a-ha “Hits South America”

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a-ha_hits-south-america

a-ha’s contribution to this year’s Record Store Day was a mini album titled “Hits South America”, where we are brought back to a show in Brazil during the summer of 1991. These recordings are previously unreleased, and a sweet package for those of us who are fond of the 90s rock version of a-ha. This album is only available on vinyl.

The previously released video/DVD “Live In South America” is from the same tour that “Hits South America” stems from. Fortunately this EP has no overlap with the video, which was released on DVD for the first time ever as a bonus disc on last year’s deluxe edition of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”

“The Blood That Moves the Body” is the opening track, and this is an excellent version. Paul Waaktaar plays a driving guitar, infusing the song with a strong rock element which gives a totally different experience than the studio version from “Stay On These Roads.” I definitely think the rock expression of the 1990s suits the band best.

The band had a fantastic rhythm section at this time, with bassist Jørun Bøgeberg and drummer Per Hillestad contributing a very tight and organic sound. For this reason alone it is a shame that we don’t have a complete concert recording from the period 1991-1994, but fortunately we do have some things to enjoy from this period. With the release of “Hits South America” we are a lot closer to having live versions of all the songs from the 1991 tour, but a few are (of course) still missing.

“Manhattan Skyline” has always been a highlight in a-ha’s catalogue, whether studio or live. This time we get a version with more of the urgent Waaktaar-guitars, whilst Magne Furuholmen adds the usual atmospheric keys on top. Morten Harket is just the right amount of ballsy up front, and all in all this leaves us with the toughest version of this great song to date. Just to hear Paul take off in the solo is worth this album alone.

“You Are the One” is another song which ends up quite different than the studio version, but not quite as raw as some of the other tracks. It features some saxophone solos from Sigurd Køhn, and otherwise the well-known cheeryness of the song is more than present in this version as well.

The guitars are back again on “Stay On These Roads”, both energizing the song and contributing a lot of spice on top of it in the process. Still, this beautiful ballad never loses its core melody and is a relatively faithful rendiion. It has always been a showcase number for Morten’s vocal, but then again, which song isn’t? It ends up being a great combination of the original expression with some more interesting things also happening here and there.

It all ends with “Hunting High And Low.” The acoustic guitar is brought out, and Magne plays some hauntingly beautiful piano lines on top. Morten nails it as usual. After a while, Paul brings in the electric guitar again, giving this song some of the same embellishment we saw on “Stay On These Roads.” And, of course, we get to hear some 200,000 Brazilians sing the chorus in perfect unison. Goosebumps. Pure goosebumps.

The only problem with “Hits South America” is that it only contains five tracks. You’ve eaten the entire meal, but you’re still left hungry. In any case, this is a-ha on top of their game, and the combination of melodic gens and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s rock guitar is nothing less than phenomenal.

Tearing A Hole In Heaven – Explosions In The Sky live in Tucson and Denver on “The Wilderness” Tour

Explosions In The Sky ignite the atmosphere in amazing shows in Tucson and Denver.

I often wonder about the magic of sound.  It’s said that David was able to sooth the savage beast with his harp, and we have all been moved to both ecstasy and agony by songs that are able to invoke strong feelings and emotions in us.

But what is music?  Music is just combinations of soundwaves at certain pitches and intensities, put together in repetitive rhythms and in either harmony or dissonance.  Broken down, music is just patterns of airwaves.

And yet we all know that music is far more, has to be more, than that. Simple airwaves would not be able to remind you of the night by the lake under a cloudless sky and full moon where you declared your eternal love for your first real girlfriend.   Simple airwaves would not be able to remind you of the depths of the darkest nights of your life and put you immediately back into the despair of those moments at the sound of certain chords and voices.

Music not only reflects emotion; music can create emotion and pull you into feelings.  Music establishes passion and pain, and creates its own existence.  Music is a time machine for memories.

Almost every important moment of my life is tied to music of some type, and it brings me back to thinking about sound.  As I write this, I’m riding jumpseat in a US Air Force C-17 transport plane, and every sound in it is of restlessness and ugliness, from the roar of the wind and the clank and clatter of the equipment aboard groaning under stress. It makes my spirit unsettled, and yet just like music it’s only airwaves of certain combinations of pitch and rhythm, timbre and tone.

Which brings me to two of the most amazing sonic experiences of my life involving seeing the band Explosions In The Sky on their current “The Wilderness” tour. My first time seeing them was in Tucson, AZ at the Rialto Theatre on 2016-05-02. I don’t remember ever having seen anything like it, and it affected me so much that I ended up going to see them the subsequent week at the Ogden Theatre in Denver, CO on 2016-05-11.  I see so many shows that at this point it takes a lot to surprise me but these guys really shook me to my core.

There’s really no other band I can think of that’s hit the American public radar that is comparable to Austin, Texas based Explosions In The Sky. EITS has no singer; rather they front three guitarists of considerable skill and an amazing number of pedals (Michael James, Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani) who each alternate leading and combining in a way that’s really unlike anything else around.  There are other instrumental rock bands (Mogwai is the obvious reference point) but EITS mines a different musical vein than other instrumental rock bands that I’ve heard.

EITS guitar lines and figures loop and interlock, sometimes combining and sometimes opposing, in a majestic symphony that is like a single 100-minute symphony in 25 movements. The music is angry and violent and then on a dime will wheel into a gorgeous whispered lullaby of repeated figures and melody in a way that is trance-like and hypnotic.

