About ten years ago, after my first exposure to Wagner's work, I was complaining about the info-dumpiness of Kundry's role in Parsifal to one of my professors at the time, who is a great opera lover (and Wagnerian). He listened to me rant and then said, "You can't apply Fiction Workshop 101 rules to opera," and then went on to explain how Kundry's character is revealed as she tells the story of Parsifal's birth. He had a point in that case, though I wouldn't realize it until I saw Waltraud Meier's Kundry in 2006. But in other ways, my point still stands: Wagner needed to take a fiction workshop (or, failing that, listen to "Psycho Killer" by the Talking Heads: "Say something once? Why say it again?" Indeed,David Byrne, indeed.), since his librettos are full of pointless repetition there for the sole purpose of giving him an excuse to write more music. See, in Baroque operas, there's tons of repetition too, but each repetition is supposed to be colored a bit differently or given different ornamentation. Not so with Wagner. Sometimes I wonder if he was just a sadist who got off on torturing people by making them sit for five hours straight on the cushionless wooden benches at Bayreuth .
But I've had that rant before. I've also had many a rant about Achim Freyer and what a bullshit artist he is, but in an ode to Wagner, I'm going to repeat myself and indulge in another one. To paraphrase Charlie Brooker, I'm not saying that Achim Freyer is an agent of Satan, you understand. I'm just saying that you could easily cast him as one. Especially if you wanted to save money on special effects, which would be right up Freyer's alley, since all his "special effects" look so homemade and slapdash. I don't think the phrase "save money" is in his vocabulary, though. It must have required the use of some form of the dark arts for Freyer to burn through $32 million he got to stage the LA Opera Ring Cycle while delivering such glued-together crap. I think a Bedazzler and Elmer's White Paste were involved. On The Mighty Boosh, for example, the homemade effects are endearing and creative, because they really were made on a shoestring budget, but with Freyer's nonsense, you just feel a bit gypped. Red construction paper glued to metal frames that are pulled with strings when Siegfried blows on them as the searing flames surrounding Brunnhilde? Yeah, that's some second-grade Christmas pageant crap right there.
I imagine some of that $32 million went to Achim Freyer's ensemble of Mud People, and they earn their keep by wandering around the stage carrying posterboard cutouts of hammers and, for no apparent reason, red lips. Occasionally, they'll do something useful like hand one of the characters a sword (in fact, one Mud Person wielded Siegfried's sword for him every time. That must be awkward in a public restroom) or peel off layers of Brunnhilde's dress, but most of the time, they just made the staging even more visually noisy than it already was.
Freyer's stagings are also a baffling combination of consistency and inconsistency. As in the previous two operas, Wotan's eye was onstage the whole time, this time floating across the top of the stage; his ravens, Thought and Memory were there, "cleverly" concealing prompter's boxes. Alberich's pointless parade of vices even showed up for half a second: Balloon Boobs, the Emaciated Dalmation of Death and Impenetrable Symbolism, Baldy, Doyle, Tiger, The Jewelry Man, all of them. There was a lot of play with doubles as there was in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which I interpreted as Freyer's effort to reconcile the "human" side of the gods with the, well, godlike side of them and to create scale in a world filled with giants and dragons. Siegfried was no different – Wotan, oh sore-y, I mean the Wanderer, had several doubles of various sizes, all of them wearing key-covered pimp coats, and at one point, the whole rotating part of the stage flipped up to represent Fafner the dragon's mouth. But with Fafner, a bit of inconsistency also came in – his mouth was as big as the stage, but when he appeared to fight with Siegfried, he looked more like a dragon plushie. Then, finally, when Siegfried killed him, Fafner was just man-sized, even though he had possibly reverted back to his giant form. Hell if I know. Looking for coherent symbolism in Freyer's work is like looking for a virgin in a whorehouse.
Another inconsistency was the business with the dwarves' heads. Graham Clark and whoever happens to be singing Alberich at the time are both saddled with wearing giant fake heads, but this time, Mime (Clark) got to take his head off sometimes while he sang. At that point, Siegfried had tasted the dragon's blood and so could read Mime's thoughts, so intitially, I thought that when Mime had his head off, it meant that what he was singing was actually what he was thinking, but that... wasn't the case**. Then, I thought that the red spotlight on Mime meant that he was singing were his thoughts as heard by Siegfried, but again, no. Maybe it the red spotlight meant he was having a sexual awakening? I honestly don't know why I'm even surprised by how crap Freyer is anymore. My pearls just need clutching, I guess.
Wagner seemed to have such a writerly hard-on for meat-headed heroes. Actually, since Siegfried is nearly five hours long, I guess it's more like writerly priapism and Wagner should see his doctor immediately. Like Parsifal, Siegfried is a blank slate of sorts, ignorant of his origins. Unfortunately for Siegfried, though, he doesn't have a Kundry around to reflect some of her personality onto him and fill in his backstory in an interesting way. Though really, Die Walküre is like four and a half hours of Siegfried's backstory. He's not a hero because of his actions, intelligence, or bravery – he's a hero because it was prophesied (though the same could be said of many heroes, I guess. I've just always been more partial to the clever heroes like Odysseus). In this production at least, Siegfried's only personality trait was the kind of reckless disbelief in one's own mortality that most teenagers have. I'm not sure why this makes him worthy of being considered a great hero, but then again, I guess you could also argue that Harry Potter is one of the dullest characters in the series named for him. Well, I'd argue that, at least. In a way, Siegfried is kind of like Bella Swann from Twilight (and yes, I do hate myself for referencing that) in that he's so unbelievably bland that you can attribute basically any trait you like to him. In my opinion, he's not retarded, just a little slow. Living life in the slow lane. The slowmeister. (And now I hate myself even more for referencing a Rob Schneider SNL skit.)
If John Treleaven were on fire, there's a very good chance that I wouldn't spit on him to put him out*. OK, maybe not, but before I spit on him, I'd make him promise to never try to act again. It's just a smorgasbord of second-hand embarrassment. Part of it is the fault of the direction, like the ridiculous Mime and Siegfried kick-line, which is an LA Opera "comedy" staple. I'm not sure whose idea it was for Treleaven to walk around and pose like the little "Walk" man at crosswalks, but whoever it was, that person is a bastard person. It's also still beyond me why opera singers and/or opera directors seem to think that young people dance around all the time and so use that as a way of showing a character's youth.
Of course, it didn't help that Treleaven looked like Brian Dennehy auditioning for the role of the Joker or that he was wearing what appeared to be a bright yellow sea anemone on his head (for those golden Aryan locks!), drawstring pants made from the skin of Sweetums, and the torso of Skeletor. Well, he had the torso of Skeletor until the last act when he met Brunnhilde, at which point he put on the torso of Tim Curry's character in Legend, as a symbol of his sexual awakening. Note to opera directors: Please use a color other than red to symbolize sexual awakenings already. It just made me wonder if Siegfried's torso was made out of the same kind of skin as the ass of a female baboon. Yes, Brunnhilde made Siegfried's torso go into estrus. Well, that's love for you.
Siegfried is a pretty thankless role, I'd imagine. You act like a bombastic dumbass for four hours, singing almost constantly over a huge orchestra, and then at the end, you have to sing a reeeeeaaaaaally loooooong love duet with a Wagnerian soprano who hasn't sung at all yet. Vocally, Treleaven was… fairly bursting with adequatulence until the last duet, when his voice gave out and he started painfully yodeling. Even when not taking on an impossible role, Treleaven's voice is never pleasing to the ear, though that seems to be true of most Wagnerian tenors (and, to some extent, Wagnerian sopranos).
