Ancient history: Music Review: Sleepercar – West Texas

Sleepercar (not to be confused with Sleeper Car) began with the demise of At the Drive-In.  Then a guitarist for At the Drive-In, Jim Ward conceptualized the idea of an alt-country in the waning days of ATDI, writing “Fences Down” at a sound check on their final tour.

For those not familiar with At the Drive-In, they were kind of crazy in an artistic way. The band was together for the better part of a decade before finally scoring a minor hit with “One-Armed Scissor” in 2000. Shortly after the subsequent world tour, the band broke up indefinitely.

Enter Sleepercar. With a sound nothing like At the Drive-In or his other band, Sparta, Jim Ward has created Texas’s answer to Wilco. Their forthcoming album, West Texas, is due out on April 22. West Texas tends toward the mellow side of alternative-country; possibly influenced by popular acts like Death Cab for Cutie.

“A Broken Promise” opens the album. Jim Ward overlaps melodic vocals with a persistent guitar line. Did I hear a tambourine? It is probably the most radio-friendly of the bunch, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it hit national alternative radio stations soon.

“Wasting My Time” follows, with the most powerful hook on the album. It’s alt-country with a little aggression. If it were my choice, this would be the direction of the genre.

“Fences Down slows down the album significantly, with country-bar steel pedal guitar. I genuinely feel like I’m sitting on a porch in a West Texas night listening to this song. I feel confident saying that it most likely inspired the album cover.

As a whole, I’m a little divided on my final verdict here. About half of the album is solid, making me hope for more. The other half is a little boring. If you don’t play a lot of it loud it’s very easy to tune out.

If you’re into sleepy music, this may be for you.

Recommended Downloads: “A Broken Promise,” “Wasting My Time,” “Kings and Promises”

Ancient history: Music Review: Holiday Parade – To You. From Us.

I feel I need to preface this review. I am usually a big fan of acoustic efforts from talented bands. MTV Unplugged might be one of the five best shows to ever grace network television. Along with the Wonder Years, its absence from current daily programming baffles me.

That said, the acoustic scene is not for every band. Holiday Parade’s latest acoustic effort, To You. From Us, is good, but it’s also a good example of an unnecessary spin on music that is more powerful when it isn’t stripped down.

The album opens with the sad “Never Enough.” The empty sound here magnifies singer Andy Albert’s melancholy emotions, but it lacks the muscle of the fleshed-out version found on 2007’s This is My Year.

“Walking By” comes a little closer to success. The piano goes a long way toward balancing out the empty sound of the album, and Albert’s vocals fit in nicely. He manages to sound evocative and dejected simultaneously.

The album ends with the upbeat and live “My Philosophy.” I enjoy the background sound of the studio in this song. It reminds me a little bit of “Badfish” by Sublime. I also feel that the more buoyant sound here lends itself better to success on an acoustic album.

Overall, this is a solid effort from a young band, but I’d like to hear the amps cranked up to 11 on their next album.

Ancient history: Festival Review Bonnaroo 2008

Bonnaroo 2008 – Manchester, Tennessee – 6/12 to 6/15

It’s hard to tell just how much of this weekend was real. The 12-hour overnight car ride to kick things off kind of left me in a permanent state of delirium for the rest of the week. Between the sleeplessness, extreme heat, and lack of showers at the festival, I was kind of a walking zombie for four days. I’ve never had a better time in my life.

Just to give everyone a better idea of what the festival is like in general: About 90,000 converged on a collection of hayfields. Our campsite (the space behind where our two cars were parked) was a 1-minute walk from “Shakedown Street,” a gravel road with a bunch of vendors and porto-potties. From there it was a 10-minute walk to Centeroo, a collection of stages, tents, and vendors that represent the auditory core of the festival.

Thursday, June 12:

We kicked off the weekend with MGMT, a semi-psychedelic band out of New York. We were truthfully drawn simply to a fire show going off beside their tent, but their music brought us closer. I’d never heard of them before, but they brilliantly captured the mood of the festival.

Download: “Time to Pretend”

I caught bits and pieces of Grupo Fantasma (pretty chill) and The Sword (their billing as the next Wolfmother is a stretch) before walking over for the start of the Vampire Weekend set. VW met my expectations. The crowd was loving it, and I was happy to hear “A-Punk” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

Friday, June 13:

I was under-whelmed by Drive-by Truckers and Fiery Furnaces before stopping in for Stephen Marley at the main stage. Despite the heat, I enjoyed his rendition of several of his father’s songs. In fact, if I didn’t know Bob Marley was dead, I’m not sure I would have even known that it wasn’t him singing.

I wandered between a few smaller stages after Stephen Marley before stopping in for Les Claypool, the creative force behind Primus in the 1990’s (they wrote & performed the South Park theme and “John the Fisherman”). MAN, is this guy strange… But he’s also a brilliant musician and performer.