Through seven studio albums (including the recently-released “The Wilderness” that provided the namesake and focus of the current tour) EITS has really fleshed out their sound but nothing preps you for the dramatic impact of their sound live.

Here’s an example from the Denver show:

 

 

In both shows, there were moments of martial metal madness that would then be tempered by musical movements and interludes that were so delicate and fragile that they disappeared before your eyes like mist being evaporated on a spring morning.

Because they don’t have a singer to distract the audience, their music isn’t absorbed by your conscious but rather immediately goes into your subconscious, lulling you into a trance state.  They serve that premise by never stopping to talk to the crowd or break for an encore.  No forced stage patter or annoying stagecraft to stall for time during the show: they come on stage, pummel your body and mind with music, drilling your soul with soundwaves and then walk off.

Like the best of drone blues or Saharan blues, EITS do an attack-and-release style of playing, where the tension gradually builds with the sonic structure until you physically feel like the constriction is suffocating, and just at the point where you start to feel physical discomfort, the music resolves and relaxes in a way that releases both your body and spirit.   It’s a great trick that they do, and I wish I could find a way to bottle it.

A couple of times, I had an experience that I don’t actually remember ever happening before at a concert, where each of the guitarists played a different, weaving melody that when interleaved with each other like waves created a fourth, distinct melody out of the three disparate parts.  It was so startling that it awoke me from my reverie just to stare in wide-eyed amazement at what I was hearing and seeing on the stage.

EITS are something that you have to experience live. Their albums can’t possibly do justice to their live set, where the highs and lows can sear themselves into you in a way that studio albums can’t possibly do.

Ably backed by a skronking rhythm section of Chris Hrasky on drums and touring bassist Carlos Torres, each of the musicians is a virtuoso but I want to focus on guitarist Rayani. All three of the guitarists slowly weave and groove as they play but it’s Rayani that you can’t take your eyes off of – he’s one of the most compelling guitarists to watch that I’ve ever seen. He loses and loosens himself completely into the music in a way that invites you to climb into his brain with him as he plays.

Just check out the clip below, also from the Denver show.  It’s a long one so if you have to jump to the 5:00 mark I’ll understand. I’ll wait while you watch.

Now was that something or what?

I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter what music consists of, and the mechanisms by which it works on the mind, body and soul are probably better left a mystery. It only matters that music exists, and that each person experiences the truth in their soul that can only be brought out by music.  Music is part of what it means to be human, and a part of what it means to be alive.  I still assert that what humans are best at is music, science, architecture and war, and that the best thing that recommends continued human existence is music.

Here are some clips from the Tucson show followed by the setlists for both shows.

 

 

 


Setlists:

Tucson


  1. Tangle Formations
  2. The Birth And Death Of The Day
  3. With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept
  4. The Ecstatics
  5. Greet Death
  6. Let Me Back In
  7. Disintegration Anxiety
  8. Colors In Space
  9. Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean
  10. Logic Of A Dream
  11. The Only Moment We Were Alone

 

Denver


  1. Infinite Orbit
  2. Tangle Formations
  3. The Only Moment We Were Alone
  4. Greet Death
  5. Logic Of A Dream
  6. Let Me Back In
  7. Disintegration Anxiety
  8. Colors In Space
  9. The Birth And Death Of The Day
  10. Memorial

Album Review: Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack

 

Painting of a Panic Attack

With every Frightened Rabbit album, their sound becomes bigger and more emotional and that’s the case again on fifth studio album Painting of a Panic Attack. But Scott Hutchison’s lyrics and vocals stop it becoming just another “Big Music” album. Not that there’s anything wrong with Big Music, but there’s already plenty of bands doing that and doing it very well. The lyrics are personal, there’s no grand themes here, despite the sound of the album. They’re perhaps a bit more positive than on previous albums, but there’s still enough grim reality to keep it Frightened Rabbit. One of the best aspects of the album is when those negative lyrics are set to the most anthemic sounding songs.

The opening song on the album is one of the stand-outs; Death Dream starts out forlorn with mainly just piano, then it builds gradually with layered vocals, a unique guitar sound, strings, and some Beirut style horns, until it reaches a stunning but understated crescendo. The strings and horns return to even greater effect later on Little Drum.

The second track is single Get Out, where the abruptness of the chorus comes as a bit of a shock first time, but after the second listen makes sense. It’s one of the more positive songs on the album, a love song, but not that you’d know it on first listen.

The best examples of the anthemic songs with a sombre message are the “twin” tracks I Wish I Was Sober and Woke Up Hurting, whose titles speak for themselves. Then there’s the positive stories, but with a twist of course, like Still Want To Be Here (“Fuck these faceless homes and everyone who lives in them, But I still want to be here, want to be here”) and the hilariously backhanded compliment An Otherwise Disappointing Life.

Another stand-out is 400 Bones; not your conventional love song, but lyrically beautiful (“This is my safe house in the hurricane, here is where my love lays 200 treasured bones”).

Break and Blood Under the Bridge are probably as close to pop as the album gets, both are very melodic and radio friendly (musically at least).

The album ends with Die Like a Rich Boy -a suitably grim ending for a classic Frightened Rabbit album.

(There’s a deluxe version of the album with three extra tracks, which are all excellent and make it worth getting the more expensive download or any of the physical formats.)