As Brunnhilde, Linda Watson was both blank and over-powering. Luckily, she could drown out Treleaven when his voice was failing him. Watson's voice tends to be a bit shrieky on the big notes, but she adds a little more color to it in the softer passages, though if I didn't know the story and wasn't looking at the stage, I wouldn't be able to tell that she was singing a love duet. On the other hand, that seems to be a failing of Wagner's, since his love scenes (which I consider overrated when it comes to musically portraying ecstasy) are usually pretty silly. They're kind of like on of those old-timey soaps that are full of product placement. Like the one in Tristan und Isolde, the Siegfried love duet is sponsored by Lamps Plus, since they keep singing about light. That, and laughing at death and dropping ice cubes down the vest of fear. Because I certainly can't think of anything sexier than that. *cough*
In Amanda Freyer's egregious costumes, Watson's Brunnhilde looked like Bob Mackie-era Cher, if Bob Mackie-era Cher wore Jackson Pollock's drop-sheets instead of strategically placed sequinned Bandaids. I felt a bit sorry for Brunnhilde, really, because she gave up her immortality and godly powers for... her dorky teenage nephew who has vag-fear***. If I were her, I would've said, "I didn't live for a thousand years and trade in my awesome flying horse for a ride on this moronally grinning man-child's gizmo!" And that's why I'll never be a Wagnerian heroine.
My favorite character, as he was in Die Walküre, was Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan. Unfortunately, it seems that he's put down his pimp cup and permanently curbed his purple Cadillac, because he's not in Götterdämmerung. Kowaljow is the only singer who seemed to be acting and actually thinking about his character's motivations and feelings. His Wotan is very human, almost fatherly in a way, but still with an ever-present threat of "I could totally smite your ass with my spear".
Graham Clark was whiny as Mime, but it fits with the character, who is a sneaky little bastard. Clark acted too, but it was more broad, cariacture-like acting than Kowaljow's. Oleg Bryjak didn't have much to do as Alberich this time around and wasn't oddly pitiable in the way that Gordon Hawkins's Alberich was in Das Rheingold. Stacey Tappan sounded quite pretty as the Forest Bird, though she was saddled with a ridiculous costume. The Forest Bird had a pair of gigantic red-nippled norks, which made it look like something from the Breastriary in Nippopolis. Note to the Freyers: just because a bird's chest is called its "breast" doesn't mean it has tits. It was an interesting idea to have Wotan appearing to make the bird sing to Siegfried, essentially helping him destroy Wotan and the other gods, but it was really hard to get past the bird's major boobage.
Eric Halfvarson was booming and black-voiced as Fafner, though they did his voice a disservice by electronically amplifying it to show just how big the dragon is. The amplification was over-powering and highlighted every vocal flaw. Jill Grove was fine as Erda, even though she looked like the love-child of Papa Lazarou and an over-inflated Chaka Khan blow-up doll.
As for the music, it was blandly pleasant, as most of Wagner's music is to my ear, and the orchestra seemed to play it well under the direction of James Conlon. The Forging Song would've been good, but I was too distracted/annoyed/borderline homicidal about Treleaven's stupid conducting and/or triumphant jerk-off motion gestures to enjoy it much. Wagner is obviously a very divisive composer; it seems like people either despise him or they would eat the corn out of his shit and thank him for the privilege. I'm just kind of ambivalent. My feelings toward Wagner are the emotional equivalent of Alan Partridge shrugging. One thing I will say, though, is that this leitmotif stuff is kind of... not as great as everyone thinks. Leitmotifs, shitemotifs. So those three notes mean "Valhalla"? Well, ring-a-ding-ding. Incidentally, "ring-a-ding-ding" is a leitmotif for "I don't give a fuck."
Siegfried was a bit of a letdown after Die Walküre (which I never bothered to write up, oops), though it was about on par with Das Rheingold. I can't say that I'm really looking forward to Götterdämmerung, especially because Wotan isn't even in it, so I'll just have to get through it out of sheer spite.
*Figure of speech!
**Apparently the singers asked to take off the heads while singing in order to be heard over the orchestra. Fair enough.
***The first time Siegfried knows fear is when he removes Brunnhilde's armor to find that she's a woman. For serial, this guy faced a fire-breathing dragon and said, "Siegfried has fear? A thousand times no!", but a woman is scary? Yeah, it's the fear of the unknown, in a way, because he's never met a woman, but I couldn't help but think of how all the squires in Parsifal fear Kundry, mostly because she's packing vag.
The Mars Volta at the Palladium, August 30th, 2009
The above video is from the Outside Lands Festival on Saturday. Incidentally for your edification, Cedric and Omar are wearing the exact same clothes there as they did at the Palladium. o_O Cedric also proved his geekiness by mentioning that it was appropriate that they were playing the Twin Peaks stage and then warned the audience not to drink the coffee because there’s fish in the percolator. I kind of love him. OK, I totally love him. If my spare kidney weren’t already promised to Jack White, I’d give it to Cedric. And my other spare kidney would go to Omar. A thought occurs – I only have two kidneys. You win again, bilateral symmetry!
On to the review:
Fair warning – anyone who says that Cedric Bixler Zavala uses Autotune is a Communist. That includes the moronic blogger who claimed that Octahedron has long stretches of falsetto that were altered in Autotune to make them even higher. Wrong again, idiot. I will admit that most, if not all, singers sound better on recordings than they do live, but that’s because they can redo botched notes in the studio, use vocal effects, get some help from Autotune, etc. But the human voice is probably the most temperamental musical instrument there is, so if they used the first take every time and just left them as is, most music would sound kind of, um, bad, no matter how good the singer is. Anyway, my point is this: Cedric is an amazing singer whose voice is pretty much the same live as it is in recordings, and he can hit all those notes unaided. They might be a little thinner live, but they’re definitely there. So feel free to suck farts out of my ass, pretentious music blogger fucksticks.
After seeing them four times in less than a year, I feel like I’m running out of words to describe the Mars Volta live. I’m pretty sure that the Raconteurs will be baying for my blood for using “awesome” and “amazing” so much, but those are perfectly cromulent descriptors for the Mars Volta. They are stunning in every respect, and they definitely didn’t disappoint last night. Well, I was a little disappointed that they only played two hours, but that’s only because they’ve spoiled me so in the past.
The Palladium has been remodeled since I was last there in 1999 or 2000, so it’s more spacious and looks like a giant skating rink with a stage in it. We were at the very back, and I could still see them clearly, though, from the waist up. Needless to say, I was on my tiptoes a lot, because Cedric’s and Omar’s performances don’t end at the waist. The acoustics seemed slightly better, though there were still sound issues aplenty. Omar’s microphone didn’t seem to be on (or was turned down VERY low); Cedric’s microphone was fucked up somehow (maybe because he kept kicking it, comme d’habitude – French for "as usual" [/Garth Marenghi]) and he showed his displeasure by hurling the microphone stand off the side of the stage, and then a lackey would come and set it back up, and he’d knock it over again, etc. Also, the speakers went briefly kerflooey during the A Fistful of Dollars theme, which kind of ruined the effect. Well, maybe not ruined, because I was covered in goosebumps all the same.