Download: “One Better”

I left Claypool on the second stage for the Raconteurs, who were just starting on the main stage. The Raconteurs were probably the single band I was most excited about, because I know Jack White is a great artist, but I’ve never had a chance to see him live. He justified my hopes, playing what would become my second-favorite show of the weekend (more on that later). Jack White and Brendan Benson both ripped off some crazy guitar solos during “Store Bought Bones,” revealing a fleshed-out version that I had never heard anything like. “Steady, As She Goes” followed, with White and Benson kicking it off with an extended soloing duel. White and Benson also contributed vocals. White seemed to be giving it everything he had, reaching for notes he wasn’t always capable of (but hey, it’s a rock show. Isn’t that part of the fun?). A few times he also sang into a mic that had kind of a “strobe-light” effect. I really, really recommend watching clips from their performance. It showed me a side of the band that I had never seen or expected.

Watch: “Store Bought Bones,” “Steady, As She Goes”

After the Raconteurs, I headed over to one of the smaller tents, where M.I.A was giving one of only two shows this year. Maya A., out of the U.K., was a surreal spectacle. When I got there, her stage was completely filled with dancing fans, and I’ve never seen a writhing crowd quite like this. I was not at all familiar with M.I.A’s music, but it quickly grew on me, with her eclectic use of sound effects (such as air-horns, which made me feel as if I was halfway between a concert and a Premier League soccer game). She had great stage presence, magnified by the multitude of fans dancing with her.

Download: “Paper Planes”

Chris Rock was a nice respite from all of the music. It wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen from him, but he did have a few funny moments relating to the Bonnaroo crowd.

Saturday, June 14:

BB King showed exactly why he’s one of the legends of blues. At over 80 years old, the man can’t stand through a concert (he sat on a chair onstage), but he still had the crowd riveted as he ripped off riffs like he was 25.

Dweezil Zappa, of Zappa Plays Zappa, is a spitting image of his father, in both sound and appearance. His set harkened back to the 70’s, when rock was fresher, purer, and more fun.

Pearl Jam. Absolutely the performance of the festival (this answers the question put forth by my description of the Raconteurs set). They started off the show with “Hard to Imagine,” and proceeded into the best concert I’ve ever seen. Vedder himself seemed in awe of the experience, addressing the crowd with teary eyes as he said “There are a lot of emotions flying around out there… There was a time when we thought we’d never play another festival like this, and for good reason (referring to a 2000 festival in Denmark where 9 people were trampled to death). …But after seeing BB King and Jack Johnson, and Cat Power, it makes you realize how it can actually work and on top of that it’s a great fuckin night.”

Vedder’s voice was in fantastic shape throughout the show. It made me realize how much he must care about what he does, compared to someone like STP’s Scott Weiland, whose drug problems have scraped his voice away to a mere shell of what it once was. The condition of Vedder’s voice was particularly noticeable during their stunning rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” He completely let it fly, and he sounded great. He pleased the crowd especially with “Black,” during which it appeared to me that he gave it so much emotion that he was close to completely breaking down by the end of the song. He seemed very touched and impressed by the size of the crowd during his performance of “Better Man,” when thousands of lighters revealed how far back the crowd actually stretched. Addressing the crowd, he expressed “That’s fucking beautiful, man.”

Mike McCready’s guitar solos were incredibly impressive. I’ve never seen any guitarist play so fast with so much dexterity. He sometimes ranged into sounds that were not pleasant-sounding, but it was rockin’ all the same.

The band ended up stretching a scheduled 2-hour set into a 3-hour epic performance, with two encores. They finally finished the show with Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a fitting end to a show in which Vedder frequently asked the crowd to move for change. “It is welded into the Constitution that people have not only the right, but the responsibility to make change. It can’t get any worse. We’re right here in the middle of America. We can change the whole world. Do you agree that this is the time and place for this kind of talk? …Our music can’t change the world, but I do know one thing, that this many people, right here, can make a change.”

Concert Review: Stone Temple Pilots 5.20.08

Scott Weiland’s first trip back to his hometown with longtime band STP after a 6-year hiatus. This review is a little interesting to me because at this point I was still a supermegafan. In the next couple years I became a little further disillusioned and disappointed about Weiland’s willingness and ability to stay sober. I would see them twice after this. In 2010 at Post Gazette Pavilion in Burgettstown, a few days after Weiland embarrassingly fell off the stage during a live show, he was barely coherent between songs. In 2011, STP returned to Pittsburgh to play IC Light Amphitheatre (now the site of Highmark Stadium), and the set was considerably tighter, but the crowd felt small for what had once been a major mainstream rock act–far smaller than the crowd at Post Gazette one year earlier, or the one that filled the same venue to the brim to see Weiland with Velvet Revolver in 2005.

