Monday, February 11, 2019 Broad Stage, Santa Monica, CA
For whom or what would you risk your life? People often say they would risk their lives for their loved ones, but how many of us put our lives on the line, on a daily basis, to stand up for equality, human rights, and justice for people we’ve never met? I wasn’t thinking about this during Pussy Riot‘s appearance and performance at The Broad Stage Monday night, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Founding member, Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Pussy Riot were among the activists who participated in the Broad Stage series Artists Talk: Artists, Activism, and Agency. The evening began with a discussion and Q&A about art, Punk, culture, and language as vehicles to instigate change. The panel included Shepard Fairey, Catherine Opie, Tavares Strachan, and Tolokonnikova.
Throughout the conversation, Tolokonnikova reinforced the importance of moving beyond conversation and the need to take bold action. “I was so pissed at all those people just talking. Sometimes talking can be useful but, for me, it was just too much. You’re not doing enough.”
In regard to Putin serving multiple terms as President of Russia, and her desire to incite change, Tolokonnikova remarked, “I have to put all my energy and all my time into trying to do something with it. I realized at the time I would never succeed in doing it, but I would never forgive myself. . . I’m going to try. . . That, for me, is justice. . . Fuck abstract ideas.”
Though the issues Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot take a stand for may seem insurmountable, their efforts have illuminated injustices and prompted positive change. In 2013, during her prison sentence, Tolokonnikova went on a hunger strike and reported on the inhumane treatment of women in prison, including the use of women prisoners for slave labor. She remained vocal about the injustices throughout and after her prison term. Late last year, Russian officials announced that the head of the prison colony and several other officials had been dismissed after an inspection revealed female convicts were being tortured and forced to work under slave-labor conditions.
“Apparently, Tolokonnikova was correct,” FSIN Deputy Director Valery Maksimenko told TASS on December 24.
Though it took several years, Tolokonnikova is pleased with the outcome. “That is a big move because the next head of prison will be scared of using slave labor, probably, because he doesn’t want to be in jail as well. . . So just believe in yourself and some time – not necessarily tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or in two years, maybe sometime in 10 years – you will see the results.”
Tolokonnikova spoke about how Pussy Riot utilized Punk Rock to incite change in Russia by playing concerts outside, in public spaces, including Red Square. “It was a quite dangerous act . . . For Russia, in 2011, to play in a venue is not impactful enough. Maybe it used to be back in the days. But it wasn’t that impactful… When you’re Punk, you shouldn’t just think about the aesthetics, you should think about the impact you can have on social and political life.”
Following the discussion, Tolokonnikova and fellow Pussy Riot members performed new songs and teased a future release. The performance was powerful. There were striking and disturbing images on screen juxtaposed with nursery-rhyme melodies; hard-hitting lyrics and beats, followed by blood curdling screams. Tolokonnikova took it further, directly confronting the audience with her words and ideas, by taking a power stance and locking eyes with the crowd as she sang.
Midway through their set, the music was further punctuated by a video which explained just how dangerous it is for Pussy Riot to make music. The video detailed a multitude of topics which, in Russia, are not legal to incorporate in music and art. They include themes we take for granted in the United States, protected by freedom of expression: alcohol, religion, non-traditional relationships, positive attitudes about sex, etc. Essentially, if Pussy Riot – and other musicians in Russia – abide by those laws, they cannot make their art. Simply writing songs could land Pussy Riot in prison again.
Yet, Pussy Riot continues to write and perform songs, to risk their safety and their lives, not only for art, but for humanity, justice, and equality. Should we all put our lives on the line for political and social change? Looking at the world today, the argument could be made that we should.
While I have been active and working to promote positive change in many ways, I cannot get Tolokonnikova’s words, “you’re not doing enough” echoing along with all that she and Pussy Riot have done and continue to do, out of my mind. What else will I do? I’ve been considering that since I saw Pussy Riot perform a week ago and I’m not entirely sure. However, I am starting by supporting Pussy Riot every way I’m able.
It’s happened. After a 2 1/2 year hiatus from Rock Is A Girl’s Best Friend, St. Vincent has inspired me to write again.
During the past few years, I’ve been to hundreds of additional concerts, several of them outstanding. I’ve considered writing about some of those shows, but then life moved on, another show happened, and the backlog grew greater than Game of Thrones, thus becoming insurmountable. So here we are: nearly halfway through 2018. . . and I can’t stop thinking about a show I experienced 6 nights ago, nor the St. Vincent shows which preceded it earlier this year.
Now I have a new challenge: finding the words to describe Annie Clark and what it feels like to go on a journey with St. Vincent. Every adjective that comes to mind feels cliche when I consider using it in conjunction with Clark or her work. Some say “genius” and I agree, she is brilliant. “Genius” can infer that things come easy, but it’s Clark’s passion and dedication, in conjunction with her brilliance that consistently raise the bar with everything she does. What she puts into her music, art, storytelling, and shows, is undeniable – and potentially undefinable – when you experience it.
