Saturday, April 24, 2010

Show Review: Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, Magic Man, All The Friends

April 20, 2010

I had the chance on Tuesday to be "that guy with a notepad" at the Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, Magic Man, and All The Friends show. The Space was packed, and here I was butting elbows with trendy Yalies and local New Havenites in an attempt to scribble passive-aggressive notes about each band's numerous strengths and occasional shortcomings. That is, until Thao Nguyen looks up, gulps down a drink, swaps guitars, and launches into "Cool Yourself." I let my pen slide back into my pocket, thought "Fuck it," and joined the throngs. For a moment, I  gave up my role as "reviewer dude" and slipped into my beloved "raging concert dude" persona. This is always a moment I like to see at shows, and Thao brought it in spades. The band opened with their drummer alone on stage setting a simple and steady beat, until Thao and the rest joined him and launched into the set.  Incorporating blues, stride, and even country music, Thao's songs are a pleasurable romp along the American musical timeline. Few bands write songs like this anymore, and it's revitalizing to hear it done so well. It takes a second to decide whether her eccentricities as a leading woman are cute and quirky or just plain obnoxious, but by the time she got around to playing her guitar with a toothbrush, I was thoroughly in the pro-Thao camp and ate it up. It's hard not to love this band. They're tight beyond tight, and as most seasoned musicians can attest, that's damn tough to achieve as a group. The entire set yielded not one stray note or pitchy vocal, but that's not to say that there isn't room to improve. Thao's voice, that mesmerizing voice, is almost too tempered. I'd like to see her reach a bit and really belt out her loudest lines. There were moments when she came close, then backed away and let the tension disperse rather than break. Given her otherwise pristine technical execution, I could stand to hear some shouting on occasion. It would provide just enough variance to put her live show up there among the best.

That said, my advice to Magic Man is the exact opposite. Chill. Out.  Magic Man has created (in Garage Band no less) perhaps the greatest album I've heard in 2010. That's a big deal, given that this year's seen releases by LC D Soundsystem, The New Pornographers, MGMT, Blitzen Trapper, and other indie luminaries. It's a masterpiece, drawing comparisons to The Freelance Whales (but better), and the Postal Service (but a LOT better). It's been queued up on iTunes almost constantly since I downloaded it FREE on Magic Man's Bandcamp page. But, and this is a big but, their live show needs some work. The normally two man band expands to a 4-person ensemble live (vocals, guitar/keys, bass, drum), but still relies heavily on a laptop loaded with electronic samples. Musicians need to understand that this is totally unacceptable. Laptops are great tools to use as live samplers, but when bands load whole tracks into Logic and hit "play" it's a little disingenuous. Dudes, take my advice, add 2 more people to the group--one dedicated to synths and the other to deal with samples. There's a real difference between queuing a backing track and using prerecorded samples that are triggered live (still not optimal, but OK in certain circumstances). Magic Man even lost the backing track during "Nest". They managed to hop back in sync, but the moment served as a case in point as to why this technique should be discouraged. Magic Man's other problem is the precarious balance between enthusiasm and accuracy. Alex Caplow's vocals on the album are stunning, compelling, and most importantly, in tune. He has a good time live, bouncing around the stage, getting into it in a real way. This is hugely important, but unless you're Bob Pollard, you need to sing in tune too. He has a tendency to shout, which distorts his pitch a bit. The set's best moment occurred during the more subdued "Monster," in which Alex stepped back, caught his breath, and totally nailed it. I hate to be so hard on a band that I truly love, but I came to this show to see Magic Man and was by and large disappointed. I hope they read this, take me seriously, and get to work on improving their live set.

The show opened with All The Friends (see, I've gone in reverse), and I immediately liked these guys. Since I hadn't yet listened to their demo, I had no expectations, which is probably a good thing (I mean, look what happened with Magic Man). To begin with, their setup alone is worth discussing. It looked like this:
Holy Christ, these dudes set up to make some noise. In the end, they sound a bit like Radiohead (OK, a lot like Radiohead) mixed with miscellaneous movie scores and ambient soundtracks. Their songs are extended sonic odysseys, but with real structure. I never once thought "Gee, where is this going?" Instead, it was abundantly clear what direction each song would take, but not in any way that came across as overly predictable. Transitions between songs or sections within songs were the most enjoyable moments. Usually I'm on edge, wondering whether the song might collapse amidst the chaos and never quite make it to the next verse, but All The Friends are very clearly trained musicians.  There's "classical piano lessons" written all over these guys, and it shows in the adroit technical maneuvers that they execute with ease. Integrating samples with crystal clear trumpet solos isn't something you hear at every show, and it never once struck me as odd here--it all seemed to work well within the consistent aesthetic that the band established early on in the set. I'd love, at some point down the road, to see three part vocal harmonies put to good use in this group. During one particularly grandiose climax, all three members joined together on vocals, and it made an incredible impact. More please.
(all photos: Liz Wood)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ehh... I don't really agree with some of this. Thao, mostly yeah, but you say why was she not shouting more? Live was considerably more energetic than the recorded versions and their albums are easily some of my favorites of all time. One thing to note is I don't think they were digging the crowd a whole lot, which had a couple jerks in it and wasn't really responsive, which probably explains why Thao may have not been totally into it. But even with that, still was absolutely amazing and energetic and awesome.

About Magic Man, I think you are being way too harsh. First, good group but best album of 2010 is a huge overstatement. And complaining about the band set up with the looping tracks, you say 'just get two dudes what's wrong with you guys' like it is that easy to recruit two new members who can dedicate the time and you get along well with. And with their 4 man set up I thought they did an awesome job, especially with the guitar. The recorded album is great and pretty quiet, a bit more personal and maybe headphone music, and I think they made the perfect decision to go noisy with the live show. The shoutier vocals (even if a bit off sometimes) and louder upbeat performance fit the live show much better than their recorded songs. I was kinda dreading their live show after hearing the album, expecting a kinda boring show with just two dudes playing soft synths with quiet vocals, but the performance really pleasantly surprised me with its energy.

But about what you say about All the Friends, I couldn't agree more. Totally surprised and blew me away; they were fantastic. Still, gotta admit Thao w/tgdsd really was the best here, too amazing.