted me from the lights. That said, I have not seen this band without the full-scale production, nor do I own any of their music (yet). So the nearly seizure-inducing light show was a great way to engage me and make me take notice. People who have been following this band for a couple years tell me that they are indeed fantastic live, without all the lasers.
Here’s some video – lights and all:
The Flaming Lips: After Ghostland Observatory, I was actually a bit nervous that The Flaming Lips wouldn’t be able to live up to my expectations. I wasn’t expecting a lot actually – good sound, some spectacle and crazy $h!t going on onstage, some old classics, some new songs, and perhaps, something different.
They kicked off with the ol’ boy in the bubble trick. Wayne Coyne climbed into a bubble and crowd surfed. Seen it before. Yet, after a substantial hiatus from seeing their live performance, I still found the bubble gimmick entertaining. It also made me feel at “home” – the comfort of knowing exactly what I was getting. Furthermore, it sets the stage – some bands let the show build before they kick into high gear; the Flaming Lips need no runway – they just take off.
Flaming Furry Creatures
After the bubble, the furry animals, space creatures, flowers, and assorted characters joined the band on stage for some dancing and to kick balloons back out to the crowd.
In case you’re keeping track: bubble, furry things on stage, balloons. Who said it should be all about the music?!
But speaking of music, some highlights included: stripped down versions of “Fight Test” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1”, along with the confetti filled encore performance of “Do You Realize??”
Back to the spectacle: add confetti, large projections of dancing women, and Wayne Coyne singing while riding on the shoulders of a giant gorilla (to be more specific in case PETA is reading this, a person dressed in a gorilla suit) to the list.
All said and done, The Flaming Lips entertained me, made me dance and smile. They didn’t do anything revolutionary. They didn’t change my perspective or reinvigorate my passion for their music. It’s what I expect from a feel-good movie – not necessarily worthy of an Academy Award, but easy, fun, and entertaining; a good show to see every few years.
Flaming Lips “Bubble” Entrance (in case you haven’t seen it before):
August 14, 2009: Tchaikovsky Spectacular with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, plus Fireworks.
I’ve lived in LA since ’91 and I’ve seen a lot of shows at the Bowl. Radiohead (a few times), Ben Harper, REM, DMB, Santigold, Femi Kuti, that kid-a-palooza thing, etc etc etc. But in all these years I have never been to one of the Philharmonic shows at The Hollywood Bowl, nor have I ever seen their fireworks show.
LA Philharmonic Tchaikovsky Spectacular
My friends Niki, Jeff, and I headed up to the Bowl after dinner and some wine. First of all, what I expected was to be overtaken and surrounded by sound. The Bowl is one of the best sounding venues I’ve been to – it’s almost fun to see any show there just to experience great sound outdoors – and I expected that a classical performance would be a surround-sound event. Much to our surprise – not the case. The sound wasn’t loud at all. Everything still sounded great, but it wasn’t the full sound experience I’ve come to equate with the Bowl. Even the crickets were louder than the performance. Perhaps that’s the thing about classical shows and the reason people are so quiet and focused. Whenever somebody nearby poured wine (and it wasn’t us. . .) you missed 15 seconds of the show.
Anyway, sound notwithstanding, it was still a phenomenal experience and one I’d like to repeat again soon. The level of musicianship is mind-blowing. These are the prodigies. I was thinking about the typical tour and musicians being on the road for months (sometimes years) at a time, playing in front of live audiences every night. And some of these touring musicians haven’t actually been playing music all that long. Then, I look at these undeniably gifted players, who have probably been training for this moment since they were 4 years old, and wonder, “what do they do the rest of the year? Do they have day jobs? Do I run into them at Coffee Bean?” I obviously know nothing about this realm of performance, but I have great respect and appreciation of it.
In addition to the low decible sound, the other major difference between this and a typical “rock” show is how serious these musicians are. Not that all musicians aren’t serious, but these musicians don’t even look like they’re having fun or enjoying it all. But I ‘spose if I were playing one of the most challenging pieces of music written, I’d be pretty serious too. . . Which is probably why I’m not a classical musician.
During intermission I got up to get a bottle of wine so that we too could participate in the wine-pouring sound experience that had become part of the evening’s soundtrack. When I returned to our seats Niki looked at me and said, “Look at everybody. They’re drinking and chowing down at 10 at night. This whole thing is just an excuse to eat and drink!” She was kidding of course, but that is part of the whole Bowl “experience” – picnic basket and wine.
After intermission and the wine, the conductor told a story about Tchaikovsky’spiece “Romeo and Juliette”. The piece was written about the morning-after their last night together. Now we really needed to pay attention because opera singers came on to play the parts of Romeo and Juliette and the translation was projected on the screen. So now I have to listen and read and focus – perhaps we should be prescribing classical music instead of Ritalin. That performance, as was the case with the rest of the show, was exceptional.
Fireworks kick in
Then, the fireworks kicked in, perfectly synched to the music. And not just fireworks, but streams of fire shooting into the sky. No breaks between the bursts of light, just a steady stream of explosions – the entire fireworks show was the finale. It didn’t build up to a climactic point, it just happened, full-on, start to finish.
Here’s the thing about the Bowl – any one of the elements that makes up the experience (great music, picnics and wine, fireworks, being out under the stars, exceptional sound quality) is enough to make it “worth it”. But at the Bowl, you don’t need to compromise and have only one great experience – you can have it all.
Undoubtedly somebody reading this is thinking (or will post a comment), “Yeah, you idiot – this is what happens at The Bowl most of the time!” I know. And while I may be a decade late in discovering it, I’m happy to know there’s another great “excuse to eat and drink” in LA.