Category: Music

Not Dead Yet: A Raconteurs Live Review

The Raconteurs thank the crowd after performing somewhere. This isn’t from when I saw them. My camera isn’t this good (Photo credit: The Raconteurs)

 

What intrigued me most about seeing The Raconteurs perform at The Anthem was the prospect of observing Jack White — my favorite artist and a man whose solo show I’ve seen three times — operate as part of a unit rather than the unquestioned centerpoint of the show. Even when he was performing with The White Stripes, his only competition was that of his shy, taciturn drummer/ex-wife Meg White (read: not much competition at all). In nine out of ten Jack White performances, he’s the man people come to see, and he knows it. 

That point was evident enough when I saw him at this same venue last year. The projection screen at the back of the stage displayed a studio with a clock counting down to showtime. Eventually, a giant Jack White came on screen to start fiddling with the time, sometimes adding more, sometimes taking it off– all to toy with the emotions of the crowd who voiced their corresponding rapture and displeasure. It felt like a video you’d watch while waiting in line for a ride at Disney World, not only because it entertained you while something that you think shouldn’t take too long takes too long, but because it treated its subject like the lead in a franchise– more mascot than man. Blown up onto a massive screen and serving as his own title card, White was no longer just some guy you paid good money to see sing and play guitar. He was a character, a larger than life entity whose presence was meant to carry a mythic quality. He was, in other words, a rock star.

Turns out being one of four members of a band does little to take the spotlight away from White or his corresponding mystique. While bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler hung back like most rhythm sections do, and guitarist/co-lead singer Brendan Benson didn’t stray too far from his mic, White bounced around the stage, poking and prodding at both his bandmates and the audience to reach his level of energy and excitement, which manifested itself in mad dashes back and forth across the stage and his rambling, old timey DJ comments between songs.  

Like I said, I’ve seen White a couple of times in concert, and he’s delivered every time, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him happier on stage than I did last Saturday night. For as curmudgeonly as White’s antipathy for the press and modern technology can make him seem and despite his (now waning) commitment to musical asceticism, do not be mistaken how much this man enjoys his job and how good he is at doing it. 

And don’t be mistaken by how vital a Raconteurs show can feel in 2019, either. The kind of band The Raconteurs represent — a hi-fi, big budget rock act with more interest in The Kinks and Tom Petty than, I don’t know, Suicide or The Beat Happening — may be much rarer these days, but, while they may be getting older, they’re not obsolete. 

If The Anthem wasn’t sold out on Saturday night it was pretty darn close to it, and the crowd was possibly the loudest I’ve ever heard. The Hold Steady, Titus Andronicus, and Parquet Courts draw rowdy and interactive audiences, sure, but I’ve never heard so many women straight up screaming in my ear like The Beatles had just touched down at JFK. I’ve also been to a few shows by artists past their commercial and critical peaks who all but admit they’re nostalgia act and have to explicitly acknowledge their fans don’t want to hear the new stuff; this was not one of those shows.

Instead, the band’s set served as a persuasive reminder about the strength of their catalogue and even helped some of the more suspect songs from their new album Help Us Stranger take flight. On record, “Don’t Bother Me” and “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) sound like jam sessions in search of a song; on stage, those exact qualities make them exhilarating displays for the band’s chops. “Born and Razed” and “Sunday Driver” already sounded tailor-made to be blasted out a car stereo, and those exciting, visceral qualities were only heightened when performed live. Classics like “Steady, As She Goes” and “Level” were amped up and lengthened for maximum Jack shredding and singalong potential, and “Blue Veins” featured probably the best guitar solo I’ve ever seen live. 

