John Darnielle: better than Timberlake
I didn’t see as many shows this year as I did last year, for reasons which mostly had to do with planning a wedding and then getting married but which probably also had a few things to do with being a year older. Next year will tell for sure. Here are the best live shows I saw in 2007.
1. Mountain Goats at Bowery Ballroom, 10/1/07. For personal reasons (John Darnielle is a friend), I really shouldn’t be writing critically about the Mountain Goats in any capacity. But personal reasons make it pretty much impossible for me to speak of any other show as the best of the year. This one went down a few days before I got married, after my fiancee had already left town to get everything ready, and I mostly went out because I couldn’t stand the idea of spending the night by myself. Turned out to be a great decision. Darnielle was going through his own personal stuff that night, and so this show turned out to be one massive emo-purge. He played “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” a song that reduces me to a blubbering mess every time I hear it, and pretty much song afterward, for whatever reason, had me close to blubbering-mess status: “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” “No Children,” everything. Darnielle has one of the most adoring cults in indie-cultdom, and I could tell I wasn’t the only having those intensely pitched-up reactions; the massive gang-shout on the “I don’t want to die alone!” part of “Dance Music” was like a large-scale involuntary tic. And Darnielle remains a weirdly great performer, and his delight at his cult is excitingly apparent every time I see him play. Near the end of the night, he walked away from his mic, up to the lip of his stage, and sang a “Mole” quietly out into the darkness of the room. The whole club held its breath. This was one of those shows where colors seem sharper and shapes clearer when you walk out.
2. Justin Timberlake at Madison Square Garden, 2/7/07. Timberlake’s HBO live-show special, recorded the same venue about six months after this show, was a decidedly anticlimactic affair. On TV, Timberlake’s arena-pop grandstanding looked obvious and silly, and his too-loud laughing and I’m-the-boss posturing with his band during the taped interview segments were just creepy. Mostly, though, that just serves as an eternal testament to the intangible qualities of live shows. Because when I was there, when the arena went dark and Timberlake’s personal elevator shot up onto the impossibly space-age Frank Gehry-looking in-the-round stage and the teenage mass around me had a collective heart attack, it felt like I was watching the platonic ideal of the arena-show, like this kid who used to pay his parents’ bills chair-dancing in front of these same teenage masses in bright-yellow leather pants and goggles on his head had also been studying the form the whole time, figuring out which tricks did and didn’t work. Timberlake only has two solo albums to his credit, but he managed to fill two and a half hours of stage-time, and things only slightly got more boring when he let his band take wheedly-wheedly guitar solos or when he sat down at the piano for the tender singer-songwriter moments. Because when this show was on, when Timberlake and his crew of bizarrely limber dancers were running through their ridiculously fluid routines, every stage-movement planned out to the millisecond, art and entertainment and commerce and graphic design and mass-hypnosis all seemed like more or less the same thing. Also, he did “Dick in a Box.”
3. Daft Punk at Keyspan Park, 8/9/07. This show, with its artfully precise onslaught of laser-lights and its gut-rumbling synth-bass, wasn’t really all that different from the Timberlake show above. But Timberlake is still above all else an old-school all-singing all-dancing entertainer, while Daft Punk place the performance-art aspects of their stadium-show on equal footing with the mass-spectacle ones. Thankfully, for Daft punk performance art and mass spectacle are pretty much inextricable from one another; that’s why two electronic musicians with robot helmets on can rock a drunken stadium in Coney Island and make everyone in the audience feel honored to be there for it. This was Daft Punk’s first New York date in a decade, and the sense of anticipation in and around the stadium was strong enough to taste. The crowd was clued in enough to actually hum the bassline to “Da Funk” right before it kicked in like this was a Springsteen show or something. And the duo onstage knew how to work a crowd like this, weaving bits and pieces of their bangers into and out of each other, teasing us with monster hooks before blasting us full in the face with them. Stadium-exploding riffs don’t really work any differently when they’re coming out of computers, after all. Leaving this one, my face hurt from smiling so much.
4. White Stripes at Madison Square Garden, 7/24/07. The White Stripes are big and weird. They’re big enough to fill Madison Square Garden up with their rapturous public, and they’re weird enough to play nothing like an arena-rock band: squalid noise-solos, goofily fey folk-pop interludes, big hits treated as intros to album-tracks. The intersection between big and weird can make for some seriously powerful mass-spectacle moments. (Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk: also big, also weird.) But the White Stripes are different because they’re a trad-rock band, a trad-rock band with enough classic-rock bangers and gut-stomping riffs that they could just do a greatest-hits show and send all their cultists home happy. Instead, they dragged us into their universe. The monster hooks were there, but they were surrounded by layers of obfuscation and elusive theatricality. I’m reminded of old Zeppelin live albums, where John Bonham would play a ten-minute drum-solo and nobody in the crowd would sound bored. The White Stripes have that same level of mystique; they can do what they want, and we’ll go along with it.
