Monolith 2009, Day Two: The Mars Volta, Chromeo, Monotonix, Phoenix and more
Monotonix set off the SoCo stage.
We're back on the Rocks for what, so far anyway, is looking to be a much more pleasant day than Saturday. In case you missed yesterday's festivities, it was viciously cold and wet, and not at all conducive to enjoying music. Today: Sunny and warm, at least so far.
We'll be here all day, posting reviews and photos as they come in. It starts right now:
A Shoreline Dream, 12:20 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Starting the day in a hazy, uncertain state.
A Shoreline Dream's early afternoon performance offered a taste of fogginess far too early in the day.
The quartet's dense, distorted guitar and bass lines, along with their muddled, meandering vocals would have been ideal way to unwind later in the day, after seeing a full slate of high energy bands.
But seeing the group as the first act of Monolith's second day was too disorienting and unmooring for me. After pumping myself up for a dynamic day of music in the sunshine, the performance in the darkened halls of the Red Rocks visitor center seemed a bit too understated.
The group did a good job of showing off their strengths. Ryan Policky offered musing lyrics that would, at times, devolve into wordless, emotional cries. Erik Jeffries and Enoc Torraca played thick, heavily distorted guitar and bass lines, creating a surreal sound that fit the small space well and served as a fitting soundtrack for the grainy footage beamed on a screen in the back.
The effect was dreamy and surreal, and recalled a host of influences from the Pet Shop Boys to Pink Floyd. But the sound ultimately proved too dreamy for the early hour, and I found myself eager to take in an act that was more straightforward at an outdoor stage.
Verdict: It was far too early for so much surrealism. -- A.H. Goldstein
Spindrift, 12:30 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Hearing a contemporary version of Ennio Morricone doing live soundtrack work.
Spindrift started off its set with a few of its more ethereal material, but for this band it meant that the trebly, spindly melodies hung in the air before the thick rhythms came in to give flesh, muscle and dynamism to the songs. Afterward, the band drifted back in to the deserty, psychedelic rock that we've come to expect from Spindrift.
Halfway through the set was a song where Kirpatrick Thomas' played a ghostly, descending riff that evolved into kind of a Dick Dale or Link Wray-esque psych surf series of hanging chords for the most haunting moment in the set. At the end a little girl came on stage dressed in Native American regalia and, along with a woman who accompanied her broke into tribal drumming. Once the song got going, Thomas and the rest of the band joined in with wails that solidified a sense of witnessing a sacred ceremony done on the open plains before the Great Spirit.
Verdict: I've been less than impressed with the band on previous occasions but this performance was superb. -- Tom Murphy
Jim McTurnan and the Kids That Killed the Man, 1 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Dinosaur Jr. minus ten 100 watt Marshalls, a few temper tantrums and the pretension.
Jim McTurnan apologized for the band's final song. "This is where we get self-indulgent," he said. Not necessary - it was longer and involved a tempo change and (gasp!) at least four chords, but it rocked just as hard as the rest of the set. Oh man. Josh Wambeke from Fell plays bass in this band. Nothing fancy from him, facing backwards and hitting his notes. And Mike Marchant plays guitar. For the uninitiated, Marchant is Denver's long-haired guitar god, gangly and awesome at what he does. He dangles around the stage, his ankles and hips and knees like jello, tossing off feedback and distortion and yanking forth face-melting solos. McTurnan can handle an axe himself, and he laid washed out vocal melodies on blissfully simple, bracingly loud rock tunes.
Verdict: There's a reasonable amount of national media attention here at Monolith. Did you catch these guys? That's right. Denver made that. Eat your heart out. -- Kiernan Maletsky
The Features, 1:30 p.m.
We Were Promised Jetpacks, 1:40 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Seeing those cool latter-day, Scottish post-punk bands before they got polished.
Jetpacks opened with a flurry of vaguely melodic sound that became something like a frantic combination of U2 and Mission of Burma. The vocals sounded a little flat, and yet they carried a tune well enough and the guy could sing with feeling. After the first song or two a woman in the audience asked the singer to say what sounded like "whore" and then he did. But he quickly followed that up by joking that "We're not some sort of Scottish freak show that rolls into town and says whatever you want."
