Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten sets in 2009

2008 was my year to travel to Europe twice and see countless sets from DC to Denver and a few points in between. 2009 was the first full year of DC Rock Live and every set I took in was from DC or the near-by cities. It is a tough call to come up with a list and my first draft was 25 bands. I try to weigh in the overall positive effect I cam away from the show with along with the element of surprise I felt, along with something I feel is important for me personally. There are a lot of really good local bands from here to Brooklyn that I have to compare to world acts, so perhaps I should break this out into two lists. Well, maybe next year (Sorry Caverns, Tennis System, Stellastar, etc.). For now, let us list. Scroll down for full reviews of the show.

10. Do Make Say Think - Rock'n'Roll Hotel - Dec 1st.  A nice surprise greeted me with this interesting collective of musicians. My cynicism is now greatly reduced toward large ensembles hitting the stage when they play compelling original music like this. The Toronto scene is a hot one for me.

9. Dresden Dolls - 9:30 Club - Jan 21st. The highlight of a rather corporate side inauguration party event. This simple looking duo of piano/vocals and kick-ass drums really pounded their music into me. Intense, smart and very fun.

8. Ya Ho Wha 13 - Velvet Lounge - March 27th. What could I expect from commune survivors from the band that gave us Father Yod and post-Seeds Sky Saxon songs? I was presently surprised by the exciting psychedelic jams and overall positive vibes exhibited by these three old-time members.

7. Opeth - 9:30 Club - May 13th. A little bias here, as Mikael Akerfeldt is a good friend of my friends, Comus. This band really nails compositional metal as good as anyone out there. I really felt it at this show, the second time I have seen them. Strong, thoughtful music.

6. Elliott Brood - DC9 - Nov 22nd. A great little set by a great little Toronto three-piece. I really hope I am catching rising stars here. They balance accessible pop rootsy music with psychedelic tones and gutsy rock.

5. Akron/Family - Rock'n'Roll Hotel - August 11th. I have seen them twice before, so no surprises here except for their adjustment to being a trio. Some of the whimsy was gone, but eccentricity remained within their usual great songs and stage presence.

4. Vieux Farka Toure - Rock'n'Roll Hotel - June 9th. African beats were on display, but lots of modern touches from rock, blues and psyche, too. Great guitaring easily covering any style Mr. Toure chose to play.

3. Van der Graaf Generator - State Theater - June 24th. A rare appearance by Pete Hammill and band was well worth the long, long wait. A smooth sound with very average looking gentlemen slowly unfolded into some of the most darkly intense progressive music I have ever heard. A brilliant show made better with an opening set by the Acoustic Strawbs.

2. Jay Reatard/TV Smith - Black Cat - July 5th. Truly an eventful evening for me. I got to see one of my punk heroes, TV Smith, play for the first time. Then, Jay Reatard completely lived up to his reputation as a great punk songwriter/performer and then, they all encore together playing four loud, raucous songs by the Adverts. Brilliant and so, so satisfying for me.

1. Os Mutantes - State Theater - October 7th. Like so many older acts I go to see, I mostly wanted to help complete my historical perspective of all the important rock bands of my lifetime. And sometimes the magic happens beyond that motive. This time, it did with a magical, wonderful, vibrant set of psychedelic music performed by these Brazilian masters. Knowing their history or nothing at all did not matter at all. This set was mindblowing psychedelic rock with world beat touches, perfectly delivered.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grant Hart / Ambition Burning / The Ultimate Vag - Velvet Lounge - Dec 21 2009

The Ultimate Vag - We have the drummer from "Kohoutek" and a guitarist from "To Live and Shave in LA". They play an extended jam that was quite good. The players are excellent and the guitarist made enough changes to keep any section from becoming too long winded. Some good melodies and attention getting sounds and rhythms throughout.

Ambition Burning - Straight ahead punk rock power trio. A woeful start where they stopped playing with an untuned bass. Then a long tuning break before the second song. Then a song they screwed up twice on, quit and played something else. Then, things started clicking and they showed a glimmer of hope. A few good burners and then a couple that sounded like Spaceman 3 which was quite a nice surprise. So there is something possible for this band. Keep practicing, guys.


