Jesse Boykins III dislpayed his supreme talent on the Union Transfer stage Saturday, May 24th before a certainly satiated audience. Opening acts brought the crowd to Spring Garden St. early and showed off Philly’s hometown products Beano – with a special appearance from Chill Moody, soul singer Jacqueline Constance, and singer-songwriters Justin Graham, and Domi Jo, who lit the fuse, and Boykins III subsequently ignited the night with his signature dynamic flare. Photos from the night are below – and in case you missed it earlier this week, be sure to check out the two.one.five Exclusive interview with Jesse Boykins III.
two.one.five magazine photographer Danae Morrow speaks with the singer about Son Volt’s new record. Look for Danae’s photos following their upcoming appearance at Union Transfer!
two.one.five magazine: How is the tour going for the album? Are you excited about it?
Jay Farrar: I started back in April, and so far it’s been good. It’s always great to get people involved. It’s always fun to be out there on the road.
two.one.five: Honky Tonk is a nice progression from American Central Dust. It’s completely acoustic. Would you say that you made a complete transition into acoustic, as in you’ll never play electric again?
JF: I’d never say never, but you’re right. There is a significant portion where I didn’t play the electric guitar. I think over the years I’ve just developed a more simple sound in terms of what to juxtapose with my music. I’m focused more now on music from the 1950s and 60s. I’ve found those time periods very inspirational.
two.one.five: What do you like best about being in a band rather than going solo?
JF: I like both situations. I like playing solo and I like being in a band. The one thing you get with a band context is more give and take, and the synergy that you get with a bunch of people being together and playing just automatically happens – especially if you’re in a band with a similar background.
two.one.five: How have age and/or life events influenced your song writing for your newest album?
JF: Over the past ten years or so I was into more alternative ways of writing music. Recently I felt that I was not going down that same path, I was taking the road less traveled in terms of writing.
two.one.five: You have children, correct? What kind of music do they like to listen to?
JF: Yup. The first concert I ever took my kids to was Green Day. I’d say definitely top 40 music and electronica.
two.one.five: If you weren’t a musician, what would you desire to do?
JF: Over the years my answer to that was always to become a truck driver because that’s essentially what I like to do anyway: driving around the country. More recently I do have a book out now. I’ve never written anything but songs before so it was good to do something that I’ve never done, a new endeavor. It’s interesting to take stock of where you’ve been and where you’re at.
two.one.five: You’re coming to Philly on your tour — is there anything specific that you like to do while you’re here?
JF: Besides cheesesteaks [laughs]…Usually we play at the Trocadero a lot. I like that area. It’s mostly a matter of walking about the city.
Catch Son Volt at Union Transfer on Wednesday, 6/19. Buy tickets here.
Jamie Lidell knows what it’s like to be in his own niche. This British born, Nashville based soul/electronic artist has been making waves since the release of his 2005 album Multiply. Due to his ability to make complex, funky jams that layer his phenomenal vocals on top of various tracks and beats he makes himself, Lidell’s unique, one-man-band approach to making music has caught the attention of listeners all around the world. Seriously, just check out this setup he has on stage.
Fans haven’t heard much from Lidell since the 2010 release of Compass. That album seemed to be a stark contrast from 2008’s Jim, which was an album that was quite different from Multiply and Multiply Additions. However, just this past February, Lidell has once more surprised fans and released a self-titled banger that, in my opinion, is the funkiest compilation he has released to date. This 11-track collection appears to channel the sound he wowed fans with starting in 2005, only this time it’s more confident and, as he put it, “it’s more clear and focused.”
