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St. Vincent and The Art of Surprise

You know who’s better than a magic genie? St. Vincent. She grants more than 3 wishes and always over-delivers.

At the end of last year, I summarized my “Top 10 Concerts of The Year” as twelve St. Vincent shows. While nobody overtly disagreed, I did receive some inquiries. People who have been with me for years asked questions including, “No Nine Inch Nails? I mean, according to your tweets, even your bra didn’t survive.”

That is true, and I would include the six NIN shows I experienced in LA, along with those attended in Vegas, among the top shows of 2018 as well. But here’s the distinction: I know what I’m going to get at a Nine Inch Nails concert: consensually assaulted by a wall of lights, soaked (less consensually) in other people’s sweat, mind-blowing, high-energy, banging, badass, best in class, consistently outstanding, rock. Trent Reznor will get in my face. He will acknowledge every individual on his team, and people he knows in the audience, with gratitude. The sound will always be impeccable. I’ve seen how they soundcheck – there won’t be a miss. I have traveled, and will continue to travel, the world to see Nine Inch Nails, because I know what I’m getting, and I love it.

I have also traveled the world to see St. Vincent, and will continue to do so, because I have no fucking idea what I’m going to get, and I love it. What I can count on from St. Vincent is exceptional quality and experiences I will never forget. Yes, there’s a general structure to some St. Vincent shows and a definite aesthetic. Yet, even those shows with elaborate staging and a fairly fixed setlist, are laced with surprises. Prior to other concerts, you’ll often hear the audience speculating about the setlist. Prior to a St. Vincent concert, you’ll hear the crowd speculating about how she’ll “show up”, in an all-encompassing, “what are we in for?”, sense.

Gratefully continuing on my journey through the many expressions of St. Vincent, here’s how St. Vincent has shown up (so far) this year:

January 13, 2019
Malibu Love Sesh @ Hollywood Palladium
With Beck and Red Hot Chili Peppers

This concert was a charity event to raise money for the victims of the Woosley Wildfire in California. The show took place at the Hollywood Palladium, which is often associated with rock shows, including the aforementioned 6 nights of Nine Inch Nails a few weeks prior. The line-up consisted of Beck, who played with full band plus special and electrifying guest Jack Black, Red Hot Chili Peppers, who of course played their full-fledged rock show. . . and St. Vincent, who played solo, acoustic.

If you want to case study “how to make an impact”, pay attention to St. Vincent. The other artists played electric, full-band, loud. They jumped, danced, and ran. Flea walked across the stage on his hands while Anthony Kedis tickled him. Beck and Jack Black infused the show with comedy, and Jason Falkner used his guitar like a fishing pole, hooking members of the audience one by one, and then releasing them back into the sea of people.

St. Vincent took the stage alone, acoustic guitar and microphone, and captivated the room. With a set merely 25 minutes in length, performing in front of an audience who was largely there to see Red Hot Chili Peppers (and had largely been drinking since 3pm), the crowd was spellbound.

Initially, I was disappointed when I learned she’d only be playing 25 minutes. However, something happens every time St. Vincent takes the stage: the concept of time, or anything constrained, dissipates. You’re just there, in it. You don’t know where she’ll take you or what’s going to happen, but it will be otherworldly and you’ll remember it.

Midway through her set, St. Vincent did something I’d ordinarily consider “not advisable”. She covered a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, in front of 4,000 hardcore Red Hot Chili Peppers fans, at a Red Hot Chili Peppers show, on acoustic guitar, solo, before Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage. For many artists – no matter how good they are – that would be an act of self-annihilation. With St. Vincent, the audience sang along. That bold AF move transformed 4,000 Red Hot Chili Peppers fans into 4,000 St. Vincent fans.

The morning after, the headlines:

 

January 24, 2019
An Evening of Comedy & Song, Hosted by Bobcat Goldthwait w/ St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein, Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen, Mike Mills & More!
@ Largo Los Angeles

This event was a fundraiser for a 12-year-old who had recently been diagnosed with brain and spinal cord cancer.

After providing the live soundtrack for an elaborate comedic ode to Heather Lawless – delivered with deadpan perfection – St. Vincent launched into a medley of Pearl Jam songs she “half remembers”. Ever since the BBC Radio 6 piece featuring Clark playing a series of her favorite guitar riffs, I’d been secretly hoping she’d incorporate something similar into an upcoming performance. Would she do it? How, what, and when? January 24, 2019. At Largo. Pearl Jam. Delightful.

St. Vincent kept the Pearl Jam medley going long enough for the audience to consider that may be the only thing she played that evening. . . and for all to be content with that potential outcome. Then she played Los Ageless and New York, her voice exquisite.