As a purist, the pedal-to-the-metal-approach, admittedly, didn’t always feel like an asset — rich and dynamic songs like “Old Enough” and “Top Yourself” were flattened out and robbed of their rootsiness by the group’s relatively straight forward composition, while others like “Many Shades of Black” and “Broken Boy Soldier” were conspicuously absent — but nearly every song managed to be rousing and thrilling no matter what other elements were sacrificed in their translation to stage. That seemed to be the whole point, after all. Even when they were performing ballads like “Only Child” and “Now That You’re Gone,” it was clear that the band’s goal wasn’t to communicate or achieve some level of emotional complexity. Instead, it was to revel in the sheer exuberance of making music and celebrate the kinds of cool sounds that four guys who clearly enjoy each other’s company can wring out of their chosen instruments.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that such an approach is self-reflexive and self-aggrandizing, like a magician applauding his own magic tricks. Peyton Thomas alleged as much in his review of Help Us Stranger for Pitchfork. Negatively comparing The Raconteurs to another supergroup, Thomas points out that the kind of emotional rawness and resonance found in a song like boygenius’s “Me and My Dog” (specifically the line “I cried at your show with the teenagers”) is nowhere to be found on The Raconteurs’ new record, and that they “would never lower themselves to the level of their audience.” This is a fair point, and it succinctly sums up what separates musicians from White and Benson’s generation and those of Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers’s (and, I guess, my) generation: the former aspire to be godlike rock stars, the latter achingly relatable citizen songwriters. 

It also sells the power of rock stardom short. “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” may lack the literary heft of a Julien Baker song, but it’s hard to argue that its chorus — a straightforward recitation of “Somedays, I just feel like crying/Somedays, I don’t feel like trying” — won’t resonate with an overworked and mentally taxed audience. And, by the time the band reached the coda, and a crowd of thousands began shouting “I’m here right now, I’m not dead yet” to a stage bathed in orange light, I wasn’t worrying about whether or not the rich and powerful Raconteurs were lowering themselves to my level. Instead, I was thankful that they were elevating me to theirs.

Faye Webster Brings Tight, Youthful Live Show to DC9

This isn’t from the night I saw her…I was too far back to get a good shot. The lighting looked kind of like this though (ANCHR Magazine)

If one trend has defined the last few years of indie rock, it’s been the rise of the under-25-year-old female singer/songwriter. From Snail Mail to Julien Baker to Soccer Mommy to Phoebe Bridgers to Lucy Dacus, the genre is chock full of young women who have put college on hold (or, in the case of Sidney Gish, worked around their studies) to put out records, tour the world, and plant their artistic flags. I’d have to imagine that the most challenging part of this experience is the touring bit; performing in front of a room of strangers is hard enough, and it can’t get much easier with the expectations a Fader cover story or a Best New Music tag foists upon an artist. 

Indeed, the on-stage results have been mixed. I’ve seen Snail Mail twice, and, while their first show was pretty good, they failed to capture the power and immediacy of their recorded work when I saw them take the cavernous 9:30 Club stage. Conversely, Lucy Dacus’s set at the Black Cat a few months ago ranks among the best shows I’ve seen this year, and Sidney Gish’s stint opening for Petal and Camp Cope at Rock and Roll Hotel last year was among the most impressive, considering all she had at her disposal was her voice, her guitar, and a loop pedal. So what struck me about Faye Webster’s show at DC9 on Thursday night was how deftly the Atlanta singer/songwriter balanced her youthfulness with a tight live performance. 

A photographer by trade, Webster has cannily curated her visual aesthetic to almost as fine a degree as her musical one. Decked out in visors and big slacks, Webster could be called  “normcore” if the “norm” she imitates took place in the mid-20th century when her pet passions of baseball and yo-yos dominated leisure time and the stripes and pale pastels of her wardrobe seamlessly blended into the crowd. But her quirks come with a surprising level of street cred: the young Webster began her career at Atlanta hip-hop label Awful Records, and her photography portfolio includes portraits of Killer Mike, Offset, and high school friend Lil Yachty— work that makes for an eye-grabbing Instagram account

Her music sounds like the sonic distillation of that platform, as well. The languid R&B grooves, steamy horns, and weeping steel pedal that populate 2019’s Atlanta Millionaires Club mix together in a sort of unspecifically nostalgic gauze, draping over Webster’s songs the way a filter might be put over one of her photos to give it a “vintage” look. But, where fuzzing up digital photography may have initially felt like hipster nonsense, Webster’s approach in both of her chosen mediums feels unpretentious. 

Webster was only 12 when Instagram was first launched, so to her, these retro stylizations have never felt like reflections of the past, but images of her very real present. It’s no wonder that someone who came of age in an era when digital things were made to look analog chooses to reflect such an aesthetic in most of her work. What may have seemed like an affectation a few years ago now feels an inextricable part of a person’s identity, and that lends Webster an undeniable confidence that eclipses the otherwise absurdly Millenial/Gen Z image of an artist giving out her bandmate’s Instagram handles on stage and describing them as “lit.”