On Sunday, April 14, Lidell concluded his current tour with an absolutely KILLER show at Philly’s Union Transfer. Rocking a white trenchcoat and strutting around the stage like he owned the place, Lidell kept the room bumping and the audience dancing the whole night. While he played mostly songs from his new album, he allowed room for some old favorites such as “Your Sweet Boom,” “When I Come Back Around,” “Multiply,” and what appeared to be a freestyle remixed rendition of “Another Day.” While sometimes the song would sound like the recorded studio version, the interesting thing about Lidell is you never know what to expect; he rolls with the punches and tries to create something new and fresh all the time. He includes an actual performance that makes him worth seeing live. During his encore he sang “Big Love” which is a song that, to me, just screams Prince and funk. Towards the end of that he was rolling around on the stage, singing a capella, snapping his fingers, and stomping his feet. It’s very obvious that when the spirit moves him he lets it groove him. He can get lost in the performance of a song while never losing his focus. It’s quite brilliant, really.
Lidell began as a solo artist then started to tour with a band. Now he’s back to being a solo artist. Imagine having to sing (like, really sing your heart out), beatbox, play synth, play the keyboard, and operate programs from a laptop all at the same time. Oh, and dance around the stage, too. After seeing his Philly performance, it only leads me to believe that Lidell was born for this. This guy is seriously a natural performer, through and through.
two.one.five chatted with Lidell for a bit about his new album, his old albums, and how good he feels about his career up to this point.
two.one.five: So, what’s been going on with you recently? How’s your tour been?
Jamie Lidell: It’s going well, I can’t complain. It’s pretty intense going back to solo performances; I haven’t really done that in a while. It’s hard work, you know? You really work up a sweat. I enjoy it, though. Going on stage and being up there working hard. It’s kind of how I started out, back in the early 2000s; I’m kind of going back to my roots in many ways.
two.one.five: Yeah, you’re promoting this new album which is self titled. Like you were saying, it sounds like you’re going back to your roots, to the sounds you were making on Multiply. On this album it seems there’s more confidence and a fresh perspective. Does that have any influence on why you decided to self title it?
JL: Partly, sure. I think of it more as a chronology of my whole career to this point. After Compass I made an album that was very slippery in a way. Each album is like a sketch and I sketched Compass pretty quickly. It was sort of like, “Oh, I like this one song right now,” and just threw it on the album. After that experience I kind of wanted to come back with a collection of songs that were a bit more focused. The goal really was to make something that was more clear and more focused. I named it Jamie Lidell because the name of the record should be clear and focused. It’s also been great because as I’ve been on this tour I’ve been meeting lots of people who’ve been saying, “I didnt know about you; I really like your stuff.” Having an album out that’s self titled helps to simply promote my name, you know? It feels good to feel like I was feeling when I first began but with new experiences and new music.
two.one.five: Yeah, that’s understandable. I’ve been following you for a while. I was formally introduced to you through your 2008 album Jim. I’ll never forget to first time I heard “Another Day.” It was surprising to me to hear the differences between Multiply, Jim, and Compass. Jim to me seems to stand out as an album that’s quite different; it’s more stripped down but very heavy on soul which is something we can always expect from you. Do you think you’ll ever make an album like that again?
JL: I’m sort of a mixed bag, it’s always been that way for me. I’m kind of always in a post modern condition. I never know what I’m going to do next. I always try to go with what seems right at the time. I may make an album like that again, who knows? I just make music that inspires me during a period of time.
two.one.five: How are you able to translate all of the music you make live while playing it by yourself? I just can’t imagine how much work that must be.
JL: Well, it helps that I’ve got a lot more songs under my belt now. I can utilize lots of recordings and tracks. It’s quite hard to make electronic music live, but it’s always been that way since the beginning of electronic music. What’s different with me is I make soul music at the same time I make electronic music. I’m always trying to mix it up. Sometimes I’m creating everything in loops, sometimes I perform with something I’ve already recorded; sometimes I perform with a hybrid of both. One thing that’s for certain is I use this equipment to expres myself, but it’s still a challenge to make the music live. I’m a singer when it comes down to it; I think people don’t realize how much work that is — to make the music and sing like I do requires a lot of focus, a lot of energy.
two.one.five: How does one associate computer programming and soul music? What was it that drew you to the soulful side of things while doing this whole one man band thing? Did you begin playing music with instruments like guitar and piano?