The first two St. Vincent performances of 2019 were benefits to raise money for people in need. For journalists who form hasty conclusions and carelessly print characterizations of Annie Clark, without taking into account the whole of who she is: you can look to examples such as these or speak with anyone who’s worked with her. If you don’t “get it” during an interview, it’s not her, it’s you.

February 10, 2019
The GRAMMY Awards @ Staples Center

Adding to the case study on “how to make an impact”: St. Vincent and Dua Lipa’s “Masseduction / One Kiss” performance at the GRAMMY Awards was the antithesis of everything that preceded it. There was no light show, no elaborate set design, no dancers or stunts. Just two talented people, creating magic and knocking camera operators off their feet:

February 14, 2019
American Songbook @ Lincoln Center
With Thomas Bartlett

The way this show unfolded was not only a surprise to the audience, but also to St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett. Rather than follow a setlist, Clark drew song titles from a box of Russell Stover Valentine’s chocolates (minus the chocolate).

She didn’t always go with what she selected the first. . . second. . . third. .. or fourth time she drew from the box. Her commentary on each discarded draw simultaneously posed a riddle: which song did she pass over?

Meanwhile, at the piano, Bartlett possessed a back-up setlist, which he’d sometimes flash Clark’s way, along with a raised eyebrow and smirk, tempting her back to the safety of the “known”.

“Yeah… I tried ‘chance’. I didn’t like it,” Clark responded, with a laugh, reverting back to the setlist from time-to-time.

The vibe of the show was similar: loose, with the safety net of excellent delivery. Stories and songs were intertwined, providing a highly entertaining, dynamic intercourse. You could watch the stories unfold in Clark’s mind before she spoke them. And, like the songs she pulled from the box of chocolates, there were portions of stories left unspoken. I pondered what she may have been thinking, while she’d smile wryly. At times, I could see her playing with the thoughts in her head, allowing them to dance there, her own personal jesters. The unspoken pieces of the story could be felt.

There’s depth and diversity in all that St. Vincent does. Things are rarely what they appear at surface level. It leaves room for your imagination and creativity to join the show. St. Vincent creates an experience which allows each person to come away with something different, something uniquely theirs.

And because she delivers them differently each time, I gain new perspective and appreciation of songs I’ve heard hundreds of times before. That evening, it was “Masseduction”.

At times, she’d break my heart while sharing a story, or in her delivery of a song. She made me confront feelings I’d rather not feel. Then, she’d make me laugh uncontrollably. The thread between rollercoaster emotions: a beautiful and spectacular performance. St. Vincent creates an environment which allows you to feel extreme emotions and explore them safely. It’s not a concert, it’s art.

Self-proclaimed as “not known for love songs”, St. Vincent’s performance on Valentine’s night did indulge in the theme of love: that moment you realize you’re doing what you’re doing for people who don’t love you; coming to terms with the fact that loving someone doesn’t negate their pain; finding strength and hope in love to pull you through darkness. Granted, not your typical romantic ideas of love, but the complex earnest truths.

Bartlett and Clark concluded the show with “Smoking Section”, at Bartlett’s request. “It’s fucked up,” he declared, “but we should end with ‘Smoking Section’.” I smiled because, while I don’t request songs, that thought was brewing in my mind as well. Then, Clark did what she does, and a song which explores the depths of darkness and desolation becomes a comforting mantra and glimmer of hope.

I look forward to seeing how St. Vincent shows up next…

The Many Expressions of St. Vincent (2018 edition)

December 31, 2018

My top 10 concerts of 2018 are: twelve St. Vincent shows.

I’ve been to thousands of concerts around the world. For more than a decade, I’d go to 350+ shows each year. I have yet to see anyone do what Annie Clark does, let alone in the span of a single year.

Some artists, including Maynard, Trent Reznor, and Jack White, create new personas or launch side projects to work with other artists or explore different dimensions of their art and music (often there are business reasons for this as well). Thus far, Annie Clark has accomplished this all within St. Vincent. 

She is multi-faceted, transcendent, embraces the complexities of life and relationships as well as the unpredictable and transforms it into art. She has built a relationship with those listening which supports and celebrates everything St. Vincent is and her dynamic creative expressions. 

When asked “why” I might go to more than one St. Vincent show: each show is vastly – and subtly – different. Let go of expectations, don’t worry about the set list, forget your pre-show selfie. Be present and St. Vincent will create the experience with you. Each show unfolds uniquely in that moment in time, in concert with the city, venue, the people in the audience, her day – as well as yours – leading up to the show.  

While, thematically, her songs tend to fall on the darker side, her shows embody possibility, spontaneity, are infused with wit and humor, take you to another world, and provide community. What’s consistent from show to show is the quality, and an experience which seems to top itself every time. Like a good relationship, the greater the foundation and understanding, the deeper you can go. 

