Sometimes seeing a live show is like having amazing sex – when it’s so good you start to worry, “what if it’s never this good again??” During The Civil Wars show at Largo last night I was overwhelmed with immense joy and a bit of fear that the next shows I’m lined up to see may disappoint in comparison. The Civil Wars’ show at Largo last night was the best sex I’ve had all year.
Joy Williams and John Paul “JP” White are The Civil Wars. I could not have had higher expectations for them to exceed and they exceeded them. JP plays guitar. From time to time Joy plays piano. Their voices are exquisite. Their songwriting is beautiful. They’re playful. They’re funny. They surprise each other and they’ll surprise you.
Williams and White met approximately 3 years ago “at a random song-writing gathering” that neither of them wanted to attend. Prior to becoming The Civil Wars, both Williams and White had solo careers and worked extensively writing songs for other artists. Following their initial meeting and writing session, they joined forces as The Civil Wars and have sold more than 100,000 copies of their debut album, Barton Hollow, in 4 months, without a major label.
When you hear The Civil Wars’ songs and see them together, a sense of peace and extreme happiness wash over you – you are reminded that everything is as it should be. You remember that sometimes, when we let go of an idea we held onto so steadfastly, we’re liberated to experience something even better than we could have imagined. You stop worrying about time and pre-conceived notions of how things “should” be. The Civil Wars are a sublime reflection that there’s nothing to worry about. When you see Williams and White perform together, you know it had to be this way. You begin to feel more faith and comfort, realizing that everything you envision for yourself will come in time as well.
I was fortunate to see The Civil Wars perform at Largo, one of my favorite venues in Los Angeles. Largo has a strictly enforced “no talking, no texting, no photographing, no cell phone” policy that leaves the audience no choice but to get lost in the music. The sound in the theatre is amazing and the elegant stage the perfect setting for this show.
When The Civil Wars left the stage, the audience gave them the most heartfelt and unified standing ovation I’ve experienced in a long time. Knowing that The Civil Wars were coming back for an encore didn’t mean the crowd sat down and waited. We were on our feet, applauding, until Williams and White returned, reminded that even if something is a “given,” it’s not to be taken for granted.
There’s no end to my love for The Stronghold, and there’s no end to my love for Joseph Arthur. If Rock Is A Girl’s Best Friend had been around eleven years ago, you would have read a lot of Joseph Arthur reviews by now. Of all the musicians I’ve seen repeatedly throughout the years, Joseph Arthur may be the only one whose shows in Los Angeles I have not ever missed.
Joseph Arthur Live Painting
Among my many favorite Joseph Arthur memories are the days when he’d come to Los Angeles for a month at a time and play a residency at Largo. I’d go to every show (as previously stated) and each one was completely unique. That was nine or ten years ago, when Arthur’s catalog wasn’t nearly as extensive as it is now. Yet, he managed to make every set feel different – not just a different Joseph Arthur show, but a different experience altogether. There were times he’d talk about almost mythical, sometimes dark, dreams he’d had the night before. Other times he would show us recent drawings, or pages of lyrics written in his notebook and then sing us a newly penned song. He would recreate a song you thought you knew really well (because you had listened to it repeatedly on one of his albums) and you would hardly recognize his live rendition of it at first. Then, you’d hear the lyrics, and beneath the layers of sound Arthur built in front of you, the through-line of a familiar guitar note or beat. He’d talk about darkness and fears – sometimes completely introspective; other times, so external that the conversation seemed to take place on another plane of time and space.
Joseph Arthur at The Stronghold
A decade later, a lot has changed, but Arthur’s shows are consistent, and they have evolved. Instead of holding up a sketch book and showing us his illustrations, Arthur now throws canvases up prior to his set and paints live, while singing. His notebook of new songs has grown exponentially – it takes effort to lift and hold steady while playing and singing. He still wrestles with fear, although now it’s infused with humor. “I’m gonna put these on now. . . because I’m scared, ” Arthur said with a smile as he put his sunglasses on Friday night. He still manages to play his songs different every time. There may be subtle differences in meter or drastic differences in the melody.
Arthur not only plays songs for you, he creates them for you, before you. He begins with a sound, or a beat, or a chord, then he samples it and loops it. Then, he adds another sound, beat or chord, and samples and loops that. Then he’ll layer on vocals and more sounds. The band joins in and Arthur begins to sing, stepping on and off pedals to bring various sounds in and out throughout the song. You may have seen other musicians do this before, but never like this. Often, when a musician does this, they recreate the song and all the sounds the same way every time, so that you get a song that sounds like the recoded version, without a big band. What makes Arthur different is – well, he does it different every time. I’ve been watching Joseph Arthur create music for eleven years and I have yet to see him play a song the same way twice. And this is how, and why, I go to every single Joseph Arthur show in the area.