The setlist was nearly the same as it was in Ventura and London, with one or two exceptions, as was Cedric’s banter. The non-beer-throwing-related banter, that is. But we’ll get to that later. As in London, he mentioned that he’d been out for a stroll when he came upon some desperate graves, but this time he said he was “aimlessly strolling, wandering, and came across a stack of desperate graves. A gang of desperate graves. A hutch of desperate graves.” He also dedicated “Ilyena” to Helen Mirren again but said that the song wasn’t actually about her, it was “just the feeling, you know?” Cedric also said that the Palladium show was the closest they’d get to a hometown show, since Cedric and Omar live or have lived in LA, and then he said that if we were nice to them, they’d be nice to us. Or maybe he more Tarvuistically said that we should be nice to those who are nice to us. He also bid us a cheery “Good morning!” when they took the stage, maybe in reference to the fact that they came on at 8:15 instead of the usual 9.
Since the microphone was fucking up, there weren’t as many microphone and microphone-related maneuvers – just a lot of draping the cord across his shoulders, kicking it and then catching it, and wrapping the cord around his arm, mostly – but he did do a spectacular Donkey. Because of where I was standing, all I could see were his legs sticking up in the air for a second. He also did the Worm at one point, and in “Viscera Eyes” he scuttled across the stage like a salsa dancer with a club foot, dropping it like it was hot at intervals. There was less miming than in London (we were mercifully spared the mimed miscarriage, for example), but he did do the “chutzpah” gesture during “Ilyena”: “There can be no Eve for Adam/when your apples [insert ball-squeezing gesture] have gone, gone, gone”, which makes sense, really. He also smacked/scratched himself on the arms, which I’m going to blame on the heartbreak of psioriasis/the fact that he was wearing the same shirt as he wore during their Saturday show) and charged up his thrusting power at one point (as demonstrated here by Super Junior’s Hankyung).
Vocally, I don’t even know what to say. Quality-wise, Cedric didn’t sound *quite* as good as he did in London, but it felt like he was really pushing himself. Not to say that it sounded effortful – it just sounded like he was trying to use his voice in as many ways as possible. During the long wank sections, he’d mostly wordlessly keen along with the music, like he was just another instrument, and his voice, though it would naturally thin out at the top of his range, just seemed to go on and on, like melted sugar being pulled into a long, whisper-fine thread with a spoon. The freak-out in “Goliath” wasn’t very long, but the shrieking went up and up. He also did the high part in “Teflon” (“One driver in your motorcade”), though it was kind of quiet, which made it that much more affecting, really. During “Ilyena”, he horked up something that dribbled off of his chin like words from a musky leper, and then let out a note of unearthly beauty. (IFYE, the “skeeeeeeee-yin” in “Ilyena” was especially exaggerated.) His mid-wank adlibbing was also in fine, if disturbing, working order – in “Eunuch Provocateur” (I think!), he said something like, “I want to fuck both of your eyes/I’m not going to sing your alphabet”, which, because of that brain thing of mine (I already did!), put a whole new spin on these old Sesame Street sketches (“If I want Cookie Monster to be a letter of the alphabet, he’s a letter of the alphabet, Kermit. Don’t make me fuck both of your eyes!”).
Omar was much more lively than he’d been in London, maybe because he was in his special salvaged-from-Jimi-Hendrix’s-attic vest ensemble. He was also Elvish for most of the show and seemed to be kind of off in his own world, a strange, beautiful world where guitars are hunted for the sweet flesh under their pickguards so that you can eat the flesh and be born unto new worlds where the flesh becomes your key. When he wasn’t lost in his guitar world, he was doing the Matthew-Brock-hypnotized-to-think-he’s-a-chicken scuttle. There were also some serious samba hips going on. His playing was just... mind-boggling. The continuous flood of sound he can produce, that cloud of noise, is amazing. The solo in “Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus” (sadly, only about 30 minutes, down from 40) was the best non-Jack White solo I’ve ever heard. I could feel my jaw hanging open during it. Omar also played a little almost flamenco-style guitar in another song, and at the end of another song (for some reason, everything is running together), they finished up with some thundering riffs that sounded really familiar… maybe Zeppelin? During some of Omar’s longer solos, Cedric would catch Keeleritis by Proxy (the guitar strain) and would kind of mouth the sounds that Omar was making with his guitar. And, as usual, both of them would stray back to the drumkit and just watch Thomas “My Hero” Pridgen pound the bejeesus out of drums, with Cedric holding up his microphone as if to make the drums even louder.
My Hero is really falling into a rhythm (if you’ll pardon the atrocious pun) with the band. Originally, he seemed a little out of place (but still incredible) during the older Jon Theodore material, because his style is so different from Theodore’s, but he’s adjusted so there’s the familiar sound, plus the Pridgen arrhythmic, faster-than-fast fills. Ikey was totally into it last night too, in spite of the fact that he may or may not have been showered with beer.
Most of the crowd was fairly appreciative and enthusiastic, but some wastes of sperm decided it would be a fun idea to hurl their over-priced beers at the stage. Most of them just landed in the crowd, but one hit the stage and splashed Cedric and probably Ikey and Ikey’s keyboard as well. This is probably par for the course for Ikey, since I think he gets sprayed by Cedric’s tea and ‘Tussin spit fairly regularly, but as for Cedric, I wanted to warn the crowd to knock it off, lest he become enraged and maul us with his fearsome gonad. Instead of doing any gonad-mauling, he finished “Goliath” and then told the crowd to beat the shit out of whoever had thrown the beer and said that if that person wanted to meet him after the show, they could throw all the beer they wanted in his face and then he’d kick their ass. By which I’m sure he meant he’d have some burly roadies hold the guy in place while Cedric kicked him. He is a tiny little sprite, after all. On the other hand, maybe he’s a scratcher and uses his fingernail choir for things other than making chalkboards sing. Other than that, it was mostly just lame fanboys who kept yelling “MARS VOLTA!!!! YEEEEEAAAAAAHHHHH!” or “L’VIA! L’VIA! L’VIA!” There was one crazy chick who walked up in front of us, threw down her purse, and started uncontrollably spaz-dancing for half an hour straight. She was wearing a t-shirt over a tank-top, but eventually took both off and was writhing around in just her bra. Before some guy who I’m hoping was her boyfriend dragged her away, she was starting to pull her shorts down too.
Here’s the setlist in what I think is the right order:
Inertiatic ESP (with a partial “Son et Lumiere” opening) Goliath Cotopaxi Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of) Viscera Eyes Halo of Nembutals (could barely hear Omar’s backing vocals on this, but when I could, he sounded adorably boyish and slightly alien all at the same time) Cygnus… Vismund Cygnus Desperate Graves Eunuch Provocateur Ilyena Teflon Drunkship of Lanterns Luciforms The Widow Wax Simulacra
The Dead Weather at the Wiltern, August 25th, 2009
Well, I think they've even admitted that the Pope isn’t infallible, so I guess Jack White doesn't have to be either. I just find it odd that the man who was saying how he hates things that are fake and rehearsed somehow ended up in a band with one of the most rehearsed and affected people I've ever seen. I'm talking, of course, about Alison Mosshart, lead singer of the Kills and the Dead Weather. Maybe she's cool off-stage, but onstage she's like a flipbook of Patti Smith's, Janis Joplin's, and Chrissie Hynde's greatest onstage moments, i.e. the fakest fake that ever faked. Faker than William Shatner's hair. Faker than Pamela Anderson's breasts. Faker than a Tofucken (a turducken made of a tofu chicken inside a tofu duck inside a tofurkey).