 Grant Hart - I had not seen my old buddy in 22 years. After a quick catching up, he hit the stage solo with hollow body guitar plugged straight into an amp. I would have preferred a full band, but his voice was good and his song writing was always good enough to work in any format. Despite the mainstream media coverage, there were no more than 30 people present, although there was the snow and the holidays and other things going on. Still, a nice delivery of some quality pop songs was evident tonight at the dark and quiet Velvet Lounge.

Quote of the Night: from Mr. Hart- "I'm wearing my guitar like a damn apron (strap around front on both sides). Not very professional. I'm sure some of you noticed." He then replayed the opener or did a very long version of it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Scream / Rustbuckit - Black Cat Dec 20 2009

Rustbuckit - Something snowy happened to Dykstra who were not here to open, or maybe it was bankruptcy court. Anyway, we have four older guys who clearly have their chops and are grinding out some punk related straight ahead rock. They introduce themselves as a couple of guys from Black Market Baby and Steve from Minor Threat/GI. That makes perfect sense as this is in the BMB style as I remember it at least. Kind of reminded me of Easy Action (Post Negative Approach) with a totally different vocal style. Good rapid fire body blows delivered here, more than hook oriented pop. Solid, well done and glad to see them still rocking.

Scream - Happily, the Black Cat was able to move this sell-out from the back room stage to the full stage. They easily doubled the attendance with that move as the club was moderately packed in spite of the weekend of snow. The original four banged out two songs before introducing a newer second guitarist to play the rest of the way. Apparently, they are still a bit active as they had new songs to debut. I kind of assumed this was a one-off to get a paid trip back home for Christmas or something. And maybe it was as Brian Baker also was on hand for the encores adding more guitar pyrotechnics. The songs were great to hear again, always a tuneful band, the songs rocked with a mainstream style that was not pretentious. The sound started murky and confused but eventually righted itself as it often does. That distracted me a little, but the band was strong and together and the crowd enjoyed it a lot. They had a sax out for two of their more reggae inspired numbers, so lots of good variety in their set. The very bald Peter Stahl had a song about 1995 being the year of the bald singer, but I would like to see his thesis as it seemed the 80s was more where that happened. But he looked good and sounded better, so that was the main thing. The one key to Scream's success was their backing vocals (overall singing for that matter) and I had half forgotten how much that Skeeter and Franz helped move the songs along. I will happily plow through snow to see these guys anytime.

Quote of the Night: Between a couple of guys in the opener... "God those guys (Scream) got old." "Yeah, and we didn't?". I have to say Scream looked about 20 years older, two of the Rustbuckit guys looked about 35 years older.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sleeper Agent! / Cloak/Dagger / Domino Team / Solar Powered Sun Destroyer - Black Cat - Dec 18 2009

Solar Powered Sun Destroyer - Anglo-tinged indie rock with strong psychedelic touches and maybe an ounce of shoegaze. Three guitars blasting away at times with sound effects and a fog machine. Decent vocals, strong sound. They just did not quite get me to break out into overall excitement, but I just relaxed and remembered what you usually get from the fourth band on the bill. So a really good set and good things could be in store for this band.

Domino Team - Two guitars, bass, drums and two vocals with a multi-ethnic lineup. I anticipated the cliche and expected hip-hop metal, but instead got short, brutal thrash-metal bursts. Not as odd as Napalm Death, I suppose, but strong intense little bursts of power more like the NYC metal hardcover crossover bands. Amusing at times between songs, although one vocalist would not let anyone finish their sentence and you could only understand half of what was said, which was not altogether bad. The other vocalist is a bartender/manager at the Club and although that helps in booking, they delivered a solid opening band set.  Just work on the patter as you should have guessed when someone yelled for the third time, "shut up and play"!

