Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Better than: Listening to layered and nuanced instrumental music as background.
Instrumental music is not dead.
For all the prominence of vocal-driven music in the modern pop scene, a careful and dynamic approach to the subtleties of instrumental music can still draw a loyal fan base -- and a considerable crowd. The durability of such a carefully constructed sound was on full display during the Mogwai's set at the Bluebird last night, as the sold out crowd remained respectfully hushed for the entirety of the quintet's two-hour set.
Indeed, the majority of the dense crowd remained rapt and attentive for the band's entire set, as the Glasgow-based group explored subtleties in tone and effects, volume and presence in carefully structured, purposefully composed tunes. Unlike in instrumental dance music, Mogwai's beats were staid, with varied tones and a dynamic compositional structure - and the audience soaked up every second of it. The effect was remarkable. Seeing a group command such patience and such silence, especially considering the fact that the show offered little in the way of vocal adornment, was beyond impressive.
As an opening act, Women set a solid base for the sonic experimentation that would mark the headliner's performance. The quartet, based out of Calgary, offered an introductory set marked by extended, augmented guitar chords, plodding, driving drum work, and lengthy, experimental forays into sheer noise. Guitarists Patrick Flegel and Christopher Reimer alternated between dense groups of oddly voiced chords and short bursts of melodic, distorted solos. Drummer Michael Wallace, meanwhile, drew on a tambourine affixed to his high hat and bells attached to his tom to add some novel tones to his driving, straightforward cadences. While Women's amorphous song structures and extended, lengthy instrumentals seemed to set a properly experimental mood and context for Mogwai, the band's lack of cohesion started to wear thin by the end of the set.
Mogwai wasted no time in picking up the pace. Guitarists Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings seemed to drive the initial songs with their resonant, humming lines, while Dominic Aitchison's bass and Martin Bulloch's drums served as underlying anchors for the carefully arranged compositions. Barry Burns, who alternated between keyboards and guitar, provided the sole moments of vocal adornments, his voice masked in a synthesized tone.
Stylistically, the act's songs were simple on the surface, revolving around basic structures and repeating patterns. The real depth came in the group's use of tones and timbres. Braithwaite and Cummings used a boggling assortment of pedals and effects for their guitars, a tool that both have honed to perfection. Songs like "Killing All the Flies," "Autorock," "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead" and an epic version of "Batcat" boasted a calculated, careful sense of sound and tone. The volume during the show ranged from blaring distortion to hushed strums, but the attention to detail was constant throughout.
While Mogwai's set did not contain the musical acrobatics or compositional variation of some other instrumental genres (namely jazz and classical), neither did it lack any attention to detail.
Personal Bias: I had expended much energy during two Gene Ween shows just a day before the Mogwai performance, so my enthusiasm was a bit dimmed on Tuesday.
Random detail: At the beginning of Women's set, a girl in the front row fell straight backward onto the floor and was subsequently carried out by Bluebird bouncers. It made for a surreal beginning to the concert.
By the way: John Cummings stayed onstage for at least five minutes after the rest of the band had left, just messing with his pedals and experimenting with tones.
Mogwai Set List
05/12/09 - Bluebird Theater
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01. I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead
02. Scotland's Shame
04. Christmas Steps
05. Killing All the Flies
06. I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School
10. I Know You are But What Am I?
11. Friend of the Night/Batcat
12. 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong
13. We're No Here