The only explanation is that she's a succubus, an evil hipster succubus who has somehow bamboozled Jack White (and everyone else) with some of the glitter from her hooha. For her hooha glitter is a dark, intense hooha glitter. Some form of hypnotism had to be involved to make him wear those horrible pointed white boots. See, my problem with Alison Mosshart is that she's a one-legged Barbie. Back when we were kids, my older sister had this Malibu Barbie that she loved, and even when one of the Barbie's legs fell off, she kept insisting that her girl was the prettiest and the hottest and our one Ken doll only wanted to date her. Not only that, one-legged Barbie would also say stupid, fake-sexy things like "Drink... and enjoy" to Ken when she was putting her moves on him, and she'd also do this horrible yelping singing (which coincidentally sometimes sounded like Alison Mosshart) that was supposed to be, I don't know, cool? None of this is making sense, but all I could think about on Tuesday night was that damn one-legged Malibu Barbie.
Mosshart is a pretty compelling performer, if only because her constant movement tends to draw the eye. So much of what she does feels rehearsed, though, self-conscious and affected, like she's ticking her moves off a list of stuff she cribbed from Patti Smith. She always seems very conscious of how she looks, like she's trying to make every movement a picture, which would be great if she were on America's Next Top Model (though with those long hipster bangs, the jury is out on whether or not she can smile with her eyes), but since she's not, it just smacks of effort. I can't help but compare her antics to those of my favorite stage spaz, Cedric Bixler Zavala from the Mars Volta. His freak-outs seem so much more spontaneous and unpretentious, especially because he usually ends up showing his underwear or deep-throating a microphone or looking like he's been sleeping in a fruit dehydrator. Mosshart just seems like a less visually offensive, more rock and/or roll version of Régine Chassagne from the Arcade Fire. I think I'd like her much better if I never saw her live again.
Mosshart's voice ranges from throaty and mellow (like the way whiskey supposedly tastes to people who don't think it's the fermented urine of an untreated diabetic) to croaky and vaguely Swamp Hag-like. Sometimes I expected Cedric Bixler Zavala to pop up, point at Mosshart, and yell, "Do you see? A fingernail choir is making her chalkboard sing!" Still, I prefer Mosshart's voice to most female "rock" singers, and she was downright amazing on the slower, less shouty songs like "So Far From Your Weapon" and "Will There Be Enough Water?" She also does sound quite good with Jack, probably because she can go lower than him when she needs to, rather than having their voices slip and slide messily over each other like a couple of strippers wrestling in oil, as happened with Alica Keys on "Another Way to Die", and because their voices have a similar grittiness and rauchiness to them.
A lot of the Dead Weather's image seems to have to do with rauch and dirtiness, though. Little Jack's hair even seemed a little less shiny and a little more greasy than usual. He was his regular great bassist self, though you have to kind of feel for Little Jack and Dean Fertita -- no one pays them any attention, not even their bandmates. They didn't even make it into the deeply stupid video for "Treat Me LikeYour Mother". Then again, I found Dean Fertita worth ignoring on Tuesday night -- they were recording the concert, and he kept playing to the camera like a goth teenager in a Johnny Ramone costume doing a bad Jim Morrison impersonation. Plus, his weird bowl-cut hair reminds me of a wig they'd put a 40 year-old sitcomactor in so he could play his character in a high-school-in-the-early-80s flashback.
For some reason, Jack White with the Dead Weather isn't the same Jack White as the one in the Raconteurs and the White Stripes. Maybe the Raconteurs!Jack and the White Stripes!Jack are also different and I just never noticed, but Dead Weather!Jack is strikingly different. He's not the same boy we've always known, but we all know he's man enough to bear up to the curse of his own overpowering machismo. For one thing, he's exponentially hotter -- his gorgeousness has taken on a much more obviously sexual dimension, even though his curly mop of hair sometimes makes him look like a Puli. He's thinner than he used to be, and the long-sleeved tight black shirt he was wearing showed off the lovely muscles in his arms, and though I disapprove of skinny jeans in general, these ones cupped his peerless ass (and parts beyond) perfectly. The hideous boots made him look a little like a Camden Leisure Pirate, unfortunately. In contrast to Mosshart, his stage presence is so effortless -- he's eye-catching and fun to watch because of who he is, the innate Jackness of him. You never get the feeling he's cribbing from anyone; he was just born that way.
On a non-shallow note, he's a good drummer. Not Patrick Keeler good, much less Thomas Pridgen (my hero) good, but still good. At first, they had the balance so that his drums were as loud as Thomas Pridgen's, but after the first song, things evened out. Drumming was his first love, so it's kind of sad in a way that he comes alive so much more on guitar in "Will There Be Enough Water". Sad for him, not for us. I was just happy to get some scuttling, which he supplied in the form of the Wind-Up Chattering Teeth scuttle. As usual, his guitar-playing was as awesome and enthralling as his ass. Yes, I have a fetish.
Incidentally for your edification, I thought it was really cool how the band-members could take turns playing different instruments, with LJ taking over drums for Jack, Jack and Mosshart taking guitar for Fertita when he was on keyboards, etc.
Well, that was a lot of complaining about what was actually a great show. The music has grown on me as I've listened to it (especially "I Cut Like a Buffalo", "Will There Be Enough Water?", and "So Far From Your Weapon"), and I'll probably like it even more once I get over the case of the reds I've come down with over the fact that this isn't a new White Stripes album. The lights, though seizure-inducing, were awesome; even though I find it somewhat contrived, they have a very cool image; the band played brilliantly; the music is raunchy and bluesy and something new from Jack**; and he was eye-searingly sexy throughout. What more could I ask for***?
*I'm fully willing to admit that some of my bitchiness about Mosshart stems from jealousy, since I have a hate/envy relationship with hipsters and since she gets to share a microphone with Jack White. The Dead Weather's music isn't indie music, I don't think, but Mosshart strikes me more as a figure from an indie movie. She's like some bad-ass assassin character created by Quentin Tarantino for his fanboys to wank over because she acts like a guy but is a hot chick. On the other hand, I'm softening on her already after reading that she wrote "So Far From Your Weapon". I really like that song.
**I don't have an exact setlist. I'm pretty sure they played almost all the songs on Horehound, two or three covers, and two new songs, one of which was called "Jawbreaker".
***Two thoughts occur: a better opening band and a less moronic crowd. A band called Tyvek opened, and they overstayed their welcome by half an hour. Their music sounded like skiffle as played by lobotomized Sesame Street characters. Also, they looked like a math teacher, an escaped mental patient, and their pubescent kidnapping victim. Escaped mental patient drummer guy was wearing gross pajama bottoms instead of real pants, and I felt like I was being forcibly introduced to his junk. Please, fellas, don't wear pajama pants or sweatpants in public. Ever.