The guitar style was often jagged, atonal, textural and rhythmic rather than melodic. The quiet and loud dynamics were a bit predictable and these guys sounded a bit too much like Franz Ferdinand, but without the soul influence. But between songs everyone in Jetpacks was charmingly funny; even the singer's speaking voice was curiously not flat at all. Even though I can't say I was too much into what this band was doing, it's hard to not like a band that remembers to be entertaining performers.
Verdict: Even though some of this group's songs seemed fairly derivative to me, its use of atmospheric sounds in the synths or samples added another dimension to its overall vibe. -- TM
The Grates, 2 p.m.
What it was like: A poppy, musically inoffensive way to spend a half an hour.
Patience Hodgson's peppiness was palpable.
The lead singer for Australia-based quartet the Grates seemed on the constant verge of laughter as she led the group through their set of simplistic, straightforward indie pop.
While Hodgson's bubbly demeanor seemed to spur the crowd to dance and participate, it didn't lend for any profound, striking moments of musical innovation.
Instead, the group's set stuck to two- and three-chord song structures, lackluster lyrics and danceable, clappable rhythms. Songs like "Aw Yeah" stayed safely within these structural confines, but the band seemed to have a lot of fun reveling in the simplicity.
Decked in an odd jacket that recalled some late 19th century European military garb, Hodgson brought an admirable amount of energy to the performance. Veering easily into falsetto stretches during her vocals, Hodgson's stage presence drove the band through its uncomplicated list of tunes.
Verdict: I didn't find myself engaged or impressed by any of the Grates' tunes, but their set played as innocuous pop filler. -- AG
The Pirate Signal, 2:20 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: City sirens and the screeches of monsters in the sewer.
If people could spontaneously combust, I'd be very concerned for Yonnas Abraham. His eyes pop surreally from his head and he tugs at his shirt as though it's a layer of skin he desperately wants to shed but can't quite. And DJ A-what is all angular motion, his hands moving blindingly across the boards. Yonnas brought fellow MCs F.O.E. and Karma on stage for a couple songs. The four of them together are a colossus of energy, woofing and hollering and getting the early-rising hipsters bobbing awkwardly.
Abraham's got a strange between-song demeanor, over enunciating and dork chuckling to contrast his droopy-eyed street-savvy rapping. Both are entertaining, but I just can't shake the sensation that The Pirate Signal doesn't quite know what it is. Maybe socially conscious and shake-your-ass-rap can work together, but I'm just not sure what they're trying to say.
Verdict: The Pirate Signal left themselves onstage at Monolith even more than they normally do, which made for one hell of an entertaining show. -- KM
Rahzel, 2:30 p.m.
What it was like: Seeing a musical magic trick.
I think Rahzel was having some fun with us throughout the show. He had a DJ with him and the DJ definitely brought some expertise in making Rahzel's songs sound better overall. But Rahzel almost doesn't need backup; he's a one-man remix machine. At one point early in the show, Rahzel asked if we wanted him to do the beat for a song and of course we did so he kicked into the beat but supplied the samples and vocals as well. If that wasn't enough, the DJ played part of an old soul song, and then cut it partway through and Rahzel pretended to be put out and said he'd have to do the beat for that song as well. But then he offered to do a remix after his first pass through and he changed the lyrics to have more contemporary socio-cultural references.
Rahzel got the crowd going on a Wu-Tang riff - "Wu Tang clan ain't nuttin' to fuck with" - and then mixed the crowd's chanting along with his own. At the end, Rahzel did a song that sounded like a newer soul song, perhaps self-penned, and went into a crazy Gollum dialogue of "He says he can do the beat and the chorus at the same time, my precious." Then Rahzel proceeded to do so and then offered to do the backing vocals and bass line as well. Absolutely amazing.
Verdict: Rahzel must be considered one of the best vocalists of his generation in terms of sheer creative versatility, and possibly the best beat boxer of all time. -- TM
Monotonix, 3 p.m.
What It Was Like: Pure insanity
When you have the reputation Monotonix does, people come to your show with certain expectations. And those expectations can make it difficult for a band to deliver. Let me assure you -- despite my astronomical expectations, Monotonix not only delivered, they destroyed. Three hairy-ass Israelis in the kind of short-shorts that were outlawed at the end of the '70s, and nothing else. They put the press photographers on stage and set up in the audience. To kick things off, they ran around, did some wrestling, spewed beer all over each other and the audience and, finally, played some music. The music itself, in all honesty, is almost secondary. It's raw, rough and ready garage rock, something like the stooges used to do, but maybe not quite as sophisticated.