JL: I did start out playing acoustic guitar and electronic guitar. I played some piano and other instruments at a young age. I was one of those kids who had a computer at an early age and the merge to making electronic music, well, it happened quite naturally, really. I grew up playing a lot of video games and had access to electronics…I listened to the electronic music that was happening in the ’80s. I got caught up pretty heavily in the rave scene in UK. There was all this disco and house music happening. The funny thing about that is the house music that was massive at the time is it was a continuation of disco. It was just beats behind soul divas. The music I was listening to was the early house, soul music; I try to make music like that but with heavier beats. When you’re making music like that all that really means is you’re putting soul in a familiar context; you’re making convenient sounds that are formulaic and fun to listen to…I really enjoyed listen to the greats like Otis Redding or James Brown after going out and listening to all this house music; it was always nice to come home and listen to something soulful, it was a good way to come down. It’s just warm, you know? That feeling happens all the time when you walk into a cafe and listen to some good soul music and you just start to feel warm. The way I see it, sometimes you want to feel warm and sometimes you want to shake it out and go crazy. I like music in all forms and I just strive to make something that’s simple but combines the music I like to listen to…I just want music to pass through me. It’s just like a big tasty gumbo; I make something or listen to something and put it in the mix and try to make it taste good. I try to make music in this style.
two.one.five: How does your songwriting process work? Does it start with making beats first then lyrics second? I am really curious about this process.
JL: It changes from project to project. For this album I’d ad lib the vocal shape, freestyle. I like to come from that jazz background where you’re just always thinking about making music; I like the way that works a lot. Back when I was doing stuff with Super Collider we always wrote like that. Sometimes I’ll think of lyrics and just start writing them down. For example, “Blaming Something” is a song I wrote outside in Nashville with just pen and paper, real simple. I wrote the lyrics first then allowed that to influence the song. Sometimes it’s easier for me, sometimes it’s not. Generally, writing the lyrics is the hard part.
two.one.five: Since you’re playing in Philly do you have any fond thoughts or memories of the city?
JL: Spent a little bit of time out in Philly. My wife used to work with Urban Outfitters. The harbor area is just beautiful. Philly is always a good-looking place with all the brick buildings. I have a lot of memories of food in Philly; it’s very much a great food place. I think of the Roots and Questlove, good soul and R&B music. Philly soul is a big deal. It’s cool to come back to there. I also think of World Cafe; have some great memories of playing there. It always just feels like a good music town, a good place to be.
two.one.five: How do you like living in Nashville?
JL: [My wife and I] love Nashville. We’ve met some great people which makes living there really easy. I kind of like the whole being a Brit living in America. Yeah, Nashville is great. Real easy livin’.
Over the weekend, London-based neo-psychedelic/electronic rock band Django Django performed to a packed Union Transfer. Screaming fans jumped and hollered to the synthy/surfy/spaghetti western infused beats and harmonized vocals of songs from their Mercury prize nominated, self-titled debut album that was released just last year.
These guys are total nerds at heart. To start, they ran out on stage in matching printed button up shirts. They were all smiles within their geekdom (especially synth player Tommy Grace), exclaiming they were playing their very first Philadelphia show. The guys performed in front of a projection screen that featured some pretty killer visuals artfully crafted by Kim Coleman, including what appeared to be blinds opening and shutting. Some fun, flashy lights highlighted the beats of the songs which brought a foot stomping dance wave over the audience. Django Django’s creative musical performance totally adds to the listening experience, I think. I’m really into their debut album as it is, but seeing it live with the awesome light show and witnessing how they make all the layers of their music come together truly enhances the effect. Plus, a super pumped up, stoked audience definitely helps, too.
There’s just something about Django Django that’s infectious. Their style cannot be categorized, though. They have managed to create a sound that is almost like music you’d want to hear in a futuristic, western film while also maintaing a psychedelic, surfy vibe. It’s something else, really. Definitely keep these guys on your radar.