Gig Review – CHVRCHES – Glasgow – 2 April 2016

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Remarkably, Chvrches hadn’t played their home town since 2014 (they’ve been too busy literally touring the world). Back home for one night only, they played at the massive Hydro arena, which goes to show the meteoric rise in their popularity in a few short years. Though Chvrches may be only a few years old, the three band members have been around the business a long time and singer Lauren Mayberry makes a point during the show of rhyming off the many bands they’ve been part of over the years with varying degrees of success.

Supported by Shura and The Twilight Sad (a past band of Martin from Chvrches) the crowd were well warmed up for the arrival of Chvrches.

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Never Ending Circles opens the show with its massive riff. For a brief moment when Lauren starts to sing it sounds like her voice might get lost in the cavern of a place but from the second line in she is belting it out and it stays that way for the rest of the show. She barely put a foot wrong, other than clattering the stage with the mic during Science/Visions.

Chvrches5

They promise new songs and old songs, meaning songs from their first album The Bones of What You Believe and songs from their second album Every Open Eye. We hear the majority of both albums, and both are as well received as each other. The crowd are up for it, but really come alive on Tether, a highlight from their first album and stand-out song of the night for me. The song was just made to be played in a massive arena like this and the guitar just makes it soar – although they are really an electronic band, I would love to hear them make more use of guitars in future.

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Straight after Tether is an excellent extended version of Playing Dead with Lauren on drums, ending with her lying on the stage, from where she starts Science/Visions. Martin takes over on lead vocals a couple of songs later and I’m surprised how much he gets the crowd going, especially on Under the Tide, where we get a mass sing-along. He even gives a shout out the to guy in the crowd who is “taps aff” – the Glasgow phrase for being shirtless.

The main set ends with second album highlight Clearest Blue and the place is literally bouncing. For the encore we get the beautiful Afterglow and another mass sing-along on The Mother We Share.

Chvrches2

An excellent show all round, from Chvrches and the support. There is also a refreshing lack of cameras on show, although the downside of this is a lack of quality video footage. I’ve found a couple of decent ones though, so enjoy:

Tether

The Mother We Share 

Set List

Never Ending Circles
We Sink
Keep You on My Side
Make Them Gold
Empty Threat
Tether
Playing Dead
Science/Visions
Gun
Bury It
High Enough To Carry You Over
Under the Tide
Recover
Leave a Trace
Clearest Blue

Encore:
Afterglow
The Mother We Share

Crowd photo from Chvrches Facebook page. All other photos my own. 

 

 

The Exception That Proves The Rule – FFS Live at the Lincoln in Washington DC

In a rare collaboration that proves the sum can be greater than the parts, electro-pop pioneers Sparks and post-punk aught-wavers Franz Ferdinand combine for an audacious and delightful collaboration at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington DC on 2015-10-05 that charts new waters for each band.

I hadn’t seen this one coming.

Rock history is spotty when it comes to true collaborations where two bands come together and create a genuine third thing that is wholly distinct from the material of each original band. What usually happens is that each band tends to bring some of their own material and serves basically as the backing band for the other band for their material. Maybe the lead singers trade off some lead vocals, but it doesn’t really feel like a new band has been created.

That’s what makes the collaboration between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, called FFS, so interesting.

I’ve followed Sparks off and on throughout their 40-year plus career as one of the most quirky and creative bands in rock. The Sparks core has always been the brother team of Russell and Ron Mael, with Russell the hyperkinetic and flamboyant front man prone to burst into falsetto and Ron the stoic behind the keyboards acting like a scowling and disapproving teacher as he monitors his younger brothers’ antics.

Los Angeles-based Sparks had a couple of unlikely pop hits in the 70’s in the UK, most notably “This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us” (#2 UK Pop in 1974) and “Number One Song in Heaven”. They probably hit their commercial peak, or at least their peak influence, in the US in the early 80s in the heart of the New Wave era with a run of influential albums like “Whomp That Sucker”, “Angst In My Pants”, “In Outer Space” and “Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat”, all of which tried to leverage Sparks’ creative video sensibilities and turn them into New Wave posterboys and keyboard-based symbols of the New Wave era.

You might remember this duet with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s that was a big college radio hit in the days before “alternative” was a thing…

I run hot and cold with Sparks. They had a great sense of pop melody, but the lyrics would sometimes be slightly too clever and filled with, depending on your mood, funny or groanworthy puns and although they owned the musical niche in between Devo and Yello, the music could at times be a bit twee for my tastes.

However, their influence on at least three generations of bands cannot be denied. Across their 20-plus albums they have generated a body of work that has been highly acclaimed by electropop and dance artists, and one of the things that surprises me the most is how young and rabid their current fan base is. They are the very definition of a “cult” band.

Led by Alex Kapranos, Franz Ferdinand (Kapronos: guitar/vocals; Nick McCarthy:guitar, Bob Hardy:bass and Paul Thomson:drums; all original members since 2002) is one of my favorite bands to come out of the 2000’s. I love their lean, angular, spiky and muscular approach to alternative dance rock. Coming out of the Glasgow music scene in the early 2000’s, they brought a fresh injection of adrenaline into the moribund UK music scene like a post-punk version of Gang of Four for the new millennium.

