A Month on the Town

The man who's reviewed 12,000 records reviews 32 shows in 30 days

Note, however, that all these music lovers like it live for different reasons. Contingency fan Keil treasures the marginal miss, contingency fan Small the magic mesh. Jazz locates inspiration in the mortal musician, gospel in the celestial divine—while blues fans, not unlike indie fans, romanticize the grotty, beer-soaked venue itself. Where blues fans differ from indie fans—and always have, even down at the crossroads—is that they regard musicians as means to a party, and the party as the goal. Indie fans aren't so sure about parties—or anything else, except maybe their favorite band that month. At their best, they're musical adepts combining all of the above. At their worst, they're one-upping self-seekers who wouldn't know a good band if it played their student union for three bucks with proper ID. Either way they regard the venue as the crucible of their developing values and personalities.

This process now has its own theorist: indie kid turned bizzer turned anthropol-ogist Wendy Fonarow, whose Empire of Dirt proved a stimulating 'tween-set read. Fonarow did her formal research in Britain in 1993 and 1994, and some things have changed—moshing has declined, and the guitar relinquished its absolute dominance. But the basic pattern, in which indie is more temporary identity marker than aesthetic commitment, is depressingly stable. The best of Fonarow's many concepts divides venues into three zones. Zone One is the pit, crammed with the youngest, maddest, and most physical fans. Zone Three is the back or the bar, where what the Brits call liggers yap through sets—bizzers, musicians, scenesters, casuals. Also, Fonarow claims, journalists—but not me, or any other rock critic I know. I've been a Zone Two guy since stand-up shows became the norm 30 years ago.

photo: Nicholas Burnham

The reason, obviously, is aesthetic. Zone Two is the best place to hear music—and see it, and feel it. Its sensations fill you without overwhelming you. Keil is right about participatory discrepancy—part of live music's excitement is the way it transfigures tiny failures of synchronicity. But this counts for more in the musics Keil loves—jazz, blues, polka—than in rock per se. I go to shows to get a fuller sense of the artist and to augment my experience of the music with other people's cheers and pheromones. And I go to concentrate, focus, immerse. Invariably I find myself registering new details and making new connections. Usually I have a good time, and every once in a while I luck into an epiphany. I'm a record guy, always will be. But records can't match the exhilaration of the best gigs. You walk home prepared to live forever.

Somewhere nearby you'll find a schedule and an order of preference for 32 lead acts (twice I doubled up). The latter is divided great-good-bad, and details of the order will surprise some—they certainly did me. But let me emphasize the numbers: 11 great, 13 good, eight bad. Three-quarters of the time, 24 out of 32, I returned home from my nutty mission feeling better than when I left. My writing suffered the loss of night hours. The two movies I got to were music docs. Toward the end I really began to miss my wife. And I had a ball.

The month began with two bands whose profiles had intrigued me more than their CDs: Afghan Whig prime minister Greg Dulli's white-soul Twilight Singers and the Cherokee-hippie Casady sisters' friends-of-Devendra CocoRosie. The mark of the letch is on Dulli, whose black attire lacks only the waistcoat his ample bay window requires, yet there's fascination in his endangered self-assurance. The ambisexual CocoRosie—prattling model-vocalist Bianca and preening opera-trained harpist Sierra, plus a human beatbox and shifting cast of bit players—are much more original. Slotting them freak folk is cheap. But citing Yma Sumac and the Cocteau Twins won't enlighten young admirers who compare Bianca to Billie Holiday because nobody can stop them. Though it seemed an up when CocoRosie quoted Lil' Kim's "Eat my pussy right," it was really just a relief—my enjoyment dimmed once I imagined how much deeper an actual hip-hop groove would have been.

Saturday I did some true indie-rock spelunking at the Merc with Nick Sylvester pick Stylofone, an entertaining T-shirted g-g-b-d slotted twixt the overweening button-shirted g-g-b-d Isles and the non- descript hoodies-and-tees g-k-b-d Lions & Tigers. Stylofone have one dynamite gimmick: doubled guitar leads on every hook, executed with joyous arena-rock everything-old-is-new. Go see them—but don't expect their DIY EP to shake your sternum or hippocampus. Especially at home volume, records are song-dependent that way, like Tapes 'n Tapes' buzzed-and-bizzed DIY The Loon, a disappointment after I admired how the quartet deployed space and dynamics whilst goofing off and going wild at the Bowery. But sometimes records work the other way. I loved how unironically Beirut blasted Kocani Orkestar's "Siki, Siki Baba"—but not their stiff marches, conservatory violins, or parlor vocals. Then I got the album and Zach Condon's lyricism melted my hard old heart. When next our paths cross, I bet I'll think Beirut are beautiful.

The synth fulminations of Sylvester fave Excepter were why I foolishly skipped Sylvester fave Tokyo Police Club, and the main thing I got from the Liars and Dungen was never again. Hoping to put friendly faces on likable CDs, I was carried—wearied and revolted, respectively—by the drone-prone Black Angels, Brit-hit Futureheads, and lad-mag Morningwood. Still, the Black Angels' alt-trad groove fit alt-trad Southpaw so comfortably they made the win column easily. So did Northsix heroes !!!, whose stop-not-end drum circles are never hypnotic enough on record, and Dismemberer-turned-Hellfire Travis Morrison, who proved that a stupid zero for his solo outing couldn't stop him from doing what he does better than Pitchfork does what it does. And so, certainly, did Nashville teens Be Your Own Pet, who performed the eternal miracle of young people pretending their heads are exploding before a "16-and-older" Knitting Factory crowd utilizing fake PG-17 IDs. But Jonas Stein's twisty chops and Jemima Pearl's flailed blond do didn't make up for their narrow young sonics. So I walked out slightly less sold on an album I'd gone for. The kids walked out flushed, high.

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