Joseph Arthur is playing Fridays in April, at The Stronghold in Venice. They’re closed this week, but try and hit the last Fridays of the month. Go more than once, you never know what’s going to happen. . .
Here are some videos from the past two Fridays of Joseph Arthur’s residency. One thing about The Stronghold is that it feels like a private loft party, where you’re surrounded by a large group of friends, which is really cool. That said, when you get a large group of friends together at a house party, they talk. Ordinarily, at a typical music venue, this would annoy me. But at The Stronghold, you realize it’s just a solid community of great people who enjoy each other and gather around music. The conversation, laughter, and fact that nobody’s “too cool” to talk to anybody else is one of the best things about The Stronghold. So the chatter is forgiven in the room, but apologies for some of the background noise in the videos (it tends to die down a minute into each song):
Ordinarily I’d be inclined to hate a venue like Largo – it’s full of rules and “no”s. But Largo has been good to me for the past 13 years. I’ve experienced some amazing shows at Largo including: Elliott Smith, Neil Finn, Fiona Apple, Ben Folds, Glen Phillips (Toad The Wet Sprocket), Aimee Mann, E (The Eels), Robyn Hitchcock, Joseph Arthur, John Doe, Jon Brion, Grant Lee Phillips, Rufus Wainwright, Jack Black, and Tenacious D. I’ve laughed my ass off at comedy shows featuring Greg Behrendt, Sarah Silverman, Doug Benson, The Naked Trucker, Jack Black, and Tenacious D.
As I sat in the audience having a thoroughly enjoyable night of music, I realized this was made possible precisely because of those fucking rules. Largo puts music first. It’s one of the few places where you can completely escape – even planes have WiFi now. You have no choice but to become entirely immersed in music at Largo. Well, your other choice would be to leave. Largo puts the music before the customer. It’s great for the Artists too because they get to focus on playing their shows. The musicians aren’t stuck being “the assholes,” asking people to be quiet from stage, enduring the annoying ringing or feedback from cell phones in the monitors, nor averting their eyes from flashing bulbs. The musicians play. The audience listens. Largo takes care of the rest. When it comes down to it, Largo is doing everybody a favor. So if you think Flannagan’s an asshole, he’s not – he just likes music more than he likes you.
Fact: I’ve only received two criticisms since I started Rock Is A Girl’s Best Friend. The first was for not writing enough about M. Ward in my Monsters of Folk review. The second was for not mentioning The Chapin Sisters in my review of Butch Walker’s most recent show in LA (the comment was posted on Facebook). Well, guess what “MB” and Jeff – I wanted to give The Chapin Sisters and M. Ward their own review all along, and here it is:
First off, Largo is the perfect venue for a show like this. The room invokes a classy, theatrical vibe. The sound is great, nobody is talking or clicking away on their cell phones, you don’t hear the noise of the bar or the spilling of drinks. You can close your eyes and get lost in sound for a couple hours. That said, you won’t find yourself closing your eyes at this show because there’s an element of artistry and performance conveyed visually, that you don’t want to miss.
The Chapin Sisters, accompanied at times by the Brothers Brothers, were great. I actually felt like an adult at this show, like I was doing something civilized and sophisticated. I don’t often like that feeling, but tonight it worked. However, because The Chapin Sisters made me feel something I’m not used to feeling, I’m finding it difficult to articulate. Go see them for yourself. Close your eyes and let the harmonies drown out the voices in your head. The Chapin Sisters are a perfect complement to She & Him. Their music and performance evoke a different time and a foreign land. Vinyl seems the appropriate format for listening to this music.
She & Him, headed up by Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, blew me away. At times, I was listening to a seemingly even-paced, “mellow” song, and then M. Ward kicked in with some absolutely insane guitar parts that bordered on psychedelic. And who wears a fluffy, fuchsia dress on stage?! Zooey Deschanel does. That, marks my first-ever remark about what an Artist wears on stage. I despise those portions of reviews that talk about what the singer is wearing or the drummer’s new haircut. Typically, that has nothing to do with the music! Yet, in the case of She & Him, Deschanel’s dress, and certainly her high heels, were important to the show. The tone of the show was reinforced by the dress and the heels that, at times, were too high for Deschanel to effectively play the Wurlitzer.