The crowd was enthusiastic, but we had the misfortune of getting stuck next to a group of the type of concert douches who think that it's all about their good time, as if no one else has paid to be there. One stupid cuntrag in particular kept whistling really loudly -- mid-song, no less. It was like being at a show with Boito's Mefistofele (2:03 in the linked clip). If that seems esoteric, you're wrong -- mid-19th century Italian opera isn't a food. Swing and a miss! Anyway, this whistling shit-trumpet forced her way over to where my friend (who'd tried to flee her to escape further ear drum damage) and I were standing and started whistling and bumping into me while dancing. I wanted to give her such a stabbing. She also had rolled up some marijuana and smoked it like a cigarette so everything reeked of skunk. I really don't understand why just seeing a band you like isn't enough for some people.
Last year when The Bedlam in Goliath came out, I lamented the fact that there weren't any "nearly acoustic beauties" like "Asilos Magdalena" on it. So now I have to wonder if I'm psychic or something, because the Mars Volta have described Octahedron as "acoustic" many a time, though they really should qualify it with "nearly", because Omar's guitar is more plugged in than Bender when he was jacking on. They've also called Octahedron a pop album (much to Hitler's dismay. Get used to it, Hitler.) and, yeah, it's not that either. I don't think I've ever heard a pop song that mentions necrophiliacs, for one thing. I've heard a pop song by a necrophiliac, though, since I've had the misfortune of hearing at least one Celine Dion song before. Zing!
So Octahedron isn't the usual wanky, jazz-noodly, feedback-and-sample-heavy, Tom-Waits-effect-vocally distorted Mars Volta from their other albums. So I'm a little sad about the dismissal of the amazingly talented Adrian Terrazas-Gonzalez. Do I resent them trying something new? No, because it works. Yes, the arrangements and lyrics are a little less dense, but in a way that simplification shows what an incredible band they really are.
Hey, this time it actually makes sense to go song by song! So let's do so, why not?
"Since We've Been Wrong" – I admit, the day I bought this and put it immediately into my car's CD player before even leaving the Best Buy parking lot, I thought I was going to have to go back into the store and shout, "You bastard! I'll kill you, you bastard!" at one of the employees while beating them with my recently severed arm for selling me a defective CD. Luckily, my passion for disemboweling was patient enough to wait the minute or so it took for the song to actually start. Since that first listen, though, I've begun to be able to hear things in that silence, the same kind of shimmering cloud of noise that you sometimes hear at the beginning of symphonies, only with a metallic sheen to it. (Really, the Mars Volta's music has always been quite symphonic in structure, especially Frances the Mute.) Once Cedric starts singing, though, "Since We've Been Wrong" becomes a fairly straightforward, but tragically beautiful, song about ruined love and alienation. Cedric's first foray (as part of the Mars Volta) into coherent lyric-writing is a searing one, with lines like "Since we've been wrong/you will never, ever know me" and "All the days become a cast away/I seem to think I don't belong here". With the less intense musical arrangements, Cedric's voice really becomes the main instrument, and it's gorgeous, tremulous as a pulse under your finger. In my usual vocal-fetishizing way, I'm kind of obsessed with the way he sings "heart" – it's almost like a bone-deep sigh of sound.
"Teflon" – "Teflon" is heavier than "Since We've Been Wrong", and it gives my hero Thomas Pridgen more to play with too. The song supposedly has something to do with the "Holy shit, we'll be fucked" feelings that Omar and Cedric had when faced with the prospect of John McCain winning the presidential election, and some of the lyrics reflect that (the Oval Office and motorcade mentions), but the way Cedric sings "One driver in your motorcade/is all it takes...is all it takes" is far more gut-wrenching than anything that would be covered on Countdown with Keith Olbermann should be. Then again, a piece of my own soul is deleted every time I hear Sarah Palin speak, so maybe it is all about politics. Politics can definitely make you feel hopeless, which is one of the major themes of this album, I think -- hopelessness, loneliness, isolation, invisibility, alienation, disappearance. Hey, I knew there was a reason why I liked it spoke to me deep down where I'm soft like a woman!
"Halo of Nembutals" – This is by far the ear-wormiest song on the album for me. It's also the one that got the most baffling piece of criticism leveled at it – that Cedric sounds "snotty" and like Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance in it. Um, no, for him to sound like Gerard Way , he'd have to have a complete talent-ectomy and also have some sort of tiny little shrunken head of Billy Corgan on him. There's a slight sneer in Cedric's voice, but that's nothing new. The guy even physically sneers when he sings the word "eat", for fuck's sake. What I especially love about this song is the almost swinging movement of the lines that climb from a low, accusatory tone to a high, piercing answer. I will agree with the reviewer from popmatters.com that Thomas Pridgen does an excellent job on this song, punctuating each line in the chorus and then keeping up an arrhythmic patter in the background, but everything else that critic tells you is a filthy lie. Though I'll go to my grave insisting that Cedric's not singing "Of this I ate" like the liner notes would have us believe. Also I'll go to my grave before I'll recognize Missoura, but I'm sure you already knew that. There's a lot of great guitar work on this track too, along with some oddly Mike Garson-esque ivory-tickling from Ikey Owens.
"With Twilight as My Guide" – So another one of Nature's D students (i.e. a music journalist) called the lyrics in this song "camp/kitsch." Eh, whatever, I don't hear it. Anyway, this song is like a calmed-down, wistful, contemplative "Halo of Nembutals" – the swinging, reaching movement is there, with Cedric's voice going up and up and up, but it's soft and ghostly instead of a bit frantic and accusatory. Some critic complained that "With Twilight as My Guide" covered the same ground as "Since We've Been Wrong", but I don't hear that either. Yes, they're both slow-tempo songs with gorgeous acoustic guitar work, but "With Twilight as My Guide" is more about guilt and remorse, whereas "Since We've Been Wrong" is about being misunderstood and alienated. I also like the effect of the multi-vocal tracks, so Cedric is basically dueting with himself. Singsturbation? The singing beginning at the verse "Everybody/hangs like dead leaves" makes me want to writhe with helpless, sensuous ecstasy like an itchy dog scratching its back on the carpet. The organ work at the end, especially when coupled with the shimmering, slightly mechanical noise that plays throughout the song and the "Televators"-reminiscent kind of airplane-engine drone, is really haunting. It's like a modern Duruflé's Requiem.
"Cotopaxi" -- A return to the wild, frantic Mars Volta we're used to. I have to admit that the beginning of this song startles me more than a giant guinea pigs in a dinosaur costume when it comes on after the quiet ending of "With Twilight as My Guide." Randomly, I would very much like to know if there were a lot of lake-draggings in El Paso when Cedric was growing up, because I'm pretty sure that image has come up before in their music. In a recent interview, Cedric called their music "a celebration of the absurd", but to me, it's also a celebration of noise, and "Cotopaxi" is like a patchwork of noise -- march-like drumbeats, howling guitar, Cedric's wailing and chanting, and just general, well, noise -- that all comes together in this wonderfully strange kind of aural onslaught.
"Desperate Graves" -- Some windchimes lead us into "Desperate Graves", which is another faster-paced song with an insistent rhythm, some top-notch shrieking, and some guitar work that manages to weave all the different elements of the song together. A lot of Cedric's performance in their shows is kind of centered around Omar's guitar -- his voice bleeding into and being absorbed by the sound of it -- and now I understand why: Like Omar himself being the brains of the operation, his guitar is like the magnet drawing all the little iron filings of music to it. Also in true Mars Volta style, we have some what-the-fuck lyrics: Dressed in the slurs/of bovine engines/To feast upon the carcass/of your mother. o_O Then again, considering that Omar has dreams about raping his best friend's mother, I think all of our mothers got off easy just being eaten. Oh, so many puns, each more disgusting than the last. Incidentally for your edification, the riff in the last thirty seconds or so of the song totally reminds me of the repeated guitar motif from Frances the Mute.