On Saturday, October 6th, 2012, The Walkmen were supposed to play at the Electric Factory, with Philly band The War On Drugs opening up.
But they canceled.
On Friday, January 11th, 2013, The Walkmen will try to make it right. Their Philly-area fans will be treated to dinner prior to their set that evening. The entree: spaghetti and meatballs; the venue: The Union Transfer. Which used to be the Spaghetti Warehouse, but, that has nothing to do with this.
The point is, they’re sorry, Philly. Let them make it up to you.
two.one.five magazine: Who came up with this idea?
Peter Bauer: I think maybe Hamilton? We were driving along in a van in Europe. We had to cancel a show, and we felt bad about it, so then we came up with the idea.
two.one.five: Does this have anything to do with the fact that it’s at the old Spaghetti Warehouse building?
PB: We hadn’t thought of that at that point, this was when we did that record Pussycasts, a covers record record, we’d always wanted to have a tour where we served spaghetti and meatballs to the audience beforehand, like that would be the opening act, you know? But then everyone hated that record, so we wouldn’t have had an audience to serve spaghetti and meatballs to, so that never happened.
two.one.five: I happen to like that record a lot.
PB: Then it would have been you and the five of us, and a loooot of meatballs… So that idea percolated from there. We thought it would be really funny for a band to like, start their show with a catered dinner. I don’t know why. You get really bored with covers. And when realized there were a lot of really upset people writing us and saying ugly things to us [as a result of the Electric Factory show we canceled in October], and a lot of people who had booked hotels, and a lot of things you don’t foresee, so then we thought maybe this would be a good idea.
two.one.five: Was it your idea to cancel that show, was that your responsibility?
two.one.five: Was that because it wasn’t selling as well as people thought, or what?
PB: Yeah I think so, it was our booking agent’s idea, so, we canned it.
two.one.five: All the rumors around the dinner are that people from other bands are gonna be serving the spaghetti, is that the case?
PB: Yeah, we started that rumor.. [laughing]… and so we put up a Facebook post about the whole thing, that all these people were gonna be there. I think a couple people are gonna be there, but we hadn’t thought it through very well. Maybe not everyone who’s [attending] had RSVP’d, but we only have enough beer for like 150 people.
two.one.five: Do you have any idea how many people will be at the dinner?
PB: I have no idea! I think it’s like 100, but, god, who knows, you know? But we’ll see, maybe we’ll get some extra beer. But who knows, first come, first serve! But yeah I mean it should be cool. I think we’ll have a couple friends come help serve some food. We said a lot of people we’d never met would come serve food, people we’d never had contact with. For instance, Kurt Vile. We don’t know him. He’s definitely welcome to come and have as much beer and pasta as he wants.
two.one.five: Wait, so you said Kurt Vile would come serve food and then never called him about it, or anything?
PB: No, we just said he was gonna come. We could’ve said Barack Obama was gonna come and it would’ve had the same result.
two.one.five: And what about the guys from War On Drugs, who you were supposed to play with at the October show?
PB: I don’t know if they’re coming, I haven’t reached out to them.. I’m gonna see if they want to come.
two.one.five: Will Alec Ounsworth be a part of the dinner too?
PB: Alec Ounsworth is contractually obligated to serve pasta.
two.one.five: Who’s going to be preparing the food?
PB: You know, we don’t know that yet. We had a lot of ideas to do it ourselves, but, seeing as we’re all in completely different cities, we may just buy that pasta from somewhere, you know? We may have a restaurant just bring that pasta. We were gonna cook it, but then, you know. Spaghetti’s spaghetti.
two.one.five: I read in an article that the dinner is going to be to a soundtrack of you guys soundchecking, is that right?
PB: Honestly, since we posted that Facebook thing two months ago, none of us have like, spoken to each other.
PB: Yeah, we got out of a car and never spoke to each other. Basically. I don’t know what we’re gonna do at the actual show that night, or at the spaghetti dinner. But I’m guessing what we do everyday, which is play a lot of bad songs. I’m certain we could take requests of people. We do Tom Petty pretty damn well. We do the Faces’ Maggie May. We do U2 incredibly well. We do a pretty good Boss.
two.one.five: That’s good for our crowd.