She’s exceptionally thoughtful, seemingly about everything she does. From writing to recording, production, artwork, creative vision, humorous album rollout, unconventional ‘press conference’, and performance. It’s clear her intention is to deliver the highest quality in all that she creates, and she does so masterfully. While thoughtful, it doesn’t feel contrived. It’s not a construct of her mind “thinking”. It’s the way she creates, and you can feel it coming from the heart (a cliche, but not in this case). You feel how deeply she cares, and that she cares because she’s creating for you.
The best analogy I can think of to describe Clark is the Galapagos. There are species which exist only in the Galapagos, nowhere else on the planet. Within the archipelago itself, there are plants and animals which exist solely on one of the islands, not the others. Traveling through the Galapagos, we saw things we’d never encountered before, which could not be defined by any word in our vocabulary nor fit into a familiar category. There was a bird-creature which looked most like a flamingo, but wasn’t; and a tree with the trunk of a palm tree, but each of its colossal branches resembled a pine tree. The brain short-circuits a bit, trying to make sense of what you’re seeing, and you become overwhelmed with awe. When you ask a Naturalist, “What is that??”, you learn there is no common word for it, just binomial nomenclature defining its genus and species. Terms you’ll likely not remember unless you’re fluent in Latin.
Now that we’ve established Clark is like the Galapagos and no description can do her justice, I will face the challenge and attempt to share my experience of seeing St. Vincent live. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same. If I had resumed writing sooner, I would have covered St. Vincent Fear The Future at The Palladium in January, as well as I’m A Lot Like You at The Orpheum in April. Both are among the best shows I’ve experienced and similarly left me without words sufficient to describe them.
Fear The Future was an innovative and bold exploration of St. Vincent’s evolution. Clark played solo, performing select songs from her earlier work, chronologically, culminating with a performance of her latest release, Masseduction, start to finish. As you journeyed through the time capsule with St. Vincent, song by song, another layer was peeled away, and you got to delve deeper. Visually, during the retrospective portion of the show, panels were removed from the stage, one by one, revealing more of St. Vincent each time. In my interpretation, an allegory for the evolution of Clark and her music. She is allowing us in further, revealing more, courageous in the face of vulnerability, powerful in Masseduction.
If anyone else were doing it, the show at The Orpheum in April would have been considered a “warm up” for Coachella and festival season. However, the way Clark did it, this initial performance of I’m A Lot Like You transformed the intimate indoor venue into a boundless space, which felt even larger than a festival. The band was back this time around, along with immersive lighting and visuals. The show was thematically, sonically, and visually powerful. Then, as we traveled toward the few remaining songs, Clark spoke about love and imagining the many experiences people must have shared in the venue historically. Her badassery and strength is rooted in her humanity and heart. The show transcended space, time, and form. I was not an audience member at a concert, we were not on Earth. I was 100% sober, having a phenomenal trip. That’s when I committed to seeing St. Vincent at least once more this year.
“Rattlesnake” at The Orpheum – April 11, 2018
Prior to the cancellation of FYF Fest, and with persistent reminders that nothing else of this caliber was happening, certainly not with any frequency, I started looking into other cities where I could experience St. Vincent and the I’m A Lot Like You tour again. I love traveling and especially enjoy going to concerts in unfamiliar places, where adventure and discovery are inherent, the people and sights are new. I settled on Charlotte, North Carolina. Tickets purchased, car rented, hotel booked. After wandering downtown, exploring museums and parks, I made my way to The Fillmore in time for the VIP Q&A. What was it like?
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, and without words, has a way of imparting that she is doing this for you; she sincerely cares. She doesn’t merely make you feel that way, it emanates from her core. It’s who she is.
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.
Her responses were similarly manifold and meaningful. While everyone was just getting to know each other in that moment, the vibe and conversation was more akin to gathering in a living room with long-time, good, friends. It offered insight into how Clark is so attune, empathetic, and able to deeply connect. Extrapolating the attentiveness with which she listens to people to how she must observe and intake the world, I got a glimpse into Clark’s creative proficiency (and potentially, her oft referenced anxiety).
Equally magical to experience was Clark’s presence. We live in a world with infinite distractions, devices, and 140-character attention spans, but Clark is wholly present. That is a gift which breaks down the barrier of time. We all have access to a time machine – it’s our own presence and attentiveness in any given moment. Clark does it so skillfully, she brings everyone along for the ride. Experiencing this during the intimate conversation, illuminated how St. Vincent shows transcend space and time.
After thanking us for being there and acknowledging each “thank you” in return, Clark disappeared to get ready for the show, and the rest of us continued the conversation. The doors opened and the venue filled quickly. People traveled from around the country to be there. I don’t recall meeting one person who was from Charlotte, North Carolina. The energy shifted from quiet evening at home with friends to anticipation of the biggest party of the year. The forthcoming show would be spectacular, not taken for granted, but a given – it’s St. Vincent. Throughout the evolution, Clark’s commitment to quality remains constant.
The house lights dimmed, the band took the stage, and St. Vincent took us on another journey, kicking off, full force, with “Sugarboy”. I am not one of those people who “forgets to eat”, but I could watch Clark play guitar for days on end and imagine I would forget to eat. It is captivating. The earlier conversation among friends was now amplified on stage: Clark is someone who cares deeply about humanity, putting forth the best, and who doesn’t simply “deliver”, but magnetically invites and transports you to a spectacular, limitless place.
The band is outstanding, the show is magnificent, Clark’s voice and performance impeccable, you get lost in the way she commands the guitar. There’s silence, followed by an uproar of cheers when she hits the high notes in “Young Lover.” There was no doubt she would do it, but people created the space to absorb and then celebrate each moment.
Even though I know how the song goes, I always forget how hard “Huey Newton” hits. That’s by design and it works every time. The same holds true for “Digital Witness”, “Masseduction”, “Marrow” and each song in the setlist. All the times I’ve heard these songs and seen them performed live, and they feel new and astonishing with each performance.
It feels personal. You can be surrounded by hundreds or tens of thousands of people, and feel as though Clark is performing specifically, and solely, for you. A friend of mine, who saw St. Vincent in Manchester in 2014 told me of his experience, “I think she felt the joy I was receiving from the show, so she kept giving me more.” If you read Tweets or Instagram posts following St. Vincent shows, you will see similar sentiments echoed: “she winked at me,” “she smiled at me”, “she played to me”. . .
During the gathering-of-friends conversation earlier in the night, I asked if she now knows what to do should she encounter a rattlesnake in the wild. There was laughter and some suggestions from people in the room. But St. Vincent’s answer to the question came hours later, when she performed “Rattlesnake”. She stepped forward, acknowledged me with a playful and daring look, and then dropped to her knees and responded:
The more present you are, the more immersed you become, the harder you go, the harder she goes. Presence makes the concept of time vanish and communion eliminates the physical space. You are transported, transfixed, and transformed.
What came through most strongly to me is that Clark desires that everyone is well and happy, living their best life. And if she can contribute to that creatively, it’s what she wants to do – it’s what she’s here to do. Between songs, she acknowledges and responds to each shouted “I love you,” just as she shared in the moments of gratitude with us during the earlier conversation. The show concludes, and you walk away with that reflection of gratitude, strength, vulnerability, community, support, energy, badassness, happiness, and love. I’m A Lot Like You. Go.
In addition to their music, what makes this gathering so special is the humanity, connection, joy, and presence The Watkins Family exudes.
The spirit in the room feels festive and light. It’s a gathering of good friends, who’ve come together to celebrate and share stories, songs and laughter. The dynamic interaction between those on stage is shared with all in attendance. The musicians have a long history with each other, but they make sure to let the audience in on their inside jokes. With their presence and openness, The Watkins Family unites us all.
Their music carries a similar inclusive, dynamic, and evolving energy. Thanks to the tone The Watkins Family sets and Largo‘s no-cell-phone policy, it is a completely immersive experience. You can get lost in the sound, hear how each note plays off the other, and the way the instruments and voices work together, each elevating the other. Rather than simply play their part, the musicians listen to and accompany each other. It is a live music experience in the purest sense. Created in front of you, the songs feel different each time they’re played. The Watkins Family Hour is a monthly residency that has spanned more than a decade, yet the show is still refreshing, unique, and anticipation for the next one never wanes.
The dynamic atmosphere is balanced with a sense of history and tradition. Whether you’re attending your first Watkins Family Hour show or your thirty-first, it feels as though you’ve been there since the beginning. The Watkins Family transports you to another time and place, where all there is to do is enjoy music and our time together.
There are no computers, fog machines, nor fancy lighting rigs. You may feel like you’ve been invited to a family gathering at one of their homes, especially when Sean and Sara sing while standing beneath a homemade snow machine, getting doused by white flakes. Last night, The Watkins Family reminded us not to take things too seriously and to embrace and express our childlike spirit. With the snow machine and humorous elves, they also gave us the gift of another inside joke and “you had to be there” moment.
There’s music, comedy, and last night, there was snow. You can’t Auto-Tune this and it won’t translate in virtual reality. The Watkins take you on a journey which, like life, is ever-changing and more fun to navigate with music, a sense of humor, and surrounded by family and good friends.
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.
Rob 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??
Without 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.
For 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.
A 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.
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
6. The Line Begins to Blur
7. The Frail/ The Wretched
8. I’m Afraid of Americans (David Bowie cover)
9. Gave Up
12. The Warning
13. Find My Way
14. Came Back Haunted
18. The Hand That Feeds
19. Head Like a Hole
20. La Mer
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.
It 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.
Similarly, 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/