Cloak/Dagger - A four piece from Richmond with one guitarist. Wow. The band is very smart by only having one guitar here. The guy is amazing as he can grind out rhythms and do fills, overtones and full leads and somehow keep the rhythm sound going. One of the best I have seen in this style, for certain. Rhythm section fast and good and the vocalist was strong and clear. The music reminded me of when punk split into hardcore and other (later called postpunk). The sound is from that era but they actually combined both styles into hard, fast punk rock with odd and angular moves within. Maybe a combination of Rudimentary Peni and the Proletariat? How about Honor Role and Ruin? How about I stop showing off all the obscure bands I know and just say this band is excellent, a hot and heavy creative in-your-face rock band that really struck a chord with me. Rather, they were striking the chord eight times a second with me.

Sleeper Agent! - My second time with this band and was surprised to see them headlining upstairs. Stabb quickly expresses his surprise at that as well (see below). Stabb had his usual wit which I enjoy as another old timer. When you're this old, it is wisdom I think (as I picture him wincing at that line--he has a good wince). As before, I think the guitarist is quite creative doing lots of unique things in the basic sound that is in the neighborhood of Government Issue, but not really. Probably some of the quirky moves in the songwriting feel like GI, but this band stands by itself just fine. Stabb was one of the excellent DC vocalists who all had one odd thing in common, they really didn't sing particularly well. What they had was style, presence and great delivery. I will except Peter Stahl from Scream from that description, but we'll see how he sounds this Sunday. Anyway, enough reminiscing. Much mention of the snowstorm that was just beginning to come down which clearly scared some people away. For the brave souls that came, they were treated to some great area music.

Quote of the Night: "Thanks to Cloak/Dagger, the band you people all really came to see"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Street Dogs / Roger Miret & the Disasters / Stigma - Black Cat - Dec 16 2009

Stigma - A loud, tough five piece hits the stage with a sound that was a bit too much at first, especially with vocals overdriving, but it settled eventually. We have two brothers from Agnostic Front on vocals and bass. Vinnie Stigma, singing here, was AF's guitarist back in the early days of NYC hardcore. That band had punk, hardcore and eventually metal combined with a resultant sound that is kind of obvious now, but was not back then. This band is clearly of that sound, style and energy level. An Iron Cross cover and lots of originals went over well with a surprisingly tepid crowd. I had a lot of respect for the band for asking the crowd to come up front and get enthusiastic and then smiling, keeping the energy and rocking out when the crowd kind of stood around. Other bands keep moaning and asking, but they just did their job and did win over the crowd by set's end.  Glad to see Vinnie looking well, as he was a nice guy some twenty-five years ago when I had a chat with him.

Roger Miret & the Disasters - Now we have the vocalist of Agnostic Front, playing some rhythm guitar with a lead and rhythm section behind him. The sound was again a bit off at the beginning with feedback and thin spots. The songs were a bit more Misfits-Syl Sylvain kind of numbers, but they rocked well enough. Once the sound sorted out, the band picked up steam and did a good job. Just another slab of NYC punk rock, and that is almost always a good thing.

Agnostic Front - ! What a nice surprise to get three of the original Agnostic Front guys together with an extra guitarist and Stigma's drummer. They did a couple of the classics which sounded great. After researching a bit, apparently Agnostic Front is getting back together and doing a substantial amount of touring next year in the US and Europe. If you want a dose of classic 80s, New York, this was the band to see then and I would recommend them now.

Street Dogs - "Holiday shenanigans with the Street Dogs" is how the flyer reads and that sets the attitude pretty well for this fun raucous band. This band started about seven years ago with former members of Boston's Dropkick Murphys. Irish punk rock all the way here. They have a love of the Pogues (and cover Boys From County Hell tonight) but want to play a bit more like the Ramones (OK, this is obvious as their entrance music was Blitzkrieg Bop and a Pogues instrumental). I think I saw them open for the Adolescents a few years ago and they blew me away. So tonight I expected their high energy, melodic, fun brand of punk rock and they delivered. The crowd was filled with hardcore fans and others that dug in and had a great time. The band brought a US Marine and had them set up a Toys for Tots booth in the back which was nice of them. They do charitable things and the singer was a firefighter, so they are a band you can respect or just go out and have a great time with.