But even though I’d lost faith in Weiland’s ability to stay sober and commit himself to his music, I was still shocked and upset at his untimely death in December of last year. This was still a man who was literally one of my idols throughout a significant part of my teen years and early 20’s, and I will always be sorry that he never pulled it together for one more great album with his old bandmates. Addiction is a scary beast, and a tricky one. Weiland could have decided that he’d conquered heroin, only to become complacent in his usage of other equally destructive substances and behaviors. Only those closest to him will really know. Regardless, I personally found this letter penned by Weiland’s ex-wife, Mary Weiland, massively affecting. In our heroes and celebrities, I think we can sometimes forget that they are also people whom others depend on intimately.

Weiland’s story wound up being a sad one, but his tribulations are eminently relatable to anyone who has struggled personally with addiction issues, or had someone in their life who has. If his death helped anyone get clean, or to face their problems, as I’m sure it did, at least some good will come of it. That’s still a sad story, but would be one worth telling.

Stone Temple Pilots – Cleveland, OH. – State Theater – May 20, 2008

The tension was palpable. The Stone Temple Pilots were about to take the stage in front of lead singer Scott Weiland’s hometown crowd for their first full solo show since the fall of 2002. That tour nearly came to blows between Weiland and lead guitarist Dean DeLeo; the result of years of unresolved and drug-addled conflicts between the two.

Nearly six years later, the scene could not be more different. Shortly after revealing a possible Stone Temple Pilots reunion, Scott Weiland left the supergroup Velvet Revolver and announced a gigantic 65-date tour with the band he helped form in the mid-80’s after meeting Robert DeLeo.

So here we are, at State Theater, Cleveland’s answer to Heinz Hall. The crystal chandeliers and ornate walls seem bizarre for a hard rock concert, and so do the ancient ushers. On the other hand, STP was never quite normal, and the elaborate decor is strangely befitting of Scott Weiland’s glam-rock style.

Ashes Divide unexpectedly hits the stage at 7:30 for a surprise opening set. Lead singer Billy Howerdel puts in a serviceable performance, but he is overshadowed by his drummer and lead guitarist, who frequently drown out his voice. Their single “The Stone,” opened the show, but little of the rest of the set was very distinguishable except, perhaps, for “Stripped Away.” They leave the stage gracefully at about 8:10 to modest applause.

Tension continues to mount as Weiland predictably takes his time making his way out to the stage. Finally, at roughly 9:00 a piano intro begins. Drummer Eric Kretz walks out from stage right and climbs up to his drum set. Bassist Robert DeLeo follows to the left side of the stage, where a mic sits for him to croon backup vocals. Dean follows to stage right. At last, Weiland walks out in a dapper black suit and fedora, still-lit cigarette burning in his hand.

The piano intro leads into hit song “Big Empty.” Weiland leans on the microphone and sings like he’s home. A gigantic LED-light screen swirls in purple psychadelia, changing to a drive down a desert road as Weiland sings, “Time to take her home / her dizzy head is conscience laden”

The Pilots take on a few more hits before delighting fans with the rarely-performed “Silvergun Superman.” A few songs later, Weiland addresses the crowd, telling us that the band is about to launch into one of their favorites, which they wrote on tour with the Butthole Surfers. “Lounge Fly” was also the long-time theme of MTV News (back when they still played music).

Weiland frequently displayed the group’s renewed kinship, constantly leaning on his band mates during solos between his snake-like movements around the stage. He rarely sits still and it makes for a visually gripping performance. After performing “Crackerman,” from their first album, the band randomly breaks into a James Brown jam, after which Robert DeLeo declares, “This is part of the reason I love you.”

Seven more songs follow before the band leaves the stage at 10:15. Undeterred, no one in the crowd moves. After five minutes of chanting, the band walks back onstage and jumps into “Sin.” Following the song, Scott addresses the crowd: “Are you ready? Are you ready?” And they launch into hit song “Dead & Bloated.” Clearly, everyone in the crowd is singing at the top of their lungs.

STP leaves the crowd with “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart,” a song that has experienced growing popularity due to its presence on Guitar Hero II. The guitar solo is even better live. The four band members come together after the song to the front of the stage. Hands on each others shoulders, they take a bow for the booming crowd. They leave the stage, lights come on, and, as Cake put it, “The fans get up and they get out of town.”

Full Set list:
Big Empty
Wicked Garden
Big Bang Baby
Silvergun Superman
Vasoline
Lounge Fly
Lady Picture Show
Sour Girl
Creep
Crackerman
– random James Brown jam –
Plush
Interstate Love Song
Too Cool Queenie
Coma
Down
All in the Suit That You Wear
Sex Type Thing

Encore:
Sin
Dead & Bloated
Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart