Live Concert Reviews

Bedroom Antics: Up Close and Personal with Tegan and Sara in San Diego

Originally published on blurredculture.com

Let’s get this right out of the way: my high school years sucked. As a chubby nerd obsessed with cartoons, video games and the Star Wars prequels (...and not exactly shy about my passion for any of those things) there wasn’t much that endeared me to Greater Orange County’s adolescent elite. 

For kids alive today and living through the post geek singularity (with a tip of the hat to filmmaker Robert Meyer Burnett for coining that phrase) it may come as a shock to learn that there was a time when liking video games and anime was not only considered uncool but also grounds for being labeled a complete and total pariah. That time was known as... The 90’s.

Times were tough, yes, but your humble writer pulled through and made it out the other end no worse for wear... mostly. Like most who lacked any social standing during those teenage years, I fell back on the one constant that has always shined a light in the darkest recesses and lead a path towards a brighter future: music. R.E.M., Talking Heads, Kate Bush… sure, I was listