We go to concerts in darkened rooms (and to galleries with white walls) because Art requires a suspension of disbelief achieved through sensory deprivation. When Yoko Ono suggests, “Let’s stay alive, okay?” and you’re sitting in the cool June breeze under the leaves of Battery Park, drinking beers and fooling around, you’re like, No duh. Existence doesn’t feel problematic while you’re waiting for Stereolab to come on. Does this look like Altamont, or Woodstock ’99? Here’s a headline I’d like: “Avant-Garde Cornetist Incites Festival Crowd to Mayhem.” Alas, we kept our cool through Graham Haynes’s opening set. Haynes’s mixture of out jazz with breakbeats is maybe the best realization going of the acid-jazz concept. It helps that his beats are live and not programmed, and ideas stream from his horn rather than sound bites. Hard to believe that fatty bass line couldn’t move the crowd, but it was June and breezy, you know?
Considering how tightly run the Bell Atlantic festival is, it was surprising that neither Yoko Ono, Thurston Moore, nor DJ Spooky had been made aware that they would all be onstage at the same time. Imagine what the three of them together would sound like. Got it? Yup, that’s exactly right. Ono exhibited her world-class glottal control. Moore smacked the strings with a drumstick. Spooky summoned some rather lame beats and soundscaped on top of them, but the ill in his illbient was lost in a confrontation between soundscape and landscape. In the second (and final) number they noticed one another. Moore held the stick against the strings for a Cagey prepared-piano sound. Spooky brought out his thumb piano, which sounds Cagey too and also kind of Zimbabwean, sampling on the fly to build a web around Moore’s picking; and Ono kept ululating, but gentler, with less drama. Something was happening you could believe in outdoors in daylight, that referred, however obliquely, to the world. And Ono’s final benediction, “Stay alive, for me for you for the universe,” made a little more sense. Because there’s a big, beautiful, dangerous universe out there. And all the Stereolabs will play loud disco at night and make us forget. —David Krasnow
Will Oldham may be just a simulacrum of a true-blue Southern boy, but he’s got all the props right: five nicknames, a big hillbilly baby head, and love songs whose objects are family members, landforms, and things equestrian. He’s also fashioned for himself Jekyll/Hyde stage identities: the quiet, folksy boy who loves his sister and the yodeling cracker preaching about death and the afterlife. Saturday night at Bowery Ballroom there was definitely a biblical theme at work, including an actual Old Testament reading by Billie collaborator Bob Arellano, who used LP covers as puppets (Isaac Hayes’s Black Moses headlined). Billie took the stage hidden behind aviator glasses and a pelvis-forward stance, a lo-fi Elvis, flanked by his indie apostles: the mustached, cocky lead guitarist, Chavez’s Matt Sweeney, and an introspective Mike Fellows (formerly of Royal Trux) playing bass lines on his guitar. After announcing his New Year’s resolution “not to say any cusswords,” Billie dropped fuck at least four times in one song, then, almost as penance, kicked out a supercharged “Madeleine Mary,” synchronizing guitars with Sweeney. During “Death to Everyone,” Arellano made another appearance, this time in flowing Moses robes, and Billie entered into a preacherlike trance, much to the delight of one member of the audience, who had been calling out “Drunk at the Pulpit” all night, more as an accusation than a request. The culmination of the religioso fervor was the encore, when Billie played “Cat’s Blues” with a synthesis of his two stage personas, alternately quiet and raucous. Near the end of the show, he disposed of his Southern-flavored props—the glasses and a hat that read “Hilton Taxidermy”—by throwing them into the audience. It was at once the shedding of a rocker mask and the perfect gesture of rock martyrdom. —Maya Kremen
Faraway, So Close
A just-woke-up voice and those grainy Anton Corbijn sleeve photographs aren’t the only things that Joseph Arthur has inherited from Achtung Baby-era Bono. He has also learned how to place stories about desperate friends and crumbling relationships in a religious context, creating songs that are prayers for mercy and understanding from a modern penitent.
At the Mercury Lounge last Wednesday night supporting his new album, Come to Where I’m From (Real World/Virgin), Arthur performed songs in which God plays a role alongsidehaunted characters like Jeremy on Second Avenue or the guy who thinks about his dead lover’s ashes blowing everywhere in the wind. Struggling to find spiritual meaning in loneliness, he sings, “Now Jesus he came down here just to die for all my sins/I need him to come back here and die for me again” and “Help me gain my vision as I stand here blind”—lines that the singer of “Until the End of the World” and “Love Is Blindness” would surely be proud to have for himself. (Arthur can also toss off lyrics that the pious Irish one probably wouldn’t be so thrilled with, like “Oh darling since you’ve been away from me/I know how the pins feel in the bowling alley.”)
Unlike Bono, Arthur can actually play the guitar, so ingeniously that he could be an East Village version of the Edge. Tonight he was a one-man band with just a guitar and some effects pedals. His guitar simulated a drumbeat, then he added bass lines and acoustic chords, and breathed into a sampler to create an echoing choir of angelic backup singers. For a guy who can’t stop singing about loneliness, he seemed completely self-sufficient. —Ben Sisario