Admit it, the first time you heard “Take Me Out” and the rhythm change that comes after the intro you thought, now that’s interesting. And then the biggest compliment that you can give a rock band – “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before”.

Franz Ferdinand have followed their debut with a string of solid albums – “You Could Have It So Much Better”, “Tonight: Franz Ferdinand” and “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions” that have solidified them as one of the most reliably creative bands to have come out of the 2000’s. In particular “Do You Want To” and “Right Action” are examples of alternative dance-rock that just pop out of the speakers and into your ears as earworms. The only negative I have about Franz Ferdinand is that they’ve created such a distinctive sound that they may have painted themselves into a bit of a corner stylistically for the future, unless they consciously make an attempt to break the mold they’ve made.

Which in retrospect probably made them a perfect candidate to collaborate with a band to shake them out of their patterns. Enter Sparks.

Based on interviews I’ve seen/heard with Russell Mael and Alex Kapronos, apparently the two bands were discussing collaborating to at least release a split single (remember singles?) as far back as 2004. However, nothing came of those original discussions until a couple of years ago when a chance meeting in San Francisco made them give it a shot.

The two bands, based 6,000 miles apart, sent files back and forth with either completed songs or just musical snippets and they iterated back and forth for months to flesh out the songs. They hadn’t met face-to-face during that time or actually played together at the same time until an intensive 15-day recording session that completed the entire album.

The sound of the FFS album and the songs really is a revelation – the four members of Franz Ferdinand bring a muscularity and punch to the songs that gives them a sense of urgency, and the Mael brothers bring a sense of melody and fun that can at times be missing in FF. FF sands off a bit of the weirdness of the Mael brothers, while the Maels bring out of some FF’s inherent quirkiness and an artsy side that they can tend to keep submerged.

In other words, each side brings the best of what they do to the other side and in so doing pushes the other side to expand what they do best and to explore new territories for each.   There are times where you can definitely tell which group came up with the original material (Sparks: “Piss Off”, FF: “Police Encounters”) but more often they came up with truly original sounding material.   “Collaborations Don’t Work” is a particularly wry observation on the difficulties that go into artistic collaborations, and at nearly seven minutes in length goes through more tempo and time signature changes than some bands do in a career.

It’s a really audacious and unlikely sound that they create throughout the album, sort of like if the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas” had come to life as an album. It sounds like an update of the best 80’s New Wave, with pulsing keyboards and mass vocals and spidery guitar work that verges at times on Snakefinger territory.

In particular, Mael and Kapronos’ voices meld together very well. They sometimes sing in unison and sometimes trade off the vocals in a way that sounds absolutely organic. You would never know that they didn’t write the songs together in a room.

When it works best, the results are thrilling and exhibit the best attributes of all six members. In particular, check out “Johnny Delusional”, “Call Girl” and “The Man Without A Tan”.

See the video for “Johnny Delusional” below…

Which brings us to the show in Washington DC on 2015-10-09. This was one of the most surprisingly enjoyable shows I’ve been to in years. All six members were obviously having a huge amount of fun, with Russell Mael bouncing like a hipster with a vigorous energy that belies his 67-year old status while his 70-year old brother sat at the keyboards with a bemused scowl (if there is such a thing). I’m not being ageist, I mention the ages only because I’m astonished at the level of energy they were putting out, literally like men half their age.

Alex Kapronos, freed from having to carry the front-man duties by himself prowled the stage like a panther declaiming and exulting. It was an arch and arty performance but one that drew the crowd in because he was obviously having so much fun.

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The band had played approximately thirty shows apparently prior to this one, and there was no sign of any hesitancy on the new FFS original songs, they played like a band that had been together for a decade and was having an absurd amount of enjoyment.

Throughout, they traded off instruments and sometimes all came together to play on Mael’s keyboard. The musicianship was solid and tight throughout.

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“Johnny Delusional” was the opener and was a declarative statement of faith that this truly was a new band. “The Man Without a Tan” was the second song, and here’s how that went…

Kapronos sometimes sang and sometimes played guitar, and the other members of FF traded off guitars, bass, drums and keyboards throughout the show.

They played nearly the entire FFS album, as well as “covering” three Sparks songs (“Number One Song In Heaven”, “This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, “When Do I Get To Sing My Way”) and three FF songs (“Do You Want To”, “Michael” and “Take Me Out”).

Here’s the cover of “Do You Want To”:

They ended the main set with a rousing rendition of “Piss Off” and Ron Mael regaled the crowd with his dance moves.

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The encore highlighted a discofied version of “Call Girl” that was really outstanding and concluded with an extended and nearly operatic version of “Collaborations Don’t Work” that thoroughly disproved the song title in its success.

It’s not often that you see two established acts creating a baby band together, and it’s gratifying to see it done this well. Collaborations may not often work, but this one definitely does and I personally hope to see an FFS round 2. One of the most surprising and satisfying shows of 2015, certainly.

Set list:

  • Johnny Delusional
  • The Man Without A Man
  • Police Encounters
  • Do You Want To (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • The Power Couple
  • Little Guy From The Suburbs
  • Save Me From Myself
  • Things I Won’t Get
  • So Desu Me
  • The Number One Song In Heaven (Sparks cover)
  • Michael (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • This Town Aint Big Enough For Both Of Us (Sparks cover)
  • Dictator’s Son
  • Take Me Out (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • Piss Off

encore

  • When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”
  • Call Girl
  • Collaborations Don’t Work

 

 

 

The 10 Best Albums of 2015

 


 

1. Chvrches – Every Open Eye

2015.1

I had a feeling Chvrches could do a pop album and remain a bona fide electronic band, but I had no idea they could do it this brilliantly. It’s still unmistakably Chvrches but catchier, more melodic, vocally superior and bolder than their debut. BTW, they’re from Glasgow, but I’m not biased!


 

2. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

2015.2.jpg

A very close second to Chvrches, Waxahatchee’s third album is much more accomplished than the first two, but without losing any of the indie charm. 

 

 


 

3. Thomas Kercheval – We Were Here

2015.3.jpg

Every genre of rock imaginable (classic, folk, alternative, to name a few) all performed and produced by multi talented, multi instrumentalist Tom Kercheval. And proceeds go to charity, so buy it people!


 

4. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

2015.4

Not the world’s best guitarist or vocalist, but her style suits her songwriting perfectly. This isn’t your usual singer/songwriter stuff though, it’s proper rock n’ roll.

 


 

5. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

2015.5

Normally a 90 minute album described as a ‘rock opera’ would have me reaching for the eject button, but this is tremendous. More of a punk/folk/rock opera though.

 


 

6. The Orb – Moon Building 2703 AD

2015.6

After the relative disappointment of The Orb’s last album, this was a real surprise return to form. There’s only 4 tracks but as you would expect from The Orb, the tracks average about 13 minutes each! 


 

7.Aaron Weight – Flying Machine

2015.7

An album full of great melodies. For a relative unknown it’s impressive that it features a duet with Laura Cantrell, and equally impressive that Shaun Williamson appears in the video for Proper Chronic Lonely.


 

8. Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

2015.8.jpg

‘Concept album’ is another term that would make me reach for the eject button. Not this time though as Public Service Broadcasting bring us this brilliantly atmospheric album about the 60s and 70s space travel heyday.


 

9. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

2015.9.jpg

Another 90 minute album on the list and this one is epic. The best Iron Maiden album for many years.


 

10. Best Girl Athlete – Carve Every Word

2015.10.jpg

I’m always wary of the ‘next big thing’ tag and when I first heard these songs in acoustic form I was a bit underwhelmed. But when I heard the fully produced album I realised what all the fuss was about.

 

 

 


See you in 2016 folks!

The Future Is Unknown – Mike Peters live at the Hamilton in Washington DC 2015-09-08

The Alarm frontman brings his Love-Hope-Strength message to the Washington DC faithful in a passionate solo show honoring the 30th anniversary of the seminal Strength album.

The older I get, the more interested I become with survivors; people who encounter and transcend obstacles, bending with the storm but not breaking. The manner in which we face turmoil, turbulence and pain reveals more about our character than anything that happens during the sunny days of life. Rain in the summertimes of our youths is one thing, but it is only when our lives are declared unsafe buildings that all of the unimportant aspects of our lives are cauterized away, revealing the burning fires at the centers of our souls.

Mike Peters is many things: rock star, father and alternative music icon, but above all he is a survivor. His 35-plus year career as a rock troubadour both as the leader of multiple incarnations of The Alarm and as a solo artist would be enough to attest to his perseverance and power as an artist.

In addition, in the 1990s after he had disbanded the legendary first incarnation of The Alarm, Peters pioneered the more direct way that artists in the 2010s now interact with his fans, through his yearly Gathering fan conventions, which in retrospect were years ahead of their time. Peters was sufficiently determined to reach his fans, one-on-one if necessary, that he even recorded special one-off versions of songs for fans (I still have the version of “Shine On” he did for me in 1995).

But far beyond anything to do with music, it is in his battle with blood cancer (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia or “CLL”) on both a personal and international level where Peters has found his true survivor’s voice.   Without going into the recurrences and treatments that he has surmounted, it is his Love Hope Strength charity that has revealed his true character.

The charity’s name is taken from lyrics from the chorus on the title cut from 1985’s Strength album:

Give me Love, Give me Hope

 Give me Strength, Give me Someone to live for

 I need it now

With the eerily prescient verse that begins “Who will be the lifeblood coursing through my veins” it is clear that is through Love Hope Strength that Peters has found the strength to survive. Through LHS’s “Get On The List” campaign nearly 2000 patients have been matched with donors who consented to get swabs to identify the genetic markers.

The 30th anniversary of the Strength album was a logical time for Peters to tour, spreading the Love Hope Strength message, and he brought that tour through Washington DC at The Hamilton on 2015-09-08 marching on a vibrant solo tour that highlighted the cuts from the seminal album.

Peters had a very unique setup for a solo show – four microphones at different locations on the stage, a foot drum and bodhran, keyboards and a looper. Each of the mics was set up slightly differently and he used the looper to set up keyboard loops and guitar loops which along with some of the prerecorded instrumental backing tracks that he triggered live via foot pedals, allowed him to go from solo acoustic through full “band” arrangements.

Peters’ voice was in fine form throughout the show. His voice is still a remarkable instrument, a force of nature, the perfect mixture of punk and blue-eyed soul that pops right out of the speakers capable of anger, beauty and pain simultaneously. He strains to hit the highest of the high notes at this point but still pushes right through as if they are aural sculptures being revealed as he sings.