PB: But the important thing is that we don’t really know any of these songs at all, so. We’ll muddle through anything.
two.one.five: What’s going on with The Walkmen these days, do you guys have a new record coming out anytime soon?
PB: No, we have nothing coming out. We don’t know what we’re gonna do. The last idea I heard was Paul (our guitar player) thought we should make a record about our mothers, since the
record about our families went over so well.
PB: [laughing] So I think that’s what we’re gonna do. Final-nail-in-the-coffin sorta thing.
two.one.five: [a little panicked] …wait, what does that mean, you guys thinking about going your separate ways?
PB: No, not at all. No. [laughing] But who knows. Who knows what we’ll do. We have to figure out what to make a record about next. We have no idea. At least I don’t. I don’t know if anyone else does. I’m hoping someone else does.
two.one.five: You’ve been a relatively prolific band. Whose idea was it to cover Pussycats?
PB: I don’t have any idea. I think it was another one of those things, very similar to the spaghetti dinner idea, in terms of decision, we were driving along in our van bored out of our minds, and thought, well, our studio’s closing in a couple weeks, why don’t we do this? Because we all listen to that record a lot. “Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga” was like, the first dance at my wedding, kinda thing. And it was a record that was just around a lot that year, and so we decided to do it. It was very spur-of-the-moment, I would say. We were at the equivalent point when we were first in the studio as we are with the spaghetti dinner, where we have no idea where the spaghetti’s coming from, we don’t have enough beer for everyone, and we don’t know what we’re gonna play. But I mean, it was just a lot of fun.
two.one.five: As far as Philly goes, how do you guys enjoy stopping on tours in Philly?
PB: I live here, so I love playing here. It’s really easy for me. Me and Matt live here, so it’s nice. And it’s been great, the last time we played at Union Transfer, we loved it, it was definitely our best Philly show.
Alec Ounsworth (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) opens. Doors at 8, show at 9. Spaghetti at 5. Tickets are $22. Click here to buy them.
I peered over the stage from right up front at Union Transfer tonight as one of the crew secured the Divine Fits’ setlist to the floor with thick black electrical tape, trying to steal a preview of what the night had in store. I think it’s almost sacrilege, to sneak a peek at that thing, or at the very least, bad form. I don’t even know what I was expecting to see there anyway, other than some permutation of the 11-song tracklist of the only album this new band has, an album I had listened to enough by now that I might be annoyed if I have to hear the songs reordered. That’s how I get, about records I like a lot. That’s how I get about most of Spoon’s catalog.
And this wasn’t a Spoon show, though Spoon is admittedly why I was so excited to be there tonight and mostly why, I imagine, the place was so full of fans of all ages so soon after the inception of this hybrid band. Britt Daniel — lead singer of Spoon, one of the leads of the Divine Fits, and cofounder of both — has become an unassuming powerhouse of modern rock, having been quietly and reliably crafting nearly perfect records for almost twenty years now. And when he came out tonight and waved to a screaming house of his Philly fanbase before stooping to swig his Corona and fiddle with his guitar pedals, I remembered what Fits’ drummer Sam Brown had told me in an interview last week: Daniel is one of the best editors in music, a perfectionist who puts in the time to get exactly what he wants out of a song.
That attention to detail was evident in his stagecraft tonight, too, in the little ways — knob turning, guitar tuning, astute attention to his monitors, a glance and a thumb direction to the sound techs standing by at stage right — or even in the way he would conduct the band, guiding the musical turns of phrase and volume as though the neck of his battle-worn red Gibson ES-335 hollow body were an orchestral baton. But he makes it all look so effortless, the lanky frontman, mixing that nerdy obsession with his punk and classic rock roots, his goofy grin, his erratic but measured guitar style and his unique brand of quirky stage banter to emerge invariably in cadent command.