That might sound too impressive, but it was perfect accompaniment to the overall experience. I mean, what the fuck do you expect them to play while in the audience? At one point, some kid in front of me was playing the bass drum, for fuck's sake. You're not going to pulling any Yngwie Malmsteen bullshit while dudes are pounding on your back and screaming in your ear and pulling you into the teeming mass. And frankly, why would you want to?
The singer climbed onto the audience at several points -- standing on dudes' shoulders, or on a bass drum being held by some dudes, or whatever. And occasionally he did some crowd surfing, old-school style. He also stuffed the mic between his ass cheeks. He threw water, spit on the crowd, threw beer, led the crowd in participatory chants and generally went fucking nuts. It was beautiful. The kid in front of me was so inspired he decided to chew up another tab of acid. Awesome.
Verdict: The single greatest piece of rock-and-roll theater I have ever seen. -- Cory Casciato
Beats Antique, 3 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Watching two guys screw around with turntables and a violin.
For the first ten minutes of Beats Antique's set, I felt as if I were at some sort of hipster Moroccan restaurant.
The set started with a sinuous violin line spelled out by David Satori, quickly complemented by steady, suggestive beats cranked out by Tommy Chapel on a turntable. The middle eastern melodies and accompanying beats had barely started when Zoe Jakes emerged, dressed in a full belly dancer get-up and hidden initially by a pair of feather fans. Over several minutes, Jakes shed the fans and gave a full-fledged belly dance, as Chapel incorporated sitar sounds and techno textures.
The dance would be the most visually exciting part of the set. The rest of the performance saw Chapel and Satori fiddling with their tables and equipment, offering straightforward, 4/4 beats, bassier tones and slight shifts in the syncopation.
A considerable crowd gathered to dance in the small space in front of the MadeLoud stage, but the dynamic of the performance remained pretty basic an uninteresting.
Verdict: I have a hard time watching people twist knobs for more than 20 minutes. -- AG
Neon Indian, 3 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: '80s disco pop fueled by synths.
Neon Indian won't release its debut album until October 13, but the trio, fronted by Alan Palomo, has already created a sizeable buzz judging by the packed room. Early in the set, Palomo said this was the act's first gig, but said later it was the third gig but the biggest one yet. And they've got ton of gigs other lined up throughout next few months as well. While it was hard to actually see the band because of a low stage and the packed room, Palomo, backed by a bass player and a drummer, made some thoroughly listenable music with vintage synth sounds and mid-tempo disco backbeats. As Palomo called for more reverb, a guy from the crowd yelled, "more everything." When the trio kicked into "Deadbeat Summer," which has some massive hit potential, that inadvertently answered that guy's prayers for "more everything."
Verdict: Killer beats and synths paired with cool visuals. These guys are going far. -- JS
The Dandy Warhols, 3:30 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Seeing a band so good at indoor venues play an outdoor stage.
At the beginning of the show, Courtney Taylor Taylor played percussion on a song heavy with ominous low-end with percussion and synth bass. With the spacey, spectral keys the song almost sounded like a later Joy Division tune like "In a Lonely Place." A very different sound for this band, though it may represent a change in direction of some kind, and probably the most interesting performance of the show.
Of course the Dandys didn't skip on the hits, including "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" and "Bohemian Like You." Having seen the Dandys a couple of times before, struck me as a little on the tame side. That's not to say it wasn't excellent but when you've seen a band on fire you know the difference. The set ended with a less edgy-than-the-original version of "We Used to Be Friends."
Verdict: An enjoyable showing from one of the best bands of the last decade and a half, but they played things a little safe for a festival appearance. -- TM
The Love Language, 3:40 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Smart lo-fi indie pop.
The opening song for Chapel Hill's the Love Language started slow, beautiful and Beatles-esque, which seemed like an odd choice to kick off a set. But once the group ramped up the intensity and started rocking out, it was it easy to see that it was a brilliant opener. They kept energy surging into a poppy and bouncy tune, which was one the highlights of the set, followed by the pounding toms of the third tune. The band slowed it down a bit for a poignant number with hints of Memphis soul. But throughout it all, it seemed these folks were giving a heartfelt performance that put a smiles on people's faces.
Verdict: These guys and gal delivered a sincere set of smart, catchy pop that your mom would probably like too. -- JS
The Thermals, 4 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: "Fuck you! I mean, if it's alright. Is 'screw you' OK?"
Let's do a compliment sandwich (thanks, Alex) for the Thermals. They can write some ridiculously catchy choruses. Their first three albums are unforgettable. If you're looking for some punk-ish anthems, but your skeptical of the militant thing, the Thermals are your band.
But they're getting kinda old for a punk band and they've started giving in to their shiny pop tendencies more and more. It's still catchy, but in a lilting side-to-side way, rather than an up-and-down head banging way. At one point Hutch Harris was kneeling, and he flipped a bird with a sort of cutesy, apologetic smile on his face. Come one, dude.
That said, some of the new stuff is still awesome. Their newest single, "We Were Sick," is unstoppable, with a sing-along hook you just want to keep hearing. Bassist Kathy Foster is one righteous babe, and drummer Westin Glass plays drums like a little kid in the best possible way.
Verdict: I miss the old days. -- KM
Bad Veins, 4:20 p.m.
What it was like: A visual tribute to outdated technology with an epic soundtrack.
During the Bad Veins' set, the Woxy stage included props pulled straight from the cutting technological edge of the late 20th century.
A reel-to-reel machine and a rotary telephone were the prop pieces for the Cincinnati-based duo. Frontman Sebastien Schultz offered an impressive mix of sweeping guitar lines, rich synth effects and searing, searching vocals, as drummer Benjamin Davis complemented the blend with expansive, explosive accompaniment.
The odd visual nod to the technological trappings of yesteryear was a strange set piece, but ultimately gave the set an added luster to a set that was already more than memorable.
Sterling performances of tunes like "Gold and Warm" and "Afraid" gave a hint of why the group has found such rapid and explosive success in the indie scene. The duo offered a rich sound and an affecting emotion that would have been impressive from a quintet.
The dash of scenery only helped a stellar performance stand out a little bit more.
Verdict: One of the best performances I took in on the second day of the festival. -- AG
Red Wire Black Wire, 4:15 p.m.
What it was like: Quirky and witty indie synth pop.
Sometimes you tell a lot about bands from the covers they do. The guys in Brooklyn-based Red Wire Black Wire could have played another tune from forthcoming album Robots & Roses, which hits the streets September 22, but they decided instead to close their set with Pat Benetar's "Love is a Battlefield." It was a quirky take with a killer guitar solo on the '80s hit, with Doug Walters doing some cheesy vocals almost as if he was in a karaoke bar. But it worked, as did the first part of their set, which was made up of the first half of Robots & Roses. Walters lyrics were witty and ironic if anything, singing about everything from William Blake to being somebody's washrag and a doormat.
Verdict: Definitely worth checking out. If you missed their set, they'll play at the Larimer Lounge Sunday, September 27, after touring the West Coast. -- Jon Solomon
The Glitch Mob, 4:45
Eric Syl Grunesien
What It Was Like: A tech demo.
The Glitch Mob used to be a wildly creative, blink-and-you-missed-it paced DJ collective. Now they are apparently trying to transition into artists. Which is cool -- for them. But for the listeners -- or this listener at least -- it's kind of a bummer. What I used to love about their DJ mixes was the whiplash-speed change-ups and brilliant track juxtapositions, held together by innovative production tricks and flourishes. All that is gone now, except the production flourishes. And in all frankness, they ain't enough to hold my attention. There were three of them with these cool-ass looking touchpad controllers and somehow they managed to produce what sounded like a single simple loop repeating for six minutes at a time. It was interesting at moments but incredibly slow paced. I was tempted to take a nap by the halfway point.
Verdict: Too slow, too repetitive. Too bad. -- CC
HEALTH, 5 p.m.
What it was like: Seeing a well-known underground band playing for a crowd largely ignorant of such things.
Maybe there were a lot of people at this show that have a clue what Rhinoceropolis or The Smell is, but it didn't seem like it to me. It's possible at least ten or twenty of the people who showed up will seek them out. HEALTH's SET started with a violent eruption of sound that was the most flawless fusion of noise, rock, power electronics and dance music I've yet heard. With almost every song, the band members hurled themselves into the disjointed rhythms and sudden shifts of tone. HEALTH's music showed an almost complete disregard for conventional song structure and made the instruments produce sounds most people aren't used to hearing come from guitars and bass. This is the type of band that makes up interesting sounds and doesn't think twice about throwing it into the mix as a compositional element. Treated white noise wails, ethereal vocals, razory, pitch-shifted guitars and harsh synth lines made up the electric mayhem and brutality the band's performance displayed throughout.
HEALTH's songs, though firmly in the realm of the experimental, are catchy and make you want to move with their wild dynamism. It's like the act took the ideas of all those great Fort Thunder bands and pushed that aesthetic into new territory, making that music more accessible without compromising the essential weirdness of it all. It was something of a surprise that the large crowd for this show was into something that even five years ago probably would have been too weird for most, and with this show HEALTH probably made some inroads for the increasing popularity of experimental music generally.
Verdict: Not as dangerous a show as when HEALTH played at Rhinoceropolis last summer, but musically much more solid. -- TM
Savoy, 5:30 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What It Was Like: MSTRKRFT the Next Generation.
Just like most of the people there, I saw Savoy because MSTRKRFT canceled, which shifted some folks around and gave them a spot on the SoCo stage, which is a much better venue than the indoor spot they were slated for originally. And honestly, the promoters could probably have slapped MSTRKRFT's gold hockey masks on these Boulder kids and stuck them on the main stage in their place. Very few would have known the difference. They were a touch less polished, but this is raw, pumping electro we're talking about -- subtle touches are not exactly part of the program. They blasted out some pumping beats, topped them off with squiggly sounds and hip-hop/ragga samples and blammo- instant party. These kids probably just made 2,000 new fans for getting this slot. Good for them.
Verdict: It was simple, it was fun and it got old about thirty minutes in -- just like MSTRKRFT! -- CC
The Twilight Sad, 5:40 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Dealing with irritating crowd control issues to see a band of middling quality.
The masses are starting to become an issue.
A little before 5 p.m., getting access to the Woxy stage to see Twilight Sad was an exercise in patience and forbearance.
A large milling crowd blocked the entrance on one side, with Red Rocks staff guarding the doors and saying the crowd inside had exceeded the fire code. On the other side, people were entering and exiting one at a time. I took in the majority of the show from a vantage point right outside the doors, and from what I saw, the effort to get in was hardly worth the stress.
That's not to say that Twilight Sad didn't provide a solid set. The ban's resonant, ringing synth overtones and pounding beats, combined with vocalist James Graham's plaintive, pleading vocals, was reminiscent of '80s groups like New Order and the Smiths.
But the overwhelming size of the crowd, as well as the headaches involved in getting in the doors, made an average performance from the Scottish ensemble seem a bit sub par. The group definitely made full use of the space's theatrics - the strobes and dramatic lighting in the darkened hall added to the effect.
But with frequent spates of ear-splitting feedback, as well as a very large gap between two songs, the ambiance quickly wore off.
Verdict: Too crowded, too poorly mixed to be truly enjoyable. -- AG
Tigercity, 6:20 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Sometimes looks can be quite deceiving.
It was a bit bizarre watching the guys in New York-based Tigercity and hearing the music they were playing. It was an odd juxtaposition watching a singer who looked kind of like the son of Shel Silverstein singing with a group of rag-tag indie rockers, but instead they were burning a serious disco inferno throughout a lot of cuts. And when the bald and bearded singer Bill Gillim started singing falsetto a few cuts into the set, it was kind of jarring because what he was singing didn't quite match the body. Not that it was a bad thing, it was just a little weird. But once you get past the looks, the music was pretty damn good. The guys locked into some pretty deep and funky disco grooves that were completely danceable and got the crowd clapping along. When Gillim wasn't rocking the falsetto, his smooth vocal delivery recalled Brian Ferry at times.
Verdict: These tigers know all about dance beats. -- JS
Deer Tick, 7 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Whiskey and warmth.
Deer Tick sound more or less like a straight up folk band. They've got the comfort-food vocal delivered in a world weary tone. Except the dude delivering it has a gold tooth and white sunglasses. Oh and a kilt. He's wearing a kilt. I talked about how I feel about folk from ironic city slickers yesterday (I don't really like it), but Deer Tick are too good for me to care. It's just too wonderful; their music fills you. I can imagine how it might find you in a dark moment in life and haul you from the edge. Plus, after the set our aforementioned singer jumped down in the crowd and started a sing along to "With A Little Help From My Friends," and how can you not love that?
Verdict: If it's classic folk happiness you seek, Deer Tick is exactly what you need. -- KM
Rachel Goodrich, 7:15 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: Seeing a gal from another time roll it up in songs.
There's something endearing as hell about gal that plays ukulele and a kazoo wedged in harmonic holder. Well, that and a gal who's got a sweet voice and keeps a bottle of Wild Turkey on stage. Backed by her "band" jokingly called the Laughing Empanadas, which was made up of a bassist a gal who played a kick drum with mallets and an occasional cymbal crash, Miami-based Rachel Goodrich played a divine set. During the saucy new number "Through the Light," a guy walked by and said, "pretty damn good." It was better than damn good, even as simple and sparse as it was. "If You're Mine" was delightful, with her singing about how she liked old guitars, and something about how she likes them tender and she likes them rough, and I'm pretty sure wasn't referring to old guitars. She also played some songs from her latest album, Tinker Toys, like "The Terminal Song," "Little Brass Bear" and "Dope Song." And just as she started singing about blue skies on the last song, which went back and forth between a waltz and 4/4 time, it started raining. But it didn't really matter since that gal's got a voice that's probably sunny all the time.
Verdict: A quirky and divine set. -- JS
Passion Pit, 5:30 p.m.
Eric Syl Grunesien
What It Was Like: High-pitched emotronica.
Wow, do people like Passion Pit. Lots of people. The entire upper area that makes up the SoCo stage was absolutely jam-packed with people, and every one of them seemed really excited for Passion Pit. For the life of me, I couldn't really see why. Some of the songs sounded incredibly retro, like they wouldn't be a bit out of place anchoring a John Hughes soundtrack. That wasn't necessarily a killer. No, the killer was the singer's heavy reliance on a caterwauling falsetto that was apparently supposed to communicate emotion and passion, but instead communicated "My Pants are too tight, and I may have injured my sack because of it." Based on fans' reactions, this band clearly inspires excitement, but the vocals seem to be a love/hate proposition, and for me, it was hate.
Verdict: Cut way, way down on that tortured falsetto and I will give you another chance. Or not, your fans seem to dig it. Whatever. -- CC
Method Man and Redman, 6:15 p.m.
What it was like: Two hip-hop legends proving they've still got it.
The two former Wu Tang MCs flowed their words together while heavily interacting with an audience to whom they were clearly beloved figures. The songs of course were about the usual cannon of material for which this duo is known, including sex, women, reality and endo. But these guys basically created the bridge between gangsta rap and party-oriented hip hop while largely leaving out the violence. Both Method Man and Redman commanded the stage and never failed to get the crowd to respond with exhortations, such as when Redman demanded the audience yell, "Fuck you Redman!" With hands in the air and attitude on display, the crowd did.
Toward the end of the show, the duo performed Method Man's "Fall Out" and their collective song, "How High." With supremely confident delivery and a commanding presence , Red and Meth were deftly able to get the audience to join them on at least one call-and-response song in a way I haven't seen much, and a large proportion of the sizeable crowd seemed to know each song word for word. Maybe Method Man and Redman actually are old school, but there's something to be said for delivering the goods.
Verdict: While the set went on a little long, I still thought these guys put on a fun show. -- TM
Phoenix, 7 p.m.
What It Was Like: Your girlfriend's favorite band.
Based on a fellow critic's rave review of a Phoenix show earlier this year, I had high expectations for Phoenix's set. And high expectations are all too often the mother of discontent -- and that's what happened here. There was nothing not to like in the experience; it just wasn't spectacular. I hadn't heard enough Phoenix to recognize many of the songs, but in all honesty they seemed largely formulaic and interchangeable anyway -- all based on similar rhythms, repetitive chiming guitar lines and variations on sweeping, widescreen synth riffs. They did have a certain charm, and managed a big, shiny arena-pop sound and slick stage show to accompany it. It all just struck me as the kind of thing that seems really great, until you start to think about it a little and realize it's all kind of familiar, kind of repetitive and of bland. But if you had a crush on the dudes, or just listen to music for the fun of it without getting all critical -- you know, like your girlfriend does -- then hey, I could see how you might think it's awesome. And ladies, no offense intended, could be a boyfriend, too -- but hey, I'm a dude thinking about some of my past girlfriends, here.