The revelation on this tour was the relaxed and conversational tone that he took between songs to tell stories that related to the writing of the songs on Strength. He had his personal lyrics diary that he used as he composed the songs and at times read out some of the lyrics and even alternate unused lyrics from the time. Peters seemed to revel in telling the stories, some humorous and some poignant, that framed the fabric of his youth starting from the formation of his very first band, the unfortunately named Toilets, which Mike asserts was the first punk band from Wales.

He told a hilarious story about buying his first pair of tight leather pants mail order because there were no punk haberdasheries in the town where he grew up, and in a remarkable segment he told the story of how seeing Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols changed his life in the way that the Pistols did not ingratiate the audience, but rather challenged them. He then did a spot-on impersonation of “Mr. Rotten” in an impromptu version of “Anarchy In The UK” that was a definite crowd favorite.

While all of the songs from Strength sounded fantastic in this form, the standouts to me were remarkable versions of “When The Ravens Left The Tower” and “Dawn Chorus”. The version of “When The Ravens Left The Tower” is below:

Here are “Strength” and “One Step Closer To Home” also from the same show:

After the show, Mike’s enthusiasm for both the fans and his Love Hope Strength message were unabated as he stayed to talk to every fan that came up to him, speaking with grace and enthusiasm to each person that has stuck with him through the stages of his journey.

Mike Peters has left indelible contributions in two areas, through his music and his charity. Here’s hoping that his indomitable character allows him to continue to develop both for many years to come. I, like all of his other devoted fans, will be there to walk forever by his side.

You can find the Love Hope Strength Foundation at:

http://lovehopestrength.org

Setlist from the Hamilton:

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Howling Wind

Unbreak The Promise

Majority

One Step Closer To Home

Absolute Reality

Knife Edge

Strength

Dawn Chorus

Father To Son

Only The Thunder

The Day The Ravens Left The Tower

Deeside

Anarchy In The UK (Sex Pistols cover)

Nothing To Do (snippet)

Spirit Of 76

Walk Forever By Your Side

Marching On

Where You Hiding When The Storm Broke

68 Guns

Blaze Of Glory

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Tinariwen – When The Legend Becomes Fact, Print The Legend – live at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver Colorado, 2015-08-12.

The legendary Tuareg collective brings their spectacular Saharan drone blues to the mountains of the Mile-High City.

Tinariwen is one of the world’s most fascinating bands, and one of the best live bands currently working. They do a hypnotic and sinuous style of sahara drone blues called “assouf” among the Tuareg nomads that is exhilarating, spiritual and sensual at the same time and their mastery of the style was in evidence in their recent show at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver, Colorado.

Tinariwen’s music is hard to describe because it penetrates your consciousness from the inside out. It’s like being in the middle of a cloud while a storm is being born. The polyrhythmic, serpentine, trancelike tunes play out in subtle ways, and the more you try to focus on it and grab the music the more it slips through your fingers like trying to hold the wind in your hands.

When you hear Tinariwen live for the first time, you start by saying – “I don’t get it. This is weird and atonal. I don’t think I like it. The song structures sound wrong. I’m becoming vaguely uncomfortable”. But then once you let your subconscious take over, your brain locks in and gets it, and suddenly it’s the greatest music you’ve ever heard in your life.

If there had not been a Tinariwen, it’s clear that the world would have had to create one anyway, because it’s obvious that the world needs Tinariwen. How much of the Tinariwen experience is created by the band, and how much is created by the audience, is hard to know. Similarly, how much of the Tinariwen legend is true doesn’t even matter.

Their backstory has become so legendary that it’s impossible to know where the facts end and the legend begins. But as aptly stated in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

So here’s the story as far as I’ve read: founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, son of a Tuareg rebel living in Mali, learned to play guitar by making his own Instrument out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. (Not even Jack White can match that!)

After Alhabib’s father was executed, he grew up in Algerian and Libyan refugee camps and gradually gravitated to playing traditional music such Moroccan chaabi protest music with his fellow refugees. People began to call the group “Kel Tinariwen”, which translates from Tamashek as “The Desert Boys”.

In the early 1980s, Alhabib and his companions, along with many other Tuareg living illegally in Libya, were conscripted or otherwise joined the Libyan army. In the mid-80s they joined the Tuareg rebel movement in Libya and started distributing homemade cassettes of their music, which apparently were popular underground protest symbols.

Around 1990, the group left Libya and returned to Alhabib’s native Mali village. About the same time, the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, and some of Tinariwen became rebel fighters. After the peace accord was reached in 1991, Tinariwen shifted their full-time focus to music.

Tinariwen can’t seem to evade drama and unrest though, and most recently in 2013 during another Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali Tinariwen had to escape Mali when the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine denounced their music as contrary to Islamic values. Most of the members of Tinariwen escaped to the southwestern desert of the United States but guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was imprisoned for an undocumented period, although he’s now back with the band.

Mali’s loss has been America’s serendipity, as Tinariwen recorded their well-received 2014 album Emmaar in the US and has been regularly touring the US for the last three years. I’ve gotten a chance to see them live five times in that time across four states, and their live shows are transcendent experiences.

Over the years the lineup has shifted quite a bit and become multi-generational. They truly are a collective, and whoever is in the troop at any particular time is “Tinariwen”. When I first became aware of Tinariwen in the early 2000s, the focus was on Alhabib, whose calm and noble demeanor on stage belied a quiet storm inside. He was a stoic counterpart to the other elder members, guitarist/singers Alhassane Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, who when they are not singing or playing guitar clap their hands, dance and weave around the stage waving benedictions to the crowd.