Speaking of the Wurlitzer – She & Him, well actually, “She,” knew exactly how and when to insert humor into the set. It’s a good thing Deschanel broke things up with light-hearted and quirky banter. Otherwise, we may all still be sitting there in a hypnotic state. To pass the time while the band tuned their instruments, Deschanel remarked, “The Wurlitzer is smooth. Some say it’s smoother than a piano. . . It’s like a piano, but with fewer options. . . Less lows. . . and highs.” The description felt a bit like an analogy for life. You can live a “piano life,” with all its highs and lows. Or, you can live a “Wurlitzer life” which may be smoother, but has less options.
Among many highlights of the show was She & Him’s unplugged performance of “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” You could forget to breathe during moments like those. “Change Is Hard,” “Sentimental Heart,” and “Take It Back,” were also favorites. The Chapin Sisters lent their vocals, shakers, and sleigh bells to the music as well. At one point Deschanel asked The Chapins what they were discussing. The Chapins then asked Deschanel her opinion about including sleigh bells in the next song. “You can play whatever you want. Cuz that’s the kind of friend I am!” Deschanel said, exuding confidence and sarcasm. After pausing for a moment, she added, “I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore!” That statement scored her hundreds of points in my book.
Approximately two-thirds of the way through the show, Deschenal informed the audience she was done singing new material. “No more new songs,” Deschenal said, probably expecting a sigh of relief. Instead, the audience booed. Deschenal responded, infusing her response with humor, “BUT. . . old songs!!” she said with a smile. “Yay!” the crowd responded in unison.
“You’re all so quiet,” M. Ward acknowledged between songs. “Are you OK?” Yes, everyone was OK – they were just afraid to make a sound. Tonight marked the 1st show of She & Him’s 2010 world tour. “It’s the first show of our world tour and we wanted to have it at Largo since it’s one of the best venues in the world!” Deschanel explained. Even though it was too dark for the band to see the set list, and that as a fan, you’ll not find any of this on YouTube, it seemed both the Artist and Audience wouldn’t have done it any other way. Largo wins again.
Abiding by the rules, these are the only photos I took:
The irony of the “Totally Nude Strippers” sign reflected in Largo’s mirrored sign. There’s a lot that can be inferred…
The mirror of Largo
The rabbit hole is accessible via the woman’s bathroom:
Oh Largo, you’re like a dependable old lover. Even when I try to walk away from you altogether, you lure me back in with the pull of good music and the allure of your distanced “I’m going to serve you from behind the safety of this gate” stance. Although I successfully resisted your temptation since Butch Walker played there December 4, 2008, you sucked me in once again.
And it was even better than I remembered.
“Trust a little in Largo” was the door guy/ticket guy/MC’s response to a question I asked about seating. I’m sure he has a name and I’d like to know it because he’s one of the reasons Largo exceeded my expectations tonight. The other reason is, of course, Fran Healy and Andy Dunlop (Travis).
Andy Dunlop & Fran Healy
Healy explained that the concept of this tour was to play songs chronologically from the first song he wrote to the most recent song he’s written. The idea is that they’ll write a new song every couple of days, and perform the new song as the last song of the set in the next city they play. “At the end of the tour, we hope to have written an entire new Travis album,” Healy remarked.
Whereas the model has been: make a record and then go on tour to support it, Healy and Dunlop flipped the model to: go on tour to support the making of the record.
Already, I loved them.
Then they played the songs, each preceded by Healy’s entertaining commentary. Healy introduced “20” as a song he wrote when he was 19, realizing the best years of his life may be coming to an end with his twentieth birthday. “People make a big deal out of turning 21,” Healy said. “But really, it’s 20 that’s the big deal because that’s when 17, 18, 19 come to an end. And those are the best years because you’re doin’ everything for the first time.” Healy also noted that this is the first song he wrote that he felt was a good song; a sign that he could make a career out of this.
If there’s one thing I like better than ice cream, it’s a funny musician. Healy introduced “All I Want To Do Is Rock” by showing a slide show about Scotland. He gave a humorous geography lesson and then ended the slide show with a picture of his view from the window in the building where he wrote the song. There was a longer story about “Turn” which boiled down to being “a song about wishes. A song full of wishes.”
“It’s an A&R man’s dream when a lead singer gets chucked,” Healy reflected. “Now he’ll write some proper songs,” said Healy, mocking the overjoyed A&R guy. This insight set the stage for Healy and Dunlop’s performance of “A Funny Thing.”
“Flowers In The Window” was written in a house where Travis once stayed. The host introduced the band to the home saying, “Everybody writes a song here.” Rebelliously, Healy thought to himself, “well, I’m not writing a song here.” But that all changed after he received inspiration while looking at flowers in the yard, through a window (and his obstructed view the morning after).
It seemed as if the guys were playing all my favorite Travis songs. In addition to the songs previously mentioned, they played “Good Feeling” and “As You Are”; “Writing To Reach You” and “Sing.” Tonight was the 4th night in a row they played Largo and Healy said they’ve changed the set every night. Although the songs themselves may change, one thing is consistent night to night – Healy and Dunlop remain true to the original concept, playing the songs chronologically during each performance.
Healy spoke about the inspiration for “Why Does It Always Rain On Me” which was written during a trip to Israel. Somebody told him it would be sunny there (his one prerequisite for the vacation) so he journeyed to Israel. The moment Healy arrived it began raining, and this song was written.
Healy also spoke about the lyric: “I’m being held up by an invisible man.” “The invisible man is the A&R guy or manager who’s holding you up (supportively) so you can finish the record. Of course, there’s a double entendre — they’re ‘holding you up’ (Healy positions his hands as if they’re guns) for the record as well.” Healy looked at the audience and continued, “I’ve never explained that to anyone before.” Then he looked at Dunlop, “I don’t think I even told you that. . .” Dunlop nodded in agreement.
Another lyric Healy discussed is: “pillars turn to butter” from the song, “Driftwood.” He was looking to complete the lyric with the idea of one thing evolving into another, to follow the “Nobody”/”Everyone” dichotomy of the previous line. “Caterpillars turn to butterflies” was the original line, but it was too long to fit the form of the song so Healy abbreviated it to “pillars turn to butter.” “But that changes the meaning again. It’s another good visual – these strong pillars turning to butter,” Healy elaborated.
I spoke with the guys for a bit after the show. Dunlop described how much fun these shows are and how they differ from a typical Travis tour. “We don’t want to get comfortable during these shows. When we’re on tour with Travis, we want to get comfortable because we’re going to be playing these songs over and over again, each night with the band. But here – we don’t want to get comfortable. There are some songs we may play every night, but we make the experience different. Especially since we’re playing four shows in a row at the same venue – we don’t usually do that. We’re aware that some people might come to more than one show and we don’t want them to think, ‘Oh. . . here we go with this again. . .” Dunlop elaborated.
We also discussed the current state of the music business. Healy and Dunlop are now off the major label and releasing music independently. Dunlop reflected, “Music is getting back to what it used to be – small record shops, independent labels, the musician and the fan, spending time with our audience, more intimate shows and settings.”
I asked how they conceived of the idea to go on tour as the central creative process for writing another record. Again, it was to do something different – to keep the tours and the music feeling fresh. Dunlop shared his outlook, “You know, we may get nothing out of it. Or we may get a lot out of it. If nothing else, we get to travel all around and see some beautiful places.”
Then I shared a perspective, telling Dunlop, “We’d like it if you’d release a double-CD; one CD with all the commentary and another with the acoustic song performances.” Dunlop mentioned that they’ve recorded everything from each show so far and that they may release it following the tour.
As of now, if you’re lucky enough to attend one of these shows, you can purchase a CD comprised of 80 minutes of live audio recorded during this tour.
Last night I was fortunate enough to attend Sondre Lerche‘s sold-out show at The Troubadour. Before we jump into the details, here’s what I learned during the show:
It’s all about simplicity – you don’t need a lot of equipment. . . or any equipment at all
The better you are, the less you need to sing
Sex sells. . . tickets and merch
Sondre Lerche at The Troubadour
Lerche is a musician from Norway whose U.S. career launched in 2002, and who continues to sell out shows and merch – how does he do it?
I first discovered Lerche in 2002, when Faces Down came out. It was during my Largo era (they’re not music snobs. . . they just have better taste than you). I used to spend several nights a week at Largo, hanging out with the sophisticated music insiders, which gave me an early awareness of all the truly talented emerging artists on the scene.
Lerche was the guy to hear/see/buy at the time and I was among the few people in LA who knew about Lerche during his opening stint with Nada Surf. In March 2003, I went to Nada Surf’s sold-out show at the Knitting Factory to see Sondre Lerche. Just to add further context – this was the year Nada Surf’s critically acclaimed album, Let Go, came out. The place was packed and hot, and everybody was jockeying for the best position to see their favorite band – Nada Surf – play. . . until Sondre Lerche hit the stage.
Lerche spoke very little during that show. If I remember correctly, his English vocabulary may have been quite limited at the time. From the moment he sang the first note, the audience was spellbound. He played for approximately 45 minutes while the crowd stood silently, eyes wide, mouths open (not to talk – just so they remembered to breathe). When Lerche finished his set there was an uproar of applause and then silence. He left the stage and everybody around me looked like they had just witnessed the coming of their religious icon. People, who had initially been excited to see Nada Surf, looked blankly at each other as if to say, “now what?” In fact, a significant number of people left early during Nada Surf’s set, muttering that nothing could top Lerche’s performance.
The next day, everybody in Los Angeles was talking about Sondre Lerche. That was the show to be at, that nobody knew about, and they weren’t going to miss him again. Lerche’s music broke beyond the sophisticates and to the masses of LA. His headlining shows have been sold-out ever since, which is the only reason I hadn’t been back to seem him. . . until last night.
"You knew the rules by heart. . . "
Cut to The Troubadour, 9:30pm, September 24, 2009: another sold-out show for Lerche. I believe that you can get a good gauge of how a show might go based on the energy in the audience before the show. This crowd was buzzing . . . and talking about a lot of sex. Now, I love sex, and I’m happy to talk about it, but this felt like I’d walked in on some inside joke – as if they’d passed around a note before the show that read: Discuss your wildest sex adventure between sets.I heard about people’s video-taped escapades and sex on the beach (not the drink, the act) for 15 minutes leading up to Lerche’s performance. And let’s be clear, this was not a trashy crowd – these are your neighbors, colleagues, sons and daughters – and they’re having a good time.
Boy, was the audience excited when Lerche took the stage! Other things that I noticed about the crowd (pay attention new artists and record labels) were:
It was a young audience. Lerche has managed to remain relevant 7 years later, continually gaining new fans
It was a good-looking crowd, a nice mix of women and men, but mostly good-looking women – which as you know, draws the men
They were so into the show they didn’t budge for an hour and a half – not to go to the restroom, not to get a drink (sorry bartenders, but Lerche is really good)
I hope Nelly disses me on the internet
Now none of that may seem ground-breaking or revolutionary, but what is somewhat amazing is that Lerche continues to build this loyal following, without the help of radio or mainstream media outlets. In fact, speaking about the song “Easy to Persuade,” Lerche said, “I get a lot of people saying I ripped off Nelly. So I’m hoping he disses me, disses me on the internet, or maybe on MTV. That’s probably my only shot at getting on MTV.” Lerche is one of those artists who is so good people know about him, and they will come to his shows and buy his t-shirts repeatedly. He is also extremely engaging and charming on stage. If he didn’t before, he’s certainly got a great handle on the English language now! I haven’t laughed that hard between songs in a while.
"But tell me all about our little trailer by the sea. Jessie. . ."
Lerche sang a nice mix of newer material and old favorites. He also covered “The Word Girl” by Scritti Polliti and “Jessie” by Joshua Kadison (remember this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iElty90IPiw). The “Jessie” cover was one of the highlights of the night, dedicated to Lerche’s friend and opening act, Jesse Marchant (aka JBM). Lerche’s expressive performance, infused with his humorous version of the song (achieved via pauses, inflections, and facial expressions as he sang) had the crowd begging for more. In fact, I kind of got the impression Lerche had only planned to sing the first verse and one round of the chorus, but people were so into it, he sang the entire song, a cappella.
Lerche also sang an old favorite, “Two Way Monologue”, a cappella. Although, this time not by choice. About midway through the song, Lerche encountered technical difficulty with his guitar cable and had to unplug. Not only did he play the guitar without amplification, he moved away from the mic, stood on the edge of the stage, as close to the crowd as possible, and just sang. The crowd offered support, at first cheering (until Lerche reminded them they needed to be quiet in order to hear) and then singing along. It was one of those magical impromptu moments that you dream to be part of during a live show.
Lerche captivates the audience
When Lerche sang “My Hands Are Shaking”. . . well, he didn’t have to sing. The audience sang the entire song while Lerche played guitar and lent his voice on occasion. But mostly, this song was performed by his fans. “Wow, usually on a really good day, you hope the crowd sings along for the encore. But that’s not even the encore,” Lerche said, addressing the audience graciously. Lerche also had the benefit of crowd vocal support when he played “Heartbeat Radio.” “Tell me what you think about this song,” Lerche sang, and the crowd sang back, “I love it!”
Line of fans waiting to buy merch
Lerche returned for 2 encores and the crowd left gratified, but not before stopping by the merch booth. I’ve been to a lot of big shows at The Troubadour (Queens of The Stone Age, Ryan Adams, The White Stripes, Damien Rice, etc.) and I have never seen a merch line this long. On a good night the line will extend the length of the bar. But last night, there were so many people in line that The Troubadour was forced to open the side door and allow the line to extend outside. The line of fans waiting to purchase music and merch (and hopefully meet Lerche) stretched down the block, beyond the building, to the corner of Doheny and Santa Monica.
Seven years later, Lerche upholds the promise of a show you’ll never forget.