"Copernicus" -- This is probably my least favorite song on the album, even though I still love it. Really, choosing a least favorite song on Octahedron is kind of like saying that the Toblerone bar in the blue wrapper is your least favorite -- yeah, you don't like it as much as the others, but it's still chocolate. Cedric's vocals are a bit too cooing for my tastes on this track. I wonder, though, if "Copernicus" isn't kind of an answer or a companion to "Cotopaxi". They sound completely different, but both allude to kidnapping and to searching or being searched for.
"Luciforms" -- The tuning-up hum from the beginning of "Since We've Been Wrong" also opens the last track, "Luciforms", before someone turns their white noise machine to "Coastal Morning". One of the most striking things about this song for me is the depth of Cedric's vocals in some parts of it, like on "Still I can remember the day/that they took you from me" and "When do I get to see the body/preserved inside this grin/Sewn in the lips/where her last words/I'll be damned - I can still hear her laughing." He really has an incredible range, even if his vocal quality isn't homogeneous throughout it; it's still damn impressive. The Mars Volta are masters of ending albums, kind of working all the elements they've been building over the course of the album in a frenzy, so "Luciforms" is chockful of lovely guitar wank, forceful drumming, weird noises, and more scattered Garson-esque keyboard-playing. It also has one of my favorite lyrics on the whole album: "If your heart does cease to speak/My fingernail choir/will make your chalkboard sing".
Huh, maybe this is why I'm such a negative person -- because when I try to talk about things I love, it feels like my mouth is stuffed with peanut butter, even when it's not. Or my fingers are dipped in peanut butter, as it were. Anyway the verdict is: Octahedron is the best album of an already strong 2009, and I totally can't wait to see them play again next Sunday.
*I've noticed that I focus too much on vocals in my reviews. In some ways, that's what I pay the most attention to when I listen, but it's also because, though I can't sing myself, I can understand the mechanism of singing, whereas I'm kind of clueless about instruments. Also, I tend to listen to music for the emotion it creates in me, and I get that more easily through vocals than through instrumental music.
The Mars Volta at Somerset House, London, July 13, 2009
Flying a quadrillion miles to see a concert by a band that I just saw last month within easy driving distance probably seems kind of silly, but I've done much stupider things and besides, it was totally worth it. They were on that night. I thought they were tremendous at the Greek in 2005, but they were even better last week. Also, Cedric finally got some lovely scaffolding he could climb around on, which was cute and made the red band of his Underoos show. He seemed to be feeling fine in general, because he talked to the crowd a lot, unleashed his full repertoire of microphone and microphone-related spazzitry, climbed up on the speakers behind the drumkit, did the Donkey on the floor and on the bass drum, and was in incredible voice.
One thing that's been concerning me about their Octahedron concerts is that they haven't been doing any of the slower songs from the album, like "Since We've Been Wrong" and "With Twilight as My Guide", which are so gorgeous. Maybe they think slow songs will bring things down, but I can't think of anything that would be more of a downer than someone feasting on the carcass of my mother or miming a miscarriage. Have I mentioned the miming? Cedric was doing tons of it, plus some random "chutzpah" gestures even though there aren't any mentions of ball-squeezing in their songs as far as I know. Then again, their lyrics could mean anything. He ran his hand down his inner thigh to mime the miscarriage (so at least he does know what that word means and doesn't just think it means barfing); he waved the microphone cord around for "asp"; he mimed hanging himself when the tables of ringworms were hanging themselves in "Halo of Nembutals". A thought occurs: ringworms don't have necks. Anyway, I'm just glad that he didn't mime the necrophiliacs from "Halo of Nembutals".
I can't remember most of the stuff he said to the crowd, even though when he said it, I told myself specifically to remember because it was funny. Guh, my brain. I do remember that he thanked people who were following them around Europe going to all the festivals, and that the festivals had been kind of shitty because stuff went wrong, but they were always shitty, and then he said something that rhymed, Marge, and you know it rhymed. He did say that one good thing about the festivals was that they'd gotten to see Nick Cave instead of a crappy band whose name I couldn't make out because it sounded like his mouth was stuffed with peanut butter even though it wasn't. So it's good to know that they have good musical taste in addition to having good TV and movie taste. Have I mentioned how much I love them? Because I do. I wish I could carry Cedric and Omar around in a special papoose with one on my front and the other on my back. Anyway, before "Desperate Graves", Cedric said that he went for a walk and came upon some desperate graves, which made it sound like he'd just been out for a stroll in London right before the concert and was going to improvise a little song about it that goes something like this: "I'm walking on dead guys, whoa-oh-oh-oh! I'm walking on dead guys, and don't it feel good? Yeah!" But no, it was just "Desperate Graves" from Octahedron. Fabulous "Desperate Graves" from Octahedron!
He also shared a little story about the writing of "The Widow" in which he described sticking his head into Omar's bedroom in the house they used to share in Laurel Canyon and hearing this music that spoke to the dirty, wrong, dark (but also great!) parts of him, and then in an Australian hotel room, he wrote lyrics for it and it became "The Widow". And then they built the super-collider.
I've mostly talked about Cedric, but he was the talkiest meat of the night, so it seems apt. Also, his voice was just mind-blowingly amazing. I can't even describe it. I've seen them five times now, and I've never heard him sound that good before. But the rest of the band was also incredible! Thomas Pridgen, my hero, had another fantastic prolonged drum solo, during which Cedric and Omar just kind of stood there and watched him, grinning like they were members of the audience. Omar is always kind of in his own bubble when he plays, but he interacted with Cedric a little and was slinging his guitar all over the place. I honestly don't know how he could make a beautiful sound when sliding his guitar upside down, but he did it.
Here's the setlist, why not:
Goliath: I'm surprised they opened with this, since they usually open with "Roulette Dares", but it was still a good choice because it's pretty fast-paced and Cedric can get the freak out in the middle of the song out of the way early on.
Cotopaxi: Cedric was very enunciate-y when he announced this song: "This next song's called CO-TO-PAXI." He seems much more comfortable with the new material now and didn't have to stay near the lyric book the whole time. IFYE, I love that the lyric book is laminated, even though it makes sense, since Cedric spits so damn much. I don't know how Ikey Owens doesn't end up drenched with Cedric's tea and 'Tussin spit at the end of every concert.
Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of): The fucking gig talkers/singers behind us kind of blotted out the beautiful "Exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed"s, but it's always one of my favorites.
Viscera Eyes: Mmm, Cedric singing in Spanish.
Halo of Nembutals: This is such an earworm song. Amazing performance.
Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus: Tasty frozen Christicles! This went on for almost 40 minutes! I'd heard of 40-minute Mars Volta wank before, and experienced ~30-minute Mars Volta wank myself, but this is like the Holy Grail of Mars Volta concert-going. I love how Cedric improvises with his voice just like Omar improvises with his guitar, just rolling out completely improvised lyrics that are somehow perfect. I particularly like the one about someone having a fallen hem, but you never knew how to fucking sew anyway. At one point during this, Cedric slithered down onto the floor and was presumably just writhing around in his own 'Tussin spit. Omar, looking hilariously bored, stopped playing, stood back resting his arm on an amp, and just kind of stared at Cedric with an "Are you done?" look on his face. Cedric soon pulled himself back up, in a way that made it look like he was dragging himself up from hell by his microphone stand.