On the most recent two shows I’ve seen, Alhabib has not been part of the group, supposedly he’s returned to Mali, but the shows carry on with Touhami and Lamida leading the band. The focus has shifted to the younger generation of players, including a gifted young guitarist and lead singer with matinee idol looks named Yad Abderrahmane playing hypnotic loops and elegantly spare solos, a bass virtuoso named Eyadou Ag Leche with skills on a level like Flea or Bootsy Collins, a percussionist named Said Ag Ayad playing a traditional gourd-style tinde drum and a mysterious shrouded guitarist who always stands at the back, doesn’t appear to sing and keeps the music grounded and pulsing by playing the drone parts.

Tinariwen are visually arresting to watch. They all dress in a color riot of traditional long-sleeved robes and headscarves, although from show to show various members take off the headscarves. Supposedly they used to always play scarved to avoid identity because their music was outlawed, but it hardly matters; it does add to the mystery of the music though.

The size of the band varies from six to ten members that constantly switch positions, guitars and mike positions from song to song, and although I’ve seen as many as five people playing guitar on some songs (!), usually it’s “only” two or three guitarists with the remainder doing background vocals or handclaps. Up to four of the members sing lead vocals depending on the song, while the rest provide a unison background vocal chorus.

They don’t seem to speak English but do speak French and don’t talk much to the crowd during a performance, but that’s fine because talking to the crowd would break the hypnotic trance mood. Since I obviously don’t speak Tamashek I don’t claim to understand the lyrics except the ones translated on the album jackets that typically seem to be either songs about the desert, water, life, ancestors, missing loved ones and other universal themes. It’s a tribute to their music that you don’t have to understand the words in order to think you have a deep understanding of the songs (even if that understanding is probably different to each person who listens to them).

The crowd mix at a Tinariwen show is nearly as interesting as the band. Tinariwen crowds are a wildly diverse mixture of ethnicity, age and style from world-beat music fans to alternative hipsters to aging blues guitarheads to (especially in Colorado) jam-band crunchies and pothea…err…recreational drug enthusiasts. Seeing all of these groups intermixing and dancing together without irony or self-awareness can’t help but bring a smile to your face.

I didn’t even attempt to keep a setlist from the Denver show, but below I’ve posted a couple of phone-videos I shot, including my favorite Tinariwen song “Toumast Tincha” along with their biggest “hit” in the states (“Tenere Taqqim Tossam” – “Jealous Desert”). The latter is a collaboration featuring Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio that is partially in English.

Tenere Taqqim Tossam is an amazing song, in that it starts in Tuareg and then shifts to English so subtly that the first time you hear it you think to yourself – “Damn, this music is inside my head so much that I’m starting to understand Tuareg!” Then you realize – oh, Adebimple/Malone are singing in English. Never mind.

The world is a big place filled with people you don’t know, songs you haven’t sung and stories that you haven’t heard. Tinariwen exists in this world, and the world is better because of it. You should not consider your life complete until you’ve seen them play.

Toumast Tincha, live in Denver, CO, USA at the Bluebird Theatre

Tenere Taqqim Tossam

Death Cab For Cutie – Live At Red Rocks 2015-07-15

Soul Meets Body as Benjamin Gibbard and the iconic indie-pop band enthrall the faithful in a sold-out show at Red Rocks.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre is one of America’s very best concert venues and a personal favorite. Just outside Denver, Colorado in the town of Morrison, Red Rocks is a natural amphitheatre with sandstone walls that create a tremendous sound environment and is hollowed out with great sight lines to the stage.

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On a gorgeously clear mid-summer night under the stars on July 15, 2015, the stage was set for a magical night with Death Cab For Cutie in front of an ecstatic crowd of mostly young, mostly female adherents after an enthusiastic opening set by tUnE-yArDs and their blend of polyrhythms and vocal effects.

DCfC is an excellent and underrated live act and their fans are some of the most ardent in music. They seem to fill the same places emotionally to their audience that The Cure filled to an earlier generation. On their first major tour since 2012 to promote the new outstanding “Kintsugi” album, DCfC drew from all stages of their surprisingly long career and rich catalog (eight studio albums) going all the way back to 1998’s Something About Airplanes.

Ben Gibbard’s voice, equal parts Neil Young and Neil Finn, is a wonder – plaintive, open and expressive while simultaneously holding a hint of bitterness and threat that combine to make a romanticly dangerous, or dangerously romantic, combination of obsessivesness, melancholy and sweetness. The lyrics are thoughtful, literate and full of longing but with a bit of an edge that keeps them more edgy than maudlin.

In concert, Gibbard bobs and weaves like a boxer in front of a double mike setup that includes his vocal looping kit used on tracks like “You Are A Tourist” and periodically moves back to the piano. Nick Harmer on bass prowls his part of the stage like a panther and Jason McGerr on drums pounds out a surprisingly sturdy rhythm for a pop band.

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Dave Depper on guitar/keyboards and Zac Rae on keyboards/guitar fill out a deceptively lush sound. Gibbard keeps the between-song patter to a minimum which services the carefully crafted set list to move between moods and emotions without a break. His playing showed no ill effects from the wrist injury he suffered this spring.