By contrast, Dan Boeckner supplies the Fits with an intractable uneasiness, manifested in wild spasms of percussive guitar and a visceral, adolescent energy that almost makes him look as though he’s not sure where next to direct it. His delivery is a sort of stifled frustration, a reined-in rabidity, a guard dog on a leash. When Daniel stepped aside, a little more than halfway through their set, and yielded to Boeckner the center-stage mic rig for his lead vocals on the Fits’ first single “My Love Is Real,” Boeckner looked almost as though he didn’t want too obviously to break his cool and let you know that this was his favorite part of the show.
Both singers delivered tonight. Supported by Brown’s muscular economy and Alex Fischel on keys, the Divine Fits brought a solid (if a little safe) debut record to life, right before the eyes of a Philly audience already warm to this band. The Fits were loud; their songs seemed retrofitted with an urgency I hadn’t heard in some of them before. Their post-new-wave crescendo built steadily throughout a set list peppered with covers (was that Frank Ocean?!), and an encore of two more: the Stones’ 1971 classic “Sway,” and Birthday Party (Nick Cave) song “Shivers,” included on their first record.
At one point in the evening, and between songs, one fan observed, “you guys fuckin’ rock!,” clearly so moved as to be
unable to restrain himself from issuing an immediate and emotional evaluation. Daniel replied with a delayed, understated, “thanks man.” That fan was right. The Divine Fits proved themselves tonight. And, I’m not going to pretend I’d rather Daniel continue to collaborate with Boeckner and Brown rather than writing the next Spoon record — I wouldn’t, I love Spoon too much and I can’t wait to see where they go after Transference. But I’ll say this: if Daniel’s gonna spend his time on another band right now outside of Spoon, well at least that band fuckin’ rocks.
Famed drone/doom sonic devastators Sunn O))) treat Philadelphia to a performance of religious proportions. Photos by Julia Aguilar.
Thin, wispy ribbons of white smoke snaked through the cracks in the Union Transfer’s front doors on Wednesday night (Sept. 5th), minute harbingers of the sonic devastation that was about to begin. Within the packed concert hall, the smoke was so thick that I could see barely a few feet in front of me, with concert goers slowly emerging and fading into thick plumes of smoke machine-generated vapor. As I made my way to the front, I could taste the chlorine-like mist wafting by, making my fellow concert goers appear as ghostly figures wandering a foggy moor. On stage, a towering wall of amplifiers and a few microphone stands could be made out, like spectral totems waiting to be called to life. The murky hall was thick with anticipation, and the music hadn’t even begun yet. Such are the aesthetics of a Sunn O))) show.
Before the first note was struck or the band even took the stage,Sunn O)))’s presence was felt throughout the Transfer; it almost seemed unfair to T.O.M.B. and fellow Southern Lord label mates Dead in the Dirt to have to open for the sonic duo, as the cacophonous black metal and straightedge grindings quickly faded like the crowd amongst the fog. The crowd cheered briefly as the lights began to dim, but fell completely silent again by the time they were out, the concert hall dense with smoke and anticipatory sweat. At first, it was difficult to even tell if Sunn O))) had taken to the stage. And then the first note struck.
It was more of a tone, really, than an actual note. A low, creeping hum emanated from the golden speaker fronts of the towering wall of Sunn amplifiers (after which Sunn O)))’s name and logo are fashioned). I could feel the drone of the bass resonating in my chest, quivering my bones where I stood, as the lights ever so slightly were raised. Three hooded figures could be made out on stage; founders Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley (guitars, bass and pedals) were at opposite ends of the stage, making wide, sweeping strokes on their strings. Between majestic strums, O’Malley and Anderson pointed their guitars skyward, the pegs on the heads of their guitars catching what little light was in the room, sending silver beams cutting through the smoke. Touring/live member Steve Moore shuffled slowly behind his moog synthesizer, adding to the growing rumblings reverberating from the stage.