Quote of the Night: from Stigma... "DC, the home of Iron Cross, Sab should be here any minute..." Such a singular DC band, that Iron Cross, you don't hear them mentioned often, but they resonate in a big way in some places.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Forgetters / The Max Levine Ensemble / Police & Thieves - St. Stevens Church - Dec 12 2009

Police & Thieves - This band sounded VERY 2nd generation harDCore. I could almost close my eyes and hear Faith playing. Earnest vocals, buzzsaw music striving for melody and succeeding mostly. A bit of crunch in the guitars and overall a pretty decent effort, especially with a fill-in drummer.

The Max Levine Ensemble - Revved up power pop punk that was pretty loud and assertive. The guitarist's vocals were lost early but the sound improved. The mosh pit got going and the songs were catchy. Great energy with band and crowd lead to a nice set.

The Speech discussing this benefit - I was getting this eerie feeling that I had been here before in 1987 when I lived in DC for a year. So this guy starts speaking and the feeling continues. Is this the same guy that did a benefit for Amnesty International with Scream back in 1987? As he talked about his group, We are Family, a senior outreach network organization, he did the usual nice type of speech. As he went on, the emotional intensity went up and yes, I recognize this speaker from that show 22 years ago! He then mentioned starting shows here in 1987, but I need not this evidence to realize that this is a truly odd deja vu moment. So this guy talks about being older to this good sized crowd of young people and I realize that he, myself and the sound guy are maybe the only older people here. The crowd is the exact young crowd I saw 22 years ago (with maybe a few more tattoos). The speaker went from an inclusive speech to an us/them them railing against the obvious targets and the crowd politely applauded. Where are their parents that were the last time? I am sure many have done good deeds as will many of these folks. But there is room for a lot of cynicism here as well. But I want to keep a positive vibe here (after all this is sponsored by Positive Force).

Forgetters - Right from the first note, I sensed we had a smart talented power trio here. They have some old pros from bands such as Jawbreaker and Against Me, so I was not too surprised. I really liked the strong mid tempo rock sound with clear dramatic vocals (almost TSOL like, but different). The vocal/guitarist had the challenge of segueing from the emotional positive speech to his explaining the nihilism and darker nature of their songs which was quite amusing and well done. The songs kept coming and I enjoyed them more and more. This is a very early show for this band and I suspect good things await them as they develop their audience. They have the goods to do very well.

Quote of the Night: "I got like vegan Doc Martens, they're like cool, it's like expensive, but whatever like... like... like..."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ra Ra Rasputin / Tennis System / Laughing Man / Baywa - Rock'n'Roll Hotel - Dec 5 2009

Baywa - "Like Baywatch without the tch"... You have the guitar, bass, drum kit foundation with a female vocalist/keyboardist and a Santana style stand-up percussionist with various drums for sticks and hands. Did the guitarist say the keyboardist was a guest? If so, they should try for permanence as she gave a help to their sound. Clearly, the rhythms were key and were pretty enjoyable all night. I thought the guitar and vocals (at times) were a little herky-jerky which was the intent, but just sounded like lower rate Talking Heads kind of stuff. Nice final song left a good taste in my mouth. Good job.

Laughing Man - The classic power trio comes on after the guitarist plays one bluesy number by himself which features more singing than guitar pyrotechnics. The drums and guitar were pretty simple with the bass a bit more interesting. It is not technically fascinating or brazenly punk shocking or anything, so what is it. I would say it had an "outsider" "real person" concept working here. A few songs were very moving and there was just something primal and powerful when it worked. It does remind me of the mysteries of watching new bands back in the punk days when lots of people tried to do something with music. You would get some fun results. This was fun.

Tennis System - Third time is the charm for me as I see one of DC's finest young bands. I am recognizing some of the songs and they are still awash with swirling shoegaze guitars and pulsating rhythms. A really fine band that should continue to do well. The only negative in the set was me as I was barely able to stay awake since I had spent two days baking, preparing and hosting a brunch for some friends earlier that day. But I could still feel the power tonight. Check out this band soon.

Ra Ra Rasputin - Sorry guys, I left early as I did not have it any me to make it a late one and the club was running a full hour after the posted times tonight.