That confidence of purpose seeped into her performance as well, making for a very effective set. After teasing the audience by singing a few bars of the Father featuring “Flowers,” Webster and her band snapped into the groove of “Come to Atlanta,” which seemed to take hold of the crowd, who began asynchronously bobbing and swaying to the beat. I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my young life, and I’ve seen all kinds of music bring people together, but I don’t think there’s anything more universally appreciated than a cool, sturdy groove that can be bopped along too — it taps into something calming and emboldening, granting each of us “flow” and an unearned sense of confidence and swagger that eases most fo our fears of looking like a terrible dancer. The crowd stayed rapt to the rest of the music as well, which, despite the lack of horns in Webster’s live band, didn’t lose much of the appeal of the recorded version. If the brass section’s absence was felt anywhere, it was probably in “Hurst Me Too.” The slow crest of the chorus couldn’t gather enough momentum without horns and strings to have the intended impact, but other horn-heavy tracks like “Pigeon” and “Kingston” transitioned smoothly to the stage.

What wasn’t always as smooth was the transitions from song to song. They were disrupted by tunings, banter, and Webster’s charming gimmicks, which included accepting scratch-offs from the crowd and performing yo-yo tricks to a G-funk beat. The gimmicks were entertaining and impressive, but artists always seem to walk a fine line with stage banter; it seems to embolden the neediest idiots in the crowd to yell stuff at the stage and make themselves the center of attention. I’ve written about my relationship with annoying fans at length, so I won’t dwell on that point, but I will say, when an artist asks for requests, hear’s one, says she’s going to play it, and you keep shouting out song names, you’re not being entertaining. You’re being a massive dick. 

“Jonny,” the final song of the night, was also the most impressive, in terms of both sound and pure stage presence. Dropping her guitar and staring wistfully towards the ceiling, hand over her heart as if she was taking an oath, Webster led her band through a song that felt symphonic even without the full production of it’s recorded version, bringing a dose of very real passion to a night that was otherwise filled with jokes and irony. When the band came back on stage to play the encore, they struck up “Jonny” again, and Webster recited the poem from “Jonny (Reprise)” before just kind of swaying with the rest of her group as they slipped into the coda. If this were a TV show, it’d be the moment where the camera pulls out to a slight overhead shot and the credits begin to r0ll, gently rocking the audience back to real life. It was the kind of outro that reminds us that we’re unlikely to find such grace and beauty in the everyday world, but also lets us think, that somewhere out there, something perfect is in fact happening.

Entertainment Weekly is Going Monthly, and That’s a Shame

(Photos: Marc Hom for EW; Matthias Clamer for EW; Finlay MacKay for EW; Juco for EW; Dan Winters for EW; Art Streiber for EW; Ruven Afandor for EW (2))

 

One thing the youth of today, and certainly the youth of the future, will never understand is how many random magazines used to end up in people’s homes. I don’t know much about the magazine industry, but the way it seemed to work in the early to mid-2000s was that, if you were subscribed to one magazine, the publisher would try to get you to subscribe to their other titles by offering free issues, usually encased in a plastic baggy (a packing method that, for the sake of the environment, I hope my future kids never experience, either). Sometimes, for whatever reason, you’d keep getting these magazines. That’s how Entertainment Weekly entered my life. It was sent to us as a replacement for some other magazine my mom had subscribed to, and it just kept coming.

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(Photo on the left by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, Right by Ross Gillmore/WireImage)

The other day, a coworker of mine posted this preview of Vampire Weekend’s new album Father of the Bride by Mikael Wood in a slack channel, and I gave it a read. It’s a pretty standard and enjoyable look at the making of a highly anticipated album, but there’s one passage that caught my attention and caused me a bit of distress, and no, it’s not just because the LA Times uses quotation marks instead of italics for album titles:

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This isn’t a picture from the show I saw him at, but he looked the same minus the hat. Photo by Josh Miller

There’s a part in Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), Jeff Tweedy’s excellent memoir released last year, where he discusses Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue albums, a trilogy of records featuring the two artists playing the unrecorded music and lyrics of Woody Guthrie. Apparently, Bragg told the press that he chose Wilco for the project because he thought they were the “ultimate Midwest Americana red-dirt-band,” and, according to Tweedy, he never would have agreed to take part if he had heard that comment at the time. 

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Jenny Lewis’s On the Line Satisfies Even When It Stretches

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