While no substitute for having your own experience, here’s a taste of my journey with St. Vincent this year. This is not intended to be comprehensive, just some musings on each show. So much of what happens is magic, in the moment, and cannot be described. I’m not one to discuss the moments which move me the most either, and with St. Vincent there are many. So know that what you read and see here is nothing compared to what you will experience when you see St. Vincent live. 

January 25: Fear The Future @ Hollywood Palladium

This show coincided with my self-imposed two week break from drinking to train for a marathon. The thought of leaving the house, traversing Los Angeles, battling traffic, parking in Hollywood, Hollywood, crowds, without the aid and “reward” of a few drinks was daunting. It’s possible this was the first time I’d be at a concert entirely sober. Would it be “as good”? I did consider staying home, but remembered the first time I saw St. Vincent perform a decade ago, and trusted the experience would be more powerful and rewarding than a drink, and well worth overcoming the pain points of leaving home.

To minimize contact with others, and enjoy a clear line of sight, I started off at the back of the venue, on the raised platform near the sound booth. St. Vincent took the stage, without a band, seemingly also embracing solitude among a crowd. Without utilizing an overt storytelling gimmick, the show told a story. As she took us through a retrospective of her earlier work, revealing more and more of the stage and herself with each song, I felt like I was being sucked into a vortex toward the stage. I fought it, stood with my feet firmly planted in my “safe place”, and marveled at St. Vincent’s ability to draw me in from the back of the room while simultaneously engaging everyone between us. 

Soon enough, the pull overtook me. I began moving forward, careful not to disturb others entranced in the show, and arrived stage right, 3 rows from the rail. During that moment, St. Vincent was playing directly to the audience stage left. Within one minute of my arriving, she turned, pointed, and sang the next line of the song in my direction. Whether or not it was the case, it felt as though she knew what I was feeling, and genuinely appreciated and acknowledged my being there. Her awareness and responsiveness to the time, space, energy and people in the room is part of what makes each show unique.

After taking us on a journey through her previous work, St. Vincent performed each song on her latest album (at that time), Masseduction. Rather than launch a new album and tour the “expected route”, with a full band, St. Vincent boldly chose to take the stage alone. It made sense (to me), given the show and story she was sharing. That’s among the things I respect most about Annie Clark: if she makes a decision to do (or not do) something, it’s to further the art. 

April 11: I’m A Lot Like You @ Orpheum LA 

Welcome back, band. Hello lights and video. Goodbye walls, doors, ceilings, floors. Holy fuck – watch her shred. All the elements work together, creating a spectacular, immersive, otherworldly musical playground. The production value is off the charts. The show and everyone who worked on it should win an award.  I envisioned the kids at Coachella losing their shit over this the following 2 weekends. It’s also when “Rattlesnake” became one of my favorite songs to experience live.

May 21: I’m A Lot Like You (VIP + out of state) @ The Fillmore, Charlotte, North Carolina 

At this point in the year, I had been to. . . a lot. . . of shows, and none of them moved nor engaged me the way St. Vincent did. FYF Fest (where I had intended to next see St. Vincent) had been cancelled. I knew I wanted to see the I’m A Lot Like You show again and a cancelled festival wasn’t going to stop me. 

I decided to go somewhere I’d never been, Charlotte, North Carolina, and to purchase the VIP ticket upgrade which included a pre-show performance and conversation (“Q&A”) with St. Vincent. If you’ve never been to a concert in an unfamiliar city, state, or country, I recommend it. The energy and experience is completely different, as is your perspective when you’re in a new place. I began my adventure with coffee, a walk around the city, and a pass through some parks and museums, and then made my way to the venue. 

Clark entered the room, proclaiming her outfit “Unabomber Chic” and sang a couple songs, acoustic. No lights, set, band, visuals, nor elaborate wardrobe, and still able to transport us from the physical world we know to a timeless place and dreamlike state. Her voice is spectacular and mesmerizing. She’s playful and entirely present. She is genuine and generous.

Following the songs, what was billed as a “Q&A” (for lack of a better description, I imagine) was a dynamic conversation. Clark asked us questions, and we shared stories and asked her questions. In response to any topic, Clark has a relevant and entertaining story. There are as many funny asides as there are “answers”. This is when I saw something else magnificent in Clark: she is an exceptional listener. Any time someone asked a question or shared a story, she listened well beyond the words they were speaking, absorbing the subtext, inflections, tone, and body language, and would respond to the often unspoken, but actual crux of the conversation. (In a related aside, I had the opportunity to hear Maynard speak and play at The Grammy Museum a few months later. There, he noted that the most important skill a musician can have is to be a good listener. “It’s a listening process,” he said. Exhibit A: St. Vincent).