Quote of the Night: "This song's called 6699.  I think it's cool cuz it looks like quotation marks together. People thinks it's about sex... which it is." from Baywa.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists / Radio 4 / Title Tracks

Title Tracks - Another hot set from this local four-piece. The first couple of songs were great power pop with hooks and beats a plenty. The band had a great rhythmic thrust with the jangly hooks and intimate vocals on top. Fully layered sound is the key here. If they keep writing, playing, touring, they could do very very well. Fun band.

Radio 4 - I have not seen this NYC outfit for about four years. I remember at the time that I respected their sound, but I just was not terribly moved. So for the first few songs, I was pleased to think that maybe I was being a little too hard on them. The sound began a bit like Title Tracks, but with less jangle and more of an early U2 rock and eventually a kind of European post-punk pop-rock sound. Further on, different songs introduced various other forms of funk, dub, garage-pop and then I remembered specifically where I had a problem with them. They are very slick and certainly enjoyable, but I just did not feel a real unified sound or a way to really bond with them. Not that it was bad set, far from it. But it really did not command an emotional interest. And the polite crowd did seemed to be little bland in response as well.

Photo by Shawn Brackbill
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The sold out crowd finally filled in slowly throughout the night. Leo is a big favorite in DC and delivers great shows. This one did not begin that way as there was a serious bass problem and some guitar problems. Leo played "Dirty Old Town", and old Ewan MacColl song in a good intense Billy Bragg style. So I didn't mind the problems, nor did the crowd. The band handled it well and the set began to grow more smoothly after the first four or five songs. Leo writes some fantastic pop-punk songs and the band delivers. 90 minutes of energetic pop with lots of power and feeling. This is well beyond a simple category of power pop.

Disturbing moment of the night: While choosing a urinal, I had to pick one way too close to some guy who was using both hands to write a text message. It may be less dangerous than texting while driving, but it was creepy.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Do Make Say Think / The Happiness Project / Years - DC9 - Dec 1 2009

Years - What we have here tonight is a collective of nine musicians from Toronto playing in total as the headliner and in various combinations with a songwriter/arranger leading the openers. Here we have the guitarist playing a hollow body electric and acoustic fingerstyle with the occasional loop. A trumpet gives a few songs some nice color and transition. The guitarist is no Davy Graham (few are even close) and the loops make it a little unclear what he's playing and when, but the result is the issue and the music is excellent. There's a good Robbie Basho style energy which I do enjoy much. And the more he plays, the more he earns my respect as a really good guitarist (which gets clearer in the subsequent sets as well). A sax joins in and other members pop in as well. A nice set.

The Happiness Project - This time a bassist/guitarist takes the lead by explaining that his project was to record his neighbor's speech patterns and compose songs off of the variant vocal maneuvering during their conversations. Alright, this sounds pretty iffy. But when he kicks it in starting with a conversation and then having a sax play along with it, it makes sense and sounds surprisingly good. The subsequent efforts go in different directions with full band interpretation, looped dialogue, and playing in between the words in interesting patterns. This really worked in spite of my misplaced cynicism. I look forward to the full band coming up next based on the creative and accessible sounds thus far.

Do Make Say Think - There is some instrument switching (as there has been already), but it is quite seamless and not manic at all. The nine members mostly play a couple guitars, a bass, two drumkits, violin, sax, trumpets, and keyboards. There is some slight group vocals more in the way of chants picked up by distant stage microphones, so we are dealing with instrumentals here. The music is diverse and very smart without being an intellectual exercise. Very catchy guitar lines and smooth brass breathing in and out between the main melody lines. Some really interesting psychedelic moves, interesting violin plucking, good drumming. In fact, if I were to compare this to Terrastock bands that I saw last year, this reminds me of somewhere between an Irish band I enjoyed immensely called United Bible Studies and a Louisville music collective Sapat. That is pretty high praise from me and I really had a great night watching these Toronto musicians. The club was crowded for a Tuesday and the patrons agreed heartily. Oh, and I now read they have worked with Akron/Family. What a surprise that great bands find each other and work with each other. Do Make an effort to see this collective.

Quote of the Night: "So this is place is hipster heaven..." from some annoying guy who talked loudly 3/4 of the way through the headliner's set.