As the band continued to weave their sonic symphony, what looked like a phantasmal priest of the occult walked slowly through the shadows towards the mic stand. Live vocalist Attila Csihar, adorned in monk-like regalia, clutched the mic in one hand, whilst his other grasped what looked to be a mouth harp. It was here that Sunn O))) got their most ‘metal,’ bridging the gap between the drone/noise dirge and more doom-laden, drawling rock songs. Csihar, wearing a twisted mold of wax and latex (created by Egyptian mask maker Nader Sadek), uttered throaty murmurs into the mic, pressed against the melting-candle mouth of his mask. Csihar and the band near-grooved for a time, recalling some of Sunn O)))’s more doom rock influences, before O’Malley and co. set aside their instruments to allow Csihar what could only be called a vocal solo. As the guitars and moog drew back to a low hum of feedback, Csihar seemed overcome with with an otherworldly force, demonically chattering into the microphone, pulling away at times to gently tap the mic with his hellish harp. The gratings and rapping of amplified metal-on-metal pierced the eerie silence of the hall, feedback crackling all the while.
After Csihar’s scat session from hell, he and the band settled back into more groove-laden drone rock, which swelled into a clamorous eruption of feedback by the end of the set; O’Malley and Anderson twirled their guitars by the necks to and fro in front of the speakers, letting the static reverberate the strings. The electric burial hymn twirled and spiraled into a sort of free-drone-rock that rose to a sonic pinnacle. And with that, the set was over. O’Malley, Anderson and the rest of the group pulled back their dark hoods to reveal their smiling bearded faces, waving to the crowd and clasping their hands together to thank the audience. The de-cloaked Sunn O))) thanked the crowd again before exiting the stage, a quartet that for roughly 90 minutes had been transformed into sonic priests. As I made my way towards the front doors of the Transfer, the crowd around me began to dissipate like the artificial smoke meeting the night air. I felt lost, near stumbling after scarcely having moved from the moment Sunn O)))’s set began. As the taste of chlorine gradually left my mouth, I could hear the muffled utterance of the crowd around me, as if spoken from the bottom of lake. Even amidst the incoherent exclamations of the throng, I could make out the mesmerized tone of each attendee; some bewildered, some elated, but all transfixed by the witching sounds of the unearthly quartet.
“I love to tour. But it’s so, well, it’s kind of scary, actually. It’s kind of scary. I’m happy to get out and see everybody, and, you know . . . but it’s scary…”
Daniel Johnston doesn’t make eye contact with me for the duration of our interview, which lasted only a few minutes, in his dressing room, the evening of his show last week. He’s decidedly shy, sort of uncomfortable around me at first.
“What’s scary about it, you don’t like being on stage?” I suggested.
“That must be it,” he said. “‘Cause once I’m on stage, like when I try to play my own songs on my guitar, I just can’t do it very well, you know?” He clearly took some comfort in his remedy: “Tonight’s show was changed, upon my request. I’m gonna do the whole show with the band, because I do a lot better with the band.”
The band he’s talking about is Philly’s own indie rockers Sweet Lights, the brainchild of Shai Halperin, whose burgeoning recording career saw some success with other local bands The Capitol Years and The War On Drugs. Halperin opened up that night with a few solo songs — euphonic vocals that brought the intonation of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour to mind, an electric guitar, and a handful of sound loops — before being joined by a full band to round out the set.
And when they returned after a short break, Johnston emerged along with them, in the same gray sweat suit and house shoes in which he had met me backstage a couple hours prior, and took the microphone. And there, on the stage, facing a preemptive ovation from a crowded house, he seemed comfortable, as comfortable as an innately talented artist should be at the helm of his own show. As comfortable as anyone who ever wears a sweat suit.
Having started off recording his own compositions on a little boom box at home, Johnston’s music began to gain notoriety when he moved to Austin, Texas, in the mid-eighties. He told me, “I was poor, and I was just making tapes for my friends for years, and they would just treat me like a celebrity, they’d turn the tape recorder on and they would interview me and stuff – it was hilarious…” Johnston was somewhat warmer, at this point, having taken some delight in these memories. A degree of genuine joy was now evident. “I mean, back in those days, a long long time ago, they made me feel like more of a star than these days, even with the big crowds. They made me feel famous. I sort of miss that.”
