Shooting stars

My close encounter with William Hung and Buckethead at a hot, hippie-packed extravaganza. Plus: Reconsidering a band -- because you told me to.

Thomas Bartlett
June 17, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

I'm currently on tour, playing keyboards in Mike Doughty's band, and last Friday our travels took us to the gigantic Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Before arriving, I'd been sad that my touring schedule necessitated leaving the festival first thing Saturday morning, but after a few hours there, Saturday morning wasn't nearly soon enough. The heat (pushing 100 degrees), the crowds (90,000 hippies), the incessant noodling (Bonnaroo is jam-band central), the drum circles (yes, drum circles), the sounds of Dave and Ani (Matthews and DiFranco need no last names in this crowd) floating across the fields -- it was all a little much for me.

My sanity was salvaged by Yo La Tengo. Forty-five minutes is usually about my maximum tolerance for concert length, even if it's a band I love, but I was in bliss for Yo La Tengo's entire hour-and-a-half-long show. They've folded shoe-gaze, Eno atmospherics and noise improvisation into their delicate pop songs to create one of the great sounds in contemporary music. The interplay between the band's three members, switching off on drums, guitar, bass, Farfisa and other keyboards, is unbelievably finely tuned -- they've been playing together for so long that they're able to put on a show that is perfectly tight and coordinated but has the malleable quality of free improvisation. Nothing else I heard at Bonnaroo came close.


My brief Bonnaroo experience ended with a surreal sight: my bandleader, Mike Doughty, standing on a Mardi Gras float a few feet away from William Hung (gamely bumbling his way through "She Bangs" for the thousandth excruciating time), as, off in the distance, Buckethead (amid tasteless flurry of notes) looked on through his helmet.

"Sweet Virginia," Gomez, from "Split the Difference"
A few weeks ago in this column, I mentioned my disappointment with Gomez's new "Split the Difference." I got a number of messages in response from Gomez loyalists urging me to keep listening to the album, suggesting that it would grow on me. This I was happy to do, as I'd enjoyed some of Gomez's past music so much, and I'm pleased to report that they were right. "Split the Difference" is less stuffed with ear candy than some of their earlier efforts, more of a straight guitar rock record -- but few other working bands could put together a guitar rock record this inventive and vivid. I'm amused by "Don't Know Where We're Going," which plays almost as a parody of the manicured "punk" that's so popular right now -- it sounds as if the singer's vocal cords have been hacked to pieces with shards of broken glass (the same shards he's about to cut his wrists with, of course), but before dying he had time to digitally pitch-correct the performance into artificial perfection. My favorite track, though, is the Lennon-esque waltz "Sweet Virginia," which has more of the sonic playfulness that Gomez is so good at. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)


"It's Been Done," Angela McCluskey, from "The Things We Do"
As promised in last week's column, here's a song from Angela McCluskey's new record. The arrangements on this record are marginally more interesting than the live versions I heard last week, but it still takes an exceptionally powerful voice and presence to pull off music this bland in performance and conception. Luckily, that's exactly what Angela McCluskey has. Like Billie and Björk, her voice somehow contains both world-weary huskiness and childlike playfulness, and she has a beautiful way of ending phrases with a barely tangible vibrato that adds an extra touch of resonance to an already piercing sound. As a general rule, I'd say that switching into a reggae groove in the middle of a rock song is a really terrible idea, but when McCluskey does it here, her voice is just so joyful that I wouldn't even think of questioning it. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)


"Farther On," Vetiver, from "Vetiver"
Vetiver, led by singer/songwriter Andy Cabic, is part of the scene that has begun to crystallize around Devendra Banhart, playing simple, acoustic music with an emphasis on a warm, fuzzy, round-the-campfire communal vibe -- it's almost a revival of the folk revival, just without the politics. Compared to the always surprising, sometimes goofy Banhart, who plays guitar and provides occasional backing vocals in Vetiver, Cabic comes across as a bit of a straight man, but he has a lovely, wistful aesthetic and conjures an air of pastoral summer fun. Free download: "Farther On"


"Perfect Weapon," Communiqué, from "Poison Arrows"
"Perfect Weapon," by Communiqué (risen like a glittering new-wave dance-pop phoenix from the ashes of San Francisco punk band American Steel), is a song of self-destructive hedonism and the ennui and emotional detachment that come with it. Singer/guitarist Rory Henderson described it to me in an e-mail as "a song for a Nan Goldin slide show." It's a sweaty, frantic, dance-because-there's-nothing-else-to-do kind of a song, performed with desperate, adrenaline-rush energy. And you've got to love the melodramatic overkill of lyrics like "the tears that stain your makeup makes you beautiful to Cupid's poison arrows." Free download: "Perfect Weapon"

"Shooting Stars," Elysian Fields, from "Dreams That Breathe Your Name"
Full disclosure: For the last six months or so, I've been playing keyboards in Elysian Fields. But I wasn't yet playing with them when "Dreams That Breathe Your Name" was recorded, and all unavoidable bias aside, I can very honestly say that it is one of my favorite (and most listened to) records so far this year. The most visceral element of Elysian Fields' music is the enthralling, incantatory vocal presence of Jennifer Charles, which comes from the same exotic locale (the Land of Sex, Death and Spiritual Ecstasy, we could call it) as P.J. Harvey, Nick Cave, Jim Morrison, et al. But listen closely and you'll hear a fine latticework of Beatles-y harmonies surrounding her. These songs are supported by a nearly invisible scaffolding of unusually complex but never unnecessarily complicated chord changes. As a songwriting team, Charles and Oren Bloedow have found a perfect balance between the Dionysian and Appolonian. "Shooting Stars," available for free download, is one of my favorite tracks on this record, but the whole thing is available from iTunes and is well worth buying. Free download: "Shooting Stars"


Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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