When St. Vincent returned to the stage with the full band, wall of lights, and wardrobe, she, the venue, and audience were transformed. The show begins with the band entering and taking their places, one by one. The first step St. Vincent takes as she crosses the stage is where the journey into another dimension begins.

One benefit of seeing a show multiple times is that you can focus on and absorb additional aspects of the show each time. Watching her play guitar masterfully, feeling her connect with each of us and every member of the band, the sound, energy and lights elevating us. The exchange of energy between us fueled the show. The harder we went, the harder they went. This could not – and would not – be the last time I saw this show.

 

July 31: I’m A Lot Like You (out of country) @ Sony Centre, Toronto 

Another two months of going to concerts, some excellent, but none exceptional. I wanted to experience “I’m A Lot Like You” again. I love Canada, but hadn’t been to Toronto yet, so it seemed a sensible option. I was concerned about the venue – a seated theatre – for the rock show. I don’t like sitting still on a good day, and there’s no way I was sitting down for this show. I called the venue in advance. “If the music moves you to stand up and dance, that’s what you should do!’ Ticket purchased, flight and hotel booked. 

Cruel: I was lost in the song, visually immersed in the lights and sounds. When I turned my attention back to Annie, she seemed to be focused entirely stage right. She would step forward and left for guitar solos, and then specifically turn and sing to the right, laser focused on one location or person. When I succumbed and looked to my left, a woman standing next to me was singing the lyrics along with St. Vincent, with a comforted smile and tears streaming down her face. Without taking anything away from the audience as a whole, St. Vincent gifted the song to someone who most needed it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 10: With Florence and The Machine @ Key Arena, Seattle

Was it an excuse to go to Seattle or was Seattle an excuse to see another St. Vincent show? What I wasn’t aware of when I made this decision is that this was the kick off show of Florence and The Machine’s tour, which is the reason many other people traveled from around the country to be there. 

In my experience, an audience comprised of people who have traveled, lined up early in the morning or the night before if the venue allows, dehydrate themselves so they don’t have to miss a second of the concert, makes for an even more charged, energetic show. Most people I spoke with prior to the show hadn’t seen St. Vincent live, and it was fun to experience the show alongside them. It was also the final concert at Key Arena until it re-opens after changing ownership and being remodeled. The staff and security teams were reminiscing about the venue, shared stories and history with me. The room was ready. 

The venue: perhaps not quite as prepared. Notorious for sub-par sound. Doors were held an additional 30 minutes, sometimes indicative of sound or tech issues that arise during soundcheck. I wouldn’t have given much weight to doors being held if vocals could have been heard in the mix, stage right. Whatever was happening with the sound during the first few songs, the only impact it appeared to have on St. Vincent is that she played even more furiously. The people around me who had not seen her perform previously, loved it and vowed to see her when she next plays their town. 


September 18: Solo Acoustic Guitar benefit concert @ Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico

Santa Fe Opera is potentially the most beautiful setting for a concert. An outdoor amphitheater, with wonderful sound, kind staff, and the sun setting behind the stage. This was a benefit concert for Noise for Now. Andrew Bird and St. Vincent donated their time and performances to raise money and awareness in support of women’s healthcare rights and services.

Solo, on acoustic guitar, St. Vincent shared humorous observations and stories between songs. The Fear The Future and I’m A Lot Like You shows are so big and well executed, it doesn’t feel like anything is “missing”. This show was a reminder that I did miss St. Vincent’s quick wit and stories. They exist in the produced shows as well, woven into the production, videos, and her expressions, though not verbally articulated, the way only she can. She is a brilliant storyteller. She’s entertaining and engaging throughout, yet you don’t know where the story is going until you get there. Like her music, she doesn’t take the direct path, and the payoff is much greater for it. This was also the first time I’d heard the songs from Masseduction performed acoustically. Santa Fe provided the best backdrop for St. Vincent’s vocals. Her voice seemed to be carried by the light breeze. It was simply a beautiful show. 

September 28: St. Vicious DJ set (and free gift with purchase show) @ Hollywood Bowl 

I call this the “free gift with purchase show” because I already had tickets to see Beck. So when it was later announced that St. Vincent would be opening the Beck show with a DJ set, that was a free, and much appreciated, gift. I’d heard about St. Vicious’s DJ sets at various festivals and hoped I’d have the opportunity to experience it.

While maintaining the integrity of, and honoring, the original songs, St. Vicious gave the songs new life. It was fun, provocative, inspiring, and energetic, and left me looking forward to more.

October 2: Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett @ Belasco LA (launch of Masseducation) 

I typically don’t think of myself as ranking or categorizing shows. People ask me all the time, “which was better?” Each is its own experience and I either appreciate and enjoy it or I leave. There are some artists I know I can count on to consistently deliver an exceptional experience, but in my head I thought I loved all 5 of them equally. So I was surprised at my own self when the words “you just sailed right past Nine Inch Nails” went through my mind during this show. Apparently, I had held Nine Inch Nails “at the top” and if I’d thought about it previously, would not have expected a show featuring solely piano and vocals to rival what Nine Inch Nails does on stage. That is how powerful an Intimate Evening with St. Vincent is. 

An Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett consists of a stripped down, elegant stage, Thomas on piano and St. Vincent providing vocals. There’s no guitar, band, light show, video screens. All the songs we’ve come to know on guitar take new life on piano. It’s unrehearsed, yet masterful.

There are only 3 times in my life when I’ve needed to consciously remind myself to breathe: Scuba diving, another time, and this show. I don’t think I moved (and it’s been well established I’m not a good sitter downer) the entire time. 

Without the guitar, the emphasis is on St. Vincent’s voice and the way she and Thomas work together to communicate the songs. Without the layered sounds and slick production, stripped bare, the songs emerge in their own power. 

A glass of tequila and the mic became the centerpiece “props” at times. The way St. Vincent holds the mic and impressions of other musicians holding the mic made for entertaining onstage banter. She whips the mic cable seductively, adding emphasis at key moments before or during a song. 

The subtleties of her voice and body language become more pronounced. Each note adds meaning and she physically expresses the songs throughout her body and beyond the tips of her fingers. Between songs, St. Vincent entertains us with stories, observations, and gives us insight into a language only she and Thomas share. 

The moment she “sailed past Nine Inch Nails”? She hit a note during “Smoking Section” I think she invented. It was breathtaking. Not just that note, but where and how it punctuated the way she performed the song that night. Fuck. 

 

 

 

October 5: Outdoor show @ Stubb’s Austin 

With FYF Fest cancelled, I hadn’t seen “I’m A Lot Like You” outside, nor full-festival scale production. I had been to Austin City Limits Festival once before and loved it. In my opinion, it had the best line-up of US festivals this year and I’d have the opportunity to see St. Vincent’s festival show. Of course, when this additional ACL Late Show was announced, it was a must-do. 

The vibe of this show was joyous, playful, and fun. Anyone who was within the first 15-20 rows from the rail made the decision to skip Paul McCartney to be here instead. Like traveling from around the country, that collective crowd passion and energy help amplify the experience. There were no video screens and the compact nature of the stage made it easy to absorb the whole show, without switching focal points or attention. It felt like a private party. Music, connection, artist, audience, all celebrated. To be among a crowd of thousands, be seen and feel understood, is a gift St. Vincent gives time and time again. The chaos of the world outside replaced by the chaos we chose to create inside.

October 6: Festival production @ ACLFest, Austin

10 months into the year, I’m treated to the full-scale festival production of I’m A Lot Like You. The videos add dimension to the songs and the positioning of the screens allows them to interplay with the band. You can watch the videos, you can watch the band, or you can “zoom out” and see how the images onscreen interact with the band. Sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing. During the intimate shows, St. Vincent offers insight into what she’s thinking. At this show, the videos provide a glimpse into how she sees. 

Again, it was the first time many people I spoke to had seen St. Vincent perform live. Hearing and seeing their reactions to the show was a blast. “She looks like a superhero,” a woman remarked to her friend. “She IS a superhero!’ her friend replied. “Best show of ACL!” someone else shouted.

One of my favorite moments was watching Annie and Toko having so much fun playing “Masseduction” (video below the video below). Another highlight was “New York”.

For all the times I’ve seen St. Vincent, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her play or sing a song precisely the same way twice. This makes the guitar solos particularly fun to watch and hear. And if you pay close attention, you’ll appreciate vocal changes, nods and references unique to that performance. Sometimes I think even she’s surprised by the direction the song takes. 


October 29: I’m A Lot Like You tour wrap up @ Hollywood Palladium

After each show, the tour dates section of St. Vincent’s website shrunk. The year winding down, I was filled with gratitude for all the mind-blowing shows to date and felt greedy longing for more… yet, I continued holding onto hope. Dream-come-true. A late addition and the final show of the I’m A Lot Like You tour in 2018. This show was recorded in a multi-camera shoot (as was the Intimate Evening at The Belasco) for a mysterious future release. 

This was everything I love about live music, expressed through St. Vincent. Some highlights:

“Hysterical Strength” – Matt Johnson’s next-level what-the-fuck drumming.

Everything St. Vincent did on guitar.

Non-verbal communication.

”Fear The Future” – gets me every time. Especially this time.

“Marrow”, “Cruel”, “New York”…. Everything. The whole fucking thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 20: An Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett @ BAM Brooklyn 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking back on the thousands of concerts I’ve been to, including those “once in a lifetime” secret shows, without fully ranking them, I can say An Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett at Brooklyn Academy of Music is easily in the top 5.

If I had to sum it up in three words I haven’t used yet, they would be: “Cheerleader” and “The Bed”.

 

 

 

 

Have I had enough? No. I’d like to experience as many expressions of St. Vincent as she’s willing to share.

In between scheduled tour dates, interviews, TV, and radio appearances, she was speaking and participating in a “concert experiment” at Cannes Lion, live scoring a film during Natalie Portman’s series at Boston Calling, producing and collaborating with other artists, inspiring other musicians by participating in clinics, appearing on panels and speaking at events supporting women, playing art museum fundraisers and donating her time to shows in support of charities, performing a tribute to Philip Glass during the Kennedy Center Honors, inviting students to the venue before the show, playing a few songs for them and offering guidance and encouragement for them to pursue their passions. This is merely what I’m aware of. I imagine her dedication to art and humanity extends well beyond what is noted here. All of this, coupled with the person I’ve come to know through the journey this year, equates to perhaps the purest – and my favorite – expression of St. Vincent: Annie Clark.

Nine Inch Nails at Staples Center: Where The F*ck Were You?

November 8, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles

NINIn terms of shows, it’s hard to find words I haven’t said before, here: Nine Inch Nails Wave Goodbye LA Night 1, here: Nine Inch Nails – Henry Fonda Will Never Be The Same, here: Nine Inch Nails – Wave Goodbye, here: Nine Inch Nails: Wave Goodbye (at The Wiltern, the final show), here: I Have A Confession. . . , or here: Nine Inch Nails at The Troubadour.

I’ve been listening exclusively to Nine Inch Nails since seeing them perform at Staples Center Friday night. It’s been a long time since a concert inspired me to do that. I’ve been listening to this band for more than 20 years and, even today, as I listen to Nine Inch Nails, I can hear new perspectives in the music. It’s dynamic and evolving. It’s the varying degrees of tension between the instruments and the space between the noise. If you step out of the literal and just listen to the music, you can hear something new every time.

There are back up singers in this line-up and when they sing, that’s one thing. When they scream, that’s another thing. These women – and everyone on that stage and associated with this production – are essential to the show. Everyone’s role is additive and complementary to the experience.

NINRob Sheridan, Nine Inch Nails’ creative director, is brilliant. Trent Reznor has an amazing ability to recognize and embrace exceptionally talented people. The creative collaboration with Sheridan is signature to the Nine Inch Nails brand.  You know what this music feels like as a result of the entire production; not just the sound.

And the sound is great, no matter where they play. Staples Center can be tricky with sound because it tends to bounce around the room. A Nine Inch Nails show – loud as it may be – will not send you home with ringing ears. There’s precision in the production.

If I could use one word to describe Nine Inch Nails, it would be “integrity”. Integrity of music, integrity of art, integrity of the relationship with their fans. This band keeps their promise every time. Even if you’re not a fan of the music, I recommend seeing Nine Inch Nails for the inspiration of the vision and the aspiration of being that committed to their art.

So yeah, the show was outstanding. Where the fuck were you??

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Moby at The Fonda Theatre, Night One

October 2, 2013
Fonda Theatre, Los Angeles

Moby is playing 3 shows at LA’s Fonda Theatre this week, in support of his new album, Innocents.

Here are pictures from the first show:

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Nine Inch Nails at The Troubadour

September 3, 2013
The Troubadour, Los Angeles, CA

Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor At The TroubadourWithout knowing what shape, nor time, nor place it would happen, I’d been anticipating this night for four years. “I won’t let you down,” Trent Reznor assured everyone during Nine Inch Nails’ final show of the Wave Goodbye Tour, on September 10, 2009.

True to his word, Reznor has not disappointed. During the Nine Inch Nails “hiatus”, Reznor brilliantly scored 2 soundtracks, one of which landed him an Oscar. He also co-created How To Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, which included one of the most visually impressive productions I’ve witnessed. Rather than continuously churning out albums and tours as Nine Inch Nails, Reznor recognized he needed a break, focusing on other creative and personal endeavors. The creative freedom and perspective gained from his Nine Inch Nails “break” (arguably one of the most productive “breaks” on record), was evident during Tuesday night’s show.

NIN Troubadour MarqueeFor all in attendance, the Nine Inch Nails show at The Troubadour was a story of miracles.

Listening to the crowd prior to the show, provided hours of “how I got in” stories. One woman was determined to win tickets for her boyfriend, so he could see his favorite band on his birthday. Another woman described her meticulous strategy for winning tickets from radio stations, including the theory that land lines provide a better chance of winning than mobile phones. People described how they enlisted co-workers, friends, and relatives to help them pound the phones each time a KROQ DJ announced “one lucky caller” would win a pair of tickets.

Prior to the show, a man worked the line, offering people $800 a ticket. Perhaps he did eventually make his way in, but from what I saw, observing the first 100 people in line, he was met with one consistent response: silence and a definitive shake of the head, “no.” Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t replace a once-in-a-lifetime Nine Inch Nails experience.

Everybody in attendance recognized and deeply appreciated the fact that they were seeing Nine Inch Nails at The Troubadour, an intimate venue, with rich history. The atmosphere prior to the show was gracious, celebratory, and invigorating. People didn’t wait until the show began to enjoy the experience. They’d been enjoying this night since the moment they knew they would be among a mere couple hundred people who would see Nine Inch Nails play The Troubadour.

Troubadour StageA few minutes prior to 8:30pm, the energy inside the venue shifted. There was a collective understanding that this was the time to take care of any last minute needs or desires. People worked together, taking turns buying t-shirts, drinks, and making their final bathroom run of the evening.

When Nine Inch Nails hit the stage, it was explosive. Kicking the set off with “Somewhat Damaged”, the band and the crowd took the energy to otherworldly levels. The sound – despite its high volume – was crystal clear. There was no unintended distortion. The sound being as perfect as it was, I neglected to wear earplugs.

Yep, there were lights.

Yep, there were lights.

I wish I could describe what it felt like to be at The Troubadour when Nine Inch Nails played. We may have been inside a small venue, but from a production standpoint, this was no little show. One third of the balcony appeared to be taken over by the band’s equipment. When the show began, the neon “Troubadour” light behind the stage was dimmed. The audience was transported to a place they’d never been, even if they’d previously seen Nine Inch Nails a hundred times before.

That is among the reasons Nine Inch Nails is widely lauded as one of the best (if not the best) live bands in the world. No matter how many times you see them, every experience is unique, and the definition of “perfection” evolves.

For me, what stands out most is how much Trent Reznor cares and how apparent that is in everything he does. This is his life, his art, his passion. He cares about the experience as a whole, that people continually walk away, as I do, drenched in sweat and nearly speechless. Every show is unique, surprising, and absolutely mind, spirit, and energy altering.

Prior to the show, people speculated about the set list. The majority of fans suspected the band would play the new album, Hesitation Marks, straight through. Some elaborated that, following the new songs, Nine Inch Nails would certainly play some of their older material. This is what happens to music fans’ expectations when Nine Inch Nails leaves the scene. We become accustomed to, and expect that, every show is about pushing a new album or promoting something else entirely. That is how most bands would do it. That is how nearly every band I’ve seen this year has done it. That is the format we’ve grown accustomed to and accept.

This is how Nine Inch Nails did it at The Troubadour:

1. Somewhat Damaged
2. The Beginning of the End
3. Terrible Lie
4. March of the Pigs
5. Piggy
6. The Line Begins to Blur
7. The Frail/ The Wretched
8. I’m Afraid of Americans (David Bowie cover)
9. Gave Up
10. Sanctified
11. Disappointed
12. The Warning
13. Find My Way
14. Came Back Haunted
15. Wish
16. Survivalism
17. Burn
18. The Hand That Feeds
19. Head Like a Hole
20. La Mer
21. Hurt

For those who are less familiar with Nine Inch Nails’ discography, that’s a 21-song set list, including a mere three songs from the new album.

Nine Inch Nails at The TroubadourIt almost seems as if Trent Reznor takes it as a personal responsibility to make people question – and raise – their expectations. Every time I see Nine Inch Nails I’m surprised, even though I shouldn’t be. They are my favorite band to see live. I know how good they are. I know what they’re capable of. Then, they remind me: no matter how much I think I know, no matter how high my expectations, Nine Inch Nails leaves me at a loss for words with their sheer brilliance and dedication.

Their energy never wanes. Likewise, there’s no ramp-up time. When the band first burst onto stage, I felt like I had been blown back twenty feet. There was a simultaneous sound and light explosion that removed the audience from whatever day it was, whatever they had been thinking about, wherever they were – physically and mentally – and transported them to another world.

NINSimilarly, for Nine Inch Nails, the encore isn’t when they play their “biggest hits” or “fan favorites.” NIN takes the word “encore” literally – “another.” They return to the stage for more of what they’ve done – a mind-blowing level of making people lose their shit.

In addition to his integrity and dedication, Reznor exudes gratitude. With everything they do, Nine Inch Nails’ recognition of their fans is expressed. I walk away from each Nine Inch Nails show with an overwhelming feeling that the band truly appreciates each of us; not because Reznor says “thank you” numerous times, but because of the show itself.