Kintsugi is an ideal metaphor for DCfC’s music, so ideal that if it didn’t already exist someone would have had to invent it. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using gold, silver or platinum as the interstitial. The idea is to celebrate brokenness and highlight the beauty of being broken. We are all broken people in one way or another and kintsugi highlights the beauty of the brokenness unique for every individual, telling the story both of the breakage and the repair.

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Without being too heavy-handed here, that’s a great description of DCfC’s songs as well, particularly the ones on Kintsugi.   As Gibbard approaches 40, it’s hard not to focus on whether the lyrics apply to Gibbard’s recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel and the rebuilding of his life since then, but the tie is inescapable on lyrics such as “Black Suns line “How could something so fair/Be so cruel”.

Although Kintsugi’s songs are largely somber, melancholy and wistful, there is also passion and beauty in the lyrics, music and singing that both revels and reveals pain while searching for beauty. This is Night Music that you play to acknowledge Pain before the Dawn you know is coming.

Here’s an example from the show off Kintsugi, the understated “Little Wanderer”…

DCfC’s music is more complex and brooding than typical indie-pop and I was impressed that the crowd seemed to fall right in on some of the complex pieces. An example is “I Will Possess Your Heart”, to me one of the best songs of the past decade and which opens with 2:00 of feedback and squall led by Gibbard with Harmer locking down the bass, followed by another 2:00 of piano moodsetting over the driving beat before any vocals kick in.

I Will Possess Your Heart builds a tension/release like the best of drone blues from the American South with the pressure gradually building and building to a fever pitch before the constriction gets released as the vocals begin, after which the song is actually just beginning. Not your typical radio-friendly indie pop, and it really is something of a revelation live…

Other highlights of the show included a skronking version of “The New Year”, the driving pulse and riffs of “You Are A Tourist”, and the pallet cleansing of the acoustic interlude for “I Will Follow You Into The Dark”, to which the entire audience sang along note for note like it was a Dashboard Confessional emo concert.

Videos for all three songs below:

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Other than I Will Possess Your Heart, the high point for me was their usual set closer, a transcendently romantic and crystalline version of “Transatlanticsm”. Transatlanticism is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I’m always amazed by how moving the music and simple lyrics like the repeated “I need you so much closer; Come on now” refrain can tug at your heartstrings.

No video of Transatlanticism here because I put the phone down, got in touch with my inner tween girl and lost myself singing along with the crowd. Every once in a while you have to do things like this to not only remind you that you’re alive, but why you’re alive.

As they left the stage at the end of Transatlanticism, Gibbard flipped me his guitar picks and the evening was complete.   The teenage version of me would have been happy to skip life and proceed directly to Heaven from that point. No-longer teen-age me wouldn’t quite go that far, but it was still a reminder of the power of music to move the spirit. We all need that reminder from time to time. Thank you DCfC.

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Setlist:

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  • No Room In Frame
  • Crooked Teeth
  • Why’d You Want To Live Here
  • Black Sun
  • The New Year
  • The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive
  • Grapevine Fires
  • Little Wanderer
  • No Sunlight
  • Company Calls
  • President of What?
  • You’ve Haunted Me All My Life
  • What Sarah Said
  • I Will Follow You Into The Dark (acoustic; solo)
  • Everything’s A Ceiling
  • You Are A Tourist
  • Doors Unlocked And Open
  • Cath…
  • Soul Meets Body
  • I Will Possess Your Heart

Encore:

  • Passenger Seat
  • A Movie Script Ending
  • The Sound Of Settling
  • Transatlanticism

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Album Review: The Vaccines – English Graffiti

I mostly listen to music through headphones and whilst my current set are not studio quality, they’re decent enough to cope with any type of music and give a good listening experience.  So I was surprised when I hit play on English Graffiti, the third studio album from The Vaccines. It was so loud that I had to swiftly remove the headphones for fear of damaging my hearing, but checking the volume, it was on my normal setting.

Start again – still too loud. Turn down volume, that’s better. But wait –  it still sounds too loud, so loud in fact that the sound is all distorted. Only it’s not loud anymore, just distorted. Something is wrong with my headphones, try another set – just the same. Must be the device? Try another device – still the same.

After skipping through a few tracks I  came to the conclusion it must be a flawed download or something. Almost every track sounded heavily distorted, as if it had been recorded with the meters in the red the whole time. The bass is hard to hear, lost under a hail of distorted drums and guitars.

Here’s one of the worst offenders

I did a quick internet search to see if there was a known problem with the download. But it turns out it’s just the way it is. I did find this article where they say they wanted to make an album that would sound terrible in 10 years, but sorry guys it sounds terrible NOW!

http://www.nme.com/news/the-vaccines/82370

I don’t know the first thing about recording music, so I don’t know whether it’s the production, engineering or something else that has made it sound this way. Whatever it is, the result is that the album sucks. Which is a real shame, because The Vaccines are a great energetic, melodic band with two great albums behind them. I’ve often gotten into a band after only discovering them at the third or fourth album and I’ve got to say that if this was my first experience of The Vaccines I would be in no hurry to listen to them again.

It sounds like there might be some good songs here too, I just can’t listen to it long enough to tell.

Score: 2 suns out 10 (1 for actually writing some decent songs and 1 for having the sheer balls to try something this stupid)

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Here’s one they made earlier, which shows how good they CAN sound!