Verdict: Too much frosting, not enough cake -- pretty tasty but lacking substance. -- CC
Chromeo, 8:45 p.m.
What It Was Like: Doing the neutron dance!
Chromeo's retro-electro sleaze-funk took off real nice at the top of Monolith. They had a huge crowd bouncing along and getting down to their old-school tinged jams when I arrived (late, since Phoenix ran long). Chromeo's slightly tongue-in-cheek throwback tunes, which sound like they could have come out of the early '80s electro movement, are either something you get and dig or simply hate. Nothing in the performance was going to change your mind one bit. It was cheesy, it was sleazy and it was really, really self-congratulatory (seriously, they must have referenced themselves a few dozen times during their set and they stopped once or twice, demanding applause before they continued). But if that didn't turn you off, it was pretty damn groovy. Oh, and it reminded me that it's time for a return to the vocoder as the best way to make a robot voice. Fuck AutoTune.
Verdict: A shallow, stupid and incredibly fun trip back to the future. -- CC
The Mars Volta, 9:30 p.m.
What it was like: I had the perfect thing to write here. But I drifted off for a second during what was, I'm sure, a magnificent, genius jam breakdown. Point is, I drooled in my notebook and now it's all smudged.
Things The Mars Volta has going for it: Butt-puckering technical ability (that's a lot, in case you're curious). Mexican pride. Really long songs. A wonderful sense of contrast. A famous drummer with biceps so enormous you can see them from the giant Southern Comfort bottle at the top of the amphitheater. Big hair. Umm...
I'm trying. I'm supposed to like this band because they're Really Good and stuff. And I understand why people get all choked up about them. It's probably really amazing if you're on drugs or if you're just a lot more patient than I am. But if I want arduous musicianship, I'll just go to the symphony. When I go to a rock and roll show, I prefer to get turned on. And while it's quite clear that Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala are on another planet when they play, I just can't get there with them. Oh, and the gong? Could be awesome if they didn't take it so seriously. Which is how I feel about the whole thing, actually.
Verdict: My third least favorite show of the weekend. -- KM
Eric Syl Grunesien
What it was like: An epiphany.
Some somber Mexican trumpet music played before the band appeared and opened with "Inertiatic ESP." I wasn't sold on the performance from the beginning, or even by the first third of it. Sure, Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala commanded the stage with sheer energy and a sense of theater. The musicianship was flawless, and the light show perfectly augmented the music. What dawned on me and became overwhelmingly obvious by the last third of the set was how inspired this group of people really is. The intriguing lyrics about experiences and situations that matter are eloquent. Even in singing about fairly mundane matters, Cedric mixes in commentary and observations that render the lyrics of this band literary. They stir the imagination.
This show was obviously filled with music that basically reinvented what Led Zeppelin was doing up through Physical Graffiti and fused it with progressive rock and psychedelia. But there is something very strange about how the Volta put those sounds together and made them exciting and relevant instead of going nostalgia. Each player performed to the furthest edges of his ability, and it showed in the energy of the show and how the music came together. You can't play music like this without being very tight, but with these guys that control is a channeled energy instead of one that is reigned in to fit into limited expressions.
The resonant, ominous between-song-and-intro ambient pieces really tied things together in a powerful way and added to the mystique of the show in a subtle but undeniable way. Song highlights included a fiery rendition of "Roulette Dares," a nearly desperate version of "Drunkenship of Lanterns," an almost plaintive "Ilyena," a defiant and menacing "Teflon" and a chilling yet exhilarating take on "Luciforms." Halfway through the show, Cedric told us that when their old band broke up, people were mad at them but they didn't know what to say. And that "Comatorium" was one of the first responses to that anger. The whole carnival of the human condition transformed into bracing and expansive psychedelic rock came to an end with the Volta laying fully into "Wax Simulacra." Afterward I left thinking I'd just seen one of the greatest bands of our time. -- TM
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