Nine Inch Nails kicks off their U.S. tour later this month. See them if you’re able: http://tour.nin.com/

Trent Reznor

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NIN

Trent Reznor

Trent Reznor

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Trent Reznor

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Portugal. The Man at Red Bull Sound Space, KROQ

July 8, 2013
Red Bull Sound Space
KROQ, Los Angeles

What better way to kick off the Monday following a long holiday weekend than with a free show by an amazing band.

Having been to several “radio shows” before, I was a bit skeptical – not of Portugal. The Man‘s performance (I have complete confidence in that), but of the venue and format of the show. Any concerns I had were eliminated instantly upon arriving at the Red Bull Sound Space at KROQ. Representatives from KROQ, as well as Red Bull, were friendly, inviting, and engaging. Rather than emitting the vibe “You’re so lucky to be here,” the team’s message to all who were there was: “We’re so happy you came. Thank you.”

Nobody has to tell you that you’re lucky to be at a show like this. The moment you enter Red Bull Sound Space, you feel it. The space is intimate, accommodating approximately 150 fans. The backdrop of the stage is like a music time capsule – it’s constructed of speakers, turntables, boomboxes, receivers, and an assortment of other equipment. Rather than being covered in corporate branding or advertising, there is only one element of the backdrop that is branded, and its view is sometimes obstructed by the band. We see the branding, we know it’s Red Bull and KROQ, but when the band walks on stage, it’s about music and nothing else. This is very refreshing.

The show began with a brief, informed, and entertaining interview. It became clear that KROQ’s Nicole Alvarez is truly a fan of the band. She was very familiar with Portugal. The Man’s vast catalog, spoke about her personal connection to the music, and asked relevant questions. I know all of this seems like it should be a given, but it’s not to be taken for granted. This is not something all interviewers do well.

The band’s sense of humor and wit contributed greatly to the interview, as did the way they chose to answer – or not answer – the questions. Not to be confused with selective hearing – John Gourley has an impressive skill: selective responding. Clearly listening to each multi-part question, Gourley zeroed in on aspects where he could provide enough insight, while maintaining some mystery.

When asked about the meaning of their latest album, Evil Friends, or whether or not there’s a theme when they record, Gourley focused on the writing and recording process. He described how the band comes together to write and record in a way that makes you feel like you’re there, in the studio, with them. He left the meaning of the album up to the listeners.

Zach Carothers took on answering some of the questions, as well as chiming in during Gourley’s stories. Each time Carothers answered, he infused humor, often leading to a burst of conversation and laughter among the entire band. During these moments the dynamic personalities, quick wit, and friendship among Portugal. The Man members was undeniable.

My favorite moment during the interview came when Alvarez noted that Portugal. The Man puts out a new album nearly every year. Alvarez added that it seems as though the band is always either touring or releasing an album; they don’t stop. “That’s what we set out to do,” Gourley responded, adding that the band’s chosen goal is to make and play music as much as possible.

Portugal. The Man is a band that understands what it truly means to be musicians – just keep playing music. It’s a simple concept, but it takes constant discipline and dedication, which is what makes it hard for many to achieve. In addition to their music, it’s easy to appreciate and admire Portugal. The Man’s work ethic and commitment.

Playing songs from their latest album, Evil Friends, Portugal. The Man took us on a journey. This is the most stripped-down I’ve seen the band. Even when they played The Troubadour several years ago, Portugal. The Man brought in some of their own “lights” (in quotes because it’s nowhere near the setup they have now). The absence of lights and fog allowed me to appreciate the show on an even deeper level.

It was fun to watch the band build the songs – all the layers, the harmonies, the bass, guitar, keys, percussion, and the timing. When you hear the music, it sounds great. When you see what it takes to create the sound live – the precision of it all – it allows you to appreciate it that much more.

I feel that way each time I see Portugal. The Man. No matter the venue, the lighting, the stage, or the setlist, I take away something new at every show. Their shows are expansive and dynamic. There’s always more to discover when Portugal. The Man plays. They are one of very few bands I see every time they’re in town. 

After playing Creep In A T-Shirt, Evil Friends, Modern Jesus, and Sea of Air, Portugal. The Man announced the next song would be the last of this concise radio set. The audience let out a sigh of  “Noooooooo….” that was audible until the band launched into “Purple, Yellow, Red, and Blue.” At that moment, the sighs became cheers.

When reviewing my pictures from this show, I was surprised to find this. It appears my camera captured “Purple. Yellow, Red, and Blue” in the midst of the show. That’s one hell of a photo bomb, PtM.

 Portugal. The Man is on tour now. Get tickets before they sell out.

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