5. Boredoms at Empire Fulton State Park, 7/7/07. More than the music, the audacity and elegance of the undertaking was what drew me here: 77 drummers gathered at the bank of the East River, arranged in a spiral formation, all bashing out the dense and complicated beats that started with the four Japanese noise-freaks at the center of that galaxy. From above, it must’ve looked amazing. Security turned way too many people away, and a few of them ended up watching the show from the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway, hundreds of feet above the action. Down on the ground, it just looked like a bunch of drum sets haphazardly scattered. But the sound that they made, the roiling ceaseless chaos of thuds, had its own dimensions. And at the middle of everything was Eye, the only person performing without drumsticks in his hands, waving a plastic trident or bashing amplified guitar-necks suspended in air. And so that’s how the spazzy noise underground got together to pray for the apocalypse.
6. Mastodon at the Pitchfork Music Festival, 7/15/07. The Pitchfork Festival, more than any other I’ve seen, thrives on good vibes: dudes with beards bashing out warm and pleasant indie-pop while people drink cheap beer under trees or play hackysack. But three days of pure good-vibe blissout can be a bit much, and so it was an unalloyed joy to see Mastodon, all scraggly pompadours and facial tattoos and thundering riffage, blasting through everything, like someone had opened the gates to a more savage dimension and let all the bad things through. A few months earlier at Roseland, Mastodon had fallen victim to terrible muffling sound, but in the open air, they sounded like perfect machines of destruction. Indie-rock festivals sometimes face the problem of bands too timid and small-sounding to do anything but flop around helplessly on stages too big for them. But Mastodon was the rare band who seemed too big for the stage they were rocking. And that Clipse immediately followed their set with some of their own blasts of atomized rage was a big bonus.
7. Jay-Z at Hammerstein Ballroom, 11/11/07. So Jadakiss royally fucked up his big Roc-A-Fella debut, a debut that anyway means less than nothing now that his benefactor has stepped down from the label he ran. That’s OK. Jay-Z uses hometown shows like this to unveil big theatrical state-of-rap moments like that one, and those moments don’t always work; it’s still sort of thrilling that he keeps trying. (One moment from this show that did work: Lil Wayne’s ecstatic surprise cameo, leading a hugely cathartic singalong to the “Duffle Bag Boy” hook.) Even without those moments, a Jay-Z show is a Jay-Z show. And this one was a Jay-Z show in a venue exponentially smaller than the ones he could fill. So everyone who’d managed to find a way inside was absolutely primed, ready to scream all Jay’s words right back at him. And nobody accepts adulation with anything like Jay’s kingly elan. Standing on that stage, he knew he’d earned every hoarse voice in the room, and his all-killer no-filler greatest-hits show felt like a gift from a benevolent monarch.
8. Against Me at Roseland, 5/17/07. This was the same show where Mastodon’s din got lost in all the echoes. But Against Me triumphed over the worst venue in New York because their hooks are big and dumb and catchy enough to resonate anywhere and because their crowd was all amped-up fifteen-year-olds who would’ve followed them to the ends of the earth. Seeing them in a concrete bunker like Roseland reminded me of being fifteen myself, going to see bands like Rancid or NOFX around the concrete bunkers of Baltimore or DC. Against Me’s politico convictions and eloquent self-torture make for great records, but onstage, it’s that feeling of careening willful muscular hookiness that turns a group of frustrated kids into something resembling an instant community. I love bands that can make that happen.
9. LL Cool J at Empire Fulton State Park, 8/4/07. At a remarkably pleasant little festival-show that’d already seen great sets from Brand Nubian and the Lox and Clipse, an old veteran returned to disprove any doubts that he knows how to crush a stage. If this show was any indication, LL has been making a willful and conscious decision to suck for the past decade or so; he can still absolutely rap, and his shameless showmanship translates just as well to his snarly bangers as it does to his love-raps. The part where he spin-kicked his mic-stand over during “Rock the Bells” might’ve made for my favorite onstage moment of the year.
10. Gowns at Cake Shop, 10/23/07. It only took one song. Or, rather, it took less than one song, considering I walked in partway through the thing. During a CMJ that offered little in the way of must-sees, the best thing I saw was a total accident. I’d showed up to a running-late Cake Shop to see High Places, and I didn’t even find out the name of the trio that was howling out that bit of drugged-out damaged gospel-folk until after the band was done. Turns out the band was Gowns, the song was “Cherrylee,” and both band and song absolutely slay me still. Happy accidents like that one need to happen more often.