When I asked Johnston what it meant to him when he found out that Cobain publicly declared his love for him, he responded exuberantly, and recounted the moment. “My ex-manager came to visit, and showed me [Cobain] wearing a ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt on MTV – you know, it was hanging on my wall!” I noted the obvious: “Sure, that was your drawing.” He said, “yeah! And so, you know. That was pretty cool. He was really famous.”
When asked if that had encouraged him to continue writing his music, in any way, Johnston said, “nahh,” in an enthusiastic whisper. “I love writing. That’s what I like best, writing.”
“And not performing, so much?” I asked.
“Yeah. That’s true,” he replied.
Frankly, it was almost hard to tell that night that this was, in fact, the truth. Maybe it was that he did take his comfort in being backed by a band that sounded as good as the guys from Sweet Lights that night, but he seemed perfectly happy up there on a bright stage, holding his microphone, referring often to his notebook of lyrics, reveling in the applause, the cheers, and the fan declarations of love for the singer throughout a set that covered crowd favorites like “Speeding Motorcycle,” “Fake Records Of Rock And Roll,” “Walking The Cow,” and “True Love Will Find You In The End” (his only encore song), as well as covers of the three John Lennon compositions “I’m So Tired,” “Isolation,” and “Jealous Guy.”
Either way, let’s hope he comes back again soon in support of his new record, “Space Ducks: Soundtrack,” his eighteenth studio record and his first new album in three years.
And if a band is what the man needs to feel comfortable on stage, well then someone, please, get the man a band.
(and J. Roddy Walston and the Business Steal the Show!)
A show at Union Transfer with a lineup featuring Lucero and Deer Tick, plus two like-minded opening bands, might lead you to believe that the night would feature lots of raucous, boozy alt-country/rock. And you would be right … mostly.
Turbo Fruits, from Nashville, TN, started off the show with a solid, if somewhat forgettable, set of southern-tinged garage rock. They were followed by Baltimore’s J Roddy Walston and the Business, who instantly got the crowd’s attention with their mix of Memphis rock n’ roll and Motown soul. Frontman J Roddy pounded on a piano and flipped his large mane like an (even more) possessed Jerry Lee Lewis, whom he name-checked as an influence during the band’s set (not that anyone in the crowd hadn’t already figured that out). The band is currently on tour with Lucero, and if they are putting in riotous performances every night like the one they provided at Union Transfer, there are going to be quite a few patrons leaving Lucero shows proclaiming that J Roddy Walston and the Business are their new favorite band.
Deer Tick were up next, with a set that primarily drew from the gravelly alt-country of their most recent album, 2011’s Divine Providence. The band, mostly dressed in matching suit coats, burnt through “The Bump”, “Something to Brag About”, “Walking Out the Door”, and “Funny Word”, on which they were joined by members of J. Roddy Walston and the Business. Highlights of their set included a bruising cover of the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” and set-closer “Let’s All Go to the Bar”, which was well-received by the now-inebriated crowd.
Finally, Lucero took the stage. In contrast to most Lucero shows, this night featured a restrained, half-sober set of the bands more mellow tunes. Despite the somewhat glossy production applied to lead singer-guitarist’s Ben Nichols voice on their most recent album, Women and Work, he is thankfully still in full-throated raspiness live, as evidenced on this night. Their set mainly drew on songs from Women and Work, with live staples from earlier albums: “Chain Link Fence” from Tennessee, “Bikeriders” from Nobody’s Darlings, and their cover of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle”, from The Attic Tapes. It was a solid Lucero show, but the chaotic, drunken near-mess of their previous live performances was somewhat missed.
Overall, it was a night of music to which much whisky and beer should be consumed, a fact that was certainly not lost on the crowd.