Ilyena: Cedric explained that the song was dedicated to Helen Mirren, which I already knew, but I thought it was cute that he mentioned the first movie he'd seen her in and stuff. He's a fanboy! Also greet was the way he pronounced "skin", i.e. "skeeeeeee-yin".
Teflon: Cedric left out some of the higher parts on this song for some reason, which was weird because his voice was in such stellar shape.
Drunkship of Lanterns
Luciforms: Mmm, low throaty Cedric. A new kind of Cedric this, really, but I approve!
And then it was over.
Doy, I completely forgot to mention the venue, which was Somerset House. It looked much bigger on the website, so I was afraid that the sound would get lost or we'd be too far away, but it's actually pretty intimate (intimate... intimate... [/Peter Griffin echoing]). Also, to get there, we walked across the Waterloo Bridge, and it was a gorgeous evening, with sun glinting off the Thames and a light wind blowing, so I could see the whole view of the river.
Wilco opened with "Wilco (the song)", and it got me a little worried about the acoustics, because there was a ton of vibration up in the mezzanine, and I couldn't really hear Mr. Tweedy (on whose beard someone in the audience had a crush. o_O) very well. It seemed to get better later on, though, even if the guitars were a little overwhelming at times. I kind of get the feeling they were supposed to be, since, come on, they have Nels fucking Cline, and because over the course of the show, the various members played at least 20 different guitars, and more were waiting in the wings.
What really struck me was how relaxed and happy Tweedy was, because he's always struck as being somewhat cranky and nervy. He did weird stompy/shuffly dances around the stage and struck a few rock-star poses that were just silly because he was all rumply-looking and wearing baked potato shoes (what is it about rock stars and baked potato shoes, anyway? I am going to eat your shoes, Jeff Tweedy and Jack White. With sour cream.) He was even excited about a potential snot-bubble! He had his banter lasers set to "kill" instead of "stun", too. He good-naturedly hassled us about being a typical LA crowd. I think we half-passed, half-failed the test, because apparently crowds usually start spontaneously clapping along to "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and he had to prompt us. But we were enthusiastic, damn it! He sent the clapping rhythm and then was like, "This is a test of how secure you are. It's the stupidest thing in the world [to clap]. Can you do the stupidest thing in the world?" Then he started clapping above his head in the classic "taking it to the bridge" pose and asked, "Can you do it like this? That's even stupider." A lot of people in the audience did, and then Tweedy was like, "You guys are really stupid. I mean that in the best way, L.A." Still he needled us about not being as good as the audience in Pomona (who were probably all super-hardcore fans, because why else would anyone go to Pomona?), who he claimed "clapped like they were born to clap."
Maybe Cottony being happy and relaxed made the other guys feel better too, because the whole concert just seemed like a bunch of friends being silly while playing a ton of songs. Tweedy indulged in some embarrassing Dad dancing, mussed up his greasy hair in "Hate It Here", and crouched down at the edge of the stage so fans in the front row could strum his guitar. Pat Sansone and Nels Cline had a guitar battle in "Hoodoo Voodoo", with Sansone pulling a bunch of rock star shapes. He just turned 40 on Saturday, so his ability to play guitar while halfway in the splits was impressive... in tight jeans, no less! Nels Cline was less silly and more spazzy -- he just gets so into it. A few times, when he was sitting down to play some weird lap guitar, he'd start flailing his skinny legs around in a way that reminded me of John Cleese railing about Communists or Dr. Scott wheelchair-dancing during "Wild and Untamed Thing" in Rocky Horror Picture Show. After a while, the song structure can get a tiny bit predictable, since you can count on there being a prolonged Cline freakout in the middle, but they're never boring.
Jeff Tweedy's vocals were spot-on throughout the whole show, too, even the adorable prolonged voice-cracking in "Hoodoo Voodoo". He doesn't have a great voice like Cedric Bixler-Zavala, but he can color it so beautifully that it's just heart-breaking. "At Least That's What You Said" and "Jesus, Etc." gave me goosebumps and made me a little teary, so if they had done "On and On and On" or "How to Fight Loneliness", I would've collapsed in an inconsolable heap. For some reason, Tweedy kept playing this one riff from Bowie's "Width of a Circle". I really don't want to think about him banging a young bordello, or a demon or an angel, or whatever it is that Bowie's screwing in that song. Maybe Tweedy metaphorically made a deal with the devil on his way to the theatre that night, and by "metaphorically", I mean "get your coat."
They played for about two and a half hours and did two encores. In all, it was just a really happy, fun show, kind of like the Raconteurs shows last year, only more laid-back and with a far less annoying audience. (As an aside, Mars Volta shows aren't fun in the same way. I think the material is too dark.) Everyone there seemed to genuinely love Wilco and be into the music, so they weren't doing a lot of talking and only sang along out loud when the band wanted them too, which is fairly often, really.
Here's a setlist:
Main set: Wilco (the song) / Muzzle of Bees / A Shot in the Arm / At Least That’s What You Said / Bull Black Nova / You Are My Face / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / One Wing / In a Future Age / Impossible Germany / Shouldn’t Be Ashamed / Sonny Feeling / Jesus, Etc. / Handshake Drugs / You Never Know / Hate It Here / Walken / I’m the Man Who Loves You
First encore: The Late Greats / Box Full of Letters / Misunderstood (40 nothings) / Spiders (Kidsmoke) / Hummingbird
Second encore: Happy Birthday to You (to "Lady"? Jeff Tweedy said he wanted to sing "Happy Birthday" to someone at every show.) / Red Eyed & Blue > I Got You (At the End of the Century) / Monday > Hoodoo Voodoo
I haven't updated this blog in ages and haven't written about or seen an opera in almost as long, so I thought I'd post some reviews of all the non-classical concerts I've been to this year. They'll probably make even less sense than the operatic reviews, so consider yourself warned!
First off, let me say that I would like to be reincarnated as the invisible naked woman who's apparently attached to Cedric Bixler-Zavala's microphone stand. Yeah, you'd take a little bit of a beating when he throws the stand around, but most of the time, he's seriously gyrating his hips in some very erotic ways. Well, either the invisible naked woman on the mic stand or the seat of Jack White's favorite chair. Either one would work for me.
But on the non less perverted stuff! We got to the venue super-early, which was kind of lame, but I was stressed about traffic on the 101, and for the first few miles, it lived up to my shitty expectations. So we had to stand around for about an hour before the band came on. They were playing some horrible repetitive music, and every time there was the slightest break in it, the crowd would start "woo!"ing like the band was going to come on. Troglodytes. Everyone knows that the Mars Volta only appears when the theme from A Fistful of Dollars plays. As befits their awesomeness!
The venue was pretty cool, and it was in a cute beachside shopping district, like a less annoying and vagrant-filled Third Street Promenade. I think the theater itself might have been a movie palace at some point? It's very old-fashioned-looking and intimate. I'm not sure if the acoustics are the best for a rock show, and the Mars Volta's notorious difficulties with getting their mix right were a problem for most of the show. The drums and bass were VERY loud and shook the floor, and sometimes Cedric's voice and even Omar's guitar would get lost. A lower-voiced singer would've been inaudible at times, but Cedric's shrieking can be counted on to cut through things. I almost wonder if he kind of prefers it that way and just considers himself another instrument in the band. There were a few times, though, when a certain sound, whether Cedric's voice or a specific instrument, would kind of float around the back of the theater and kind of tap me on the shoulder.
Speaking of Cedric, he talked to the audience more than I've ever seen him do before. He usually kind of ignores the crowd unless they're pissing him off somehow and mostly frolics around the stage or faces Omar. Last night, he told us that they were going to do a ton of new stuff, so if we didn't like it, we could go home and listen to our records. I kind of doubt that he would've noticed very much if we had all gone home. If the Mars Volta does a concert and no one's there to hear it, do they make a sound? Then, before they did "Ilyena", he said that the song was dedicated to all the people who spend their lives behind their computers talking shit about people who are actually out there being constructive and creating. Oh... my life... Well, I don't always talk shit, and then it's mostly about Robert Wilson or Achim Freyer, and I don't think a jury of Cedric and Omar and 10 other members of the Mars Volta Group would convict me for that. Something about the way he was talking about "computers" reminded me of George Michael on Arrested Development when he's talking about buying marijuana to smoke it "like a cigarette", like Cedric really didn't have any idea what these so-called "computers" were. I wanted to say, Bill McNeal-y, "Please, tell me more about these com-POO-ters." Then, after one song, he was being very mumbly and said something about Omar wanting to play a Jonas Brothers song (?) and that he thought it was crazy and Disney, Nickelodeon, blah, blah, we're all a big family, skip to the end, Omar's a dictator, and speaking of dictators, couldn't Hitler cover his shift?
The reason for his slurring was probably all the 'Tussin he was sucking down. Unless it was some kind of Slumber Tonic or patent medicine. He also kept gesturing to some lackey offstage, who would then appear with a cup of tea, which Cedric would sip and then spit out. He did a lot of spitting, really. He could only drink out of a cup once, too, before it had to be replaced. If he had a sore throat, though, I couldn't tell, because he sounded gorgeous and was flailing all over the stage. He did the Donkey and some silly "Safety Dance" leaps, in addition to at least 20 different fully executed microphone, microphone stand, and microphone cord maneuvers. The microphone antics were fewer than usual because he had to stand still and stay by his lyrics during the new stuff. He also did a lot of stripper dancing, chest-popping, and the silly move in which he shrieks into the microphone and then drops down into a squat like a tantrumming child who's refusing to walk.
When I could hear him, his voice was slightly nasal in places, but perfectly smooth and beautiful in others, even in the baffling parts where he was suddenly male and started singing really low. I think I've decided that my favorite kind of Cedric vocal this is his coo-purr-wail, which is a very specific amalgamation of cooing, purring, and wailing and has a chilling, unearthly quality. That being said, though, I'm still awfully fond of the shriek. I wish they'd do more stripped-down orchestrations once in a while, like on "Asilos Magdalena" or their cover of "Things Behind the Sun". For a long time, I didn't think that Cedric had a very sensual salad of a voice, but he really does.
I couldn't really see Omar for most of the show (or even hear him sometimes), but he was sporting a mid-size 'fro and Jimi Hendrix's old vest and bellbottoms outfit. Cedric was also wearing clothes he's worn tons of times, as was Juan Alderete, the bass player who looks like a high school teacher who would have an inspiring movie made about him. I guess after witnessing Jack White's devotion to his plaid pants and baked potato shoes, it shouldn't surprise me that financially successful people wouldn't buy new clothes more often. Poor Thomas Pridgen can't even afford a shirt! So we're all forced to look at his elegant Caribbean shoulders [/obscure Futurama reference].
Anyway, when I could hear Omar, he was amazing and had quite a few brilliant solos. What I really like is how incredibly different his playing is from my other favorite guitarist (Jack White, duh). Even though Jack's playing can be wild and uncontrolled, there's a precision about it, kind of. Maybe what I mean is that you can hear each note clearly, whereas Omar produces kind of a cloud of sound. As always, there were points when it was impossible to tell if it was Omar's guitar or Cedric's voice that was wailing, and it's kind of a reflection of their friendship, really -- they're very tuned into each other onstage; they lived together for a long time; they have the same geeky interests; they experience afro-lock together. Even when Omar does his solo thing, Cedric's usually there. They're like two spiralling sugar and phosphate strands held together with nucleotide bonds.
When he's not playing toward Cedric, Omar usually plays toward my hero Thomas Pridgen, and they had a long drum-and guitar solo in which they made sweet aural love to each other while all the other Voltas grooved on it, and Cedric would come in with a helpful, orgasmic yelp once in a while.
Pridgen was predictably incredible, if a little too loud (not his fault, of course). One solo was particularly impressive; he moves blindingly fast. Ikey Owens was having a whale of a time on keyboards, judging from his flailing, but he was hard to hear, which was also the case at the Detour Festival. Alderete's bass was also loud but good as usual, and poor Marcel Rodriguez Lopez looked bored as hell on his percussion instruments. I think that's just how he looks, though.
I haven't really formed an opinion on the new material yet, and I think they need some time to get comfortable with it too. I liked it a lot, but they seemed tentative and Cedric couldn't freak out as usual while singing it and didn't seem to have quite found the emotional center of the songs and so couldn't color his voice as much on them. That sentence reads awfully toolishly. I think they're trying to make an effort to not musically wank so much, and seemed to be trying to cut off the songs by having the stage go black when the song was officially over, so that was a little forced at times. Let the wank flow like a mighty river! Ew. Anyway, that's really just a minor nitpick, considering they played for nearly two hours and the tickets were only $20. The new material will only get stronger as the tour goes on, and in London I'll be able to appreciate it more after listening to the new album obsessively a few thousand times.
Here's the set-list:
Roulette Dares (The Haunt of): I think they almost always open with this, and yet I still got goosebumps all over when it started. Minimal wank and the song didn't finish as it normally does, but still pretty amazing. I wish the balance had been better so I could've heard "Exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed" more clearly.
Drunkship of Lanterns: Lots of flailing and microphone antics, plus some patented Cedric hip-wiggling.
Teflon: new song
Wax Simulacra: I remember grinning like an idiot during this one.
Viscera Eyes: Kind of trailed off like a wank comet, but still great.
Halo of Nembutals: new
Ilyena: Damn those com-POO-ter people! Nice creepy voice at the beginning.
Desperate Graves: new
Goliath: Since Cedric was horking up so much junk (mucus is not a toy, sir!), I was afraid he wouldn't be able to do the freak-out, but he did. And how!
The Widow: The audience went crazy for this one, probably because it's the only one of their songs that got steady radio play. Still, the most straight-forward orchestration of the song made Cedric's voice stand out more.
Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus: A nearly never-ending song that I never wanted to end. Sadly, after the song ended, Cedric bid us all goodnight with a bizarre "Live Long and Prosper" wave. I do flove them so -- maybe not in the "they're so cute and everything they do is so cute" way that I flove the Raconteurs, but still flove -- and I can't wait to see them again.
I am an extremely cranky opera fan who writes long, often ranting reviews of the operas I see. Since LA isn't exactly the opera capital of the world, I'll sometimes supplement the opera reviews with reviews of opera recordings or DVDs. Or not. I have no musical training and am somewhat tone-deaf, so take my musical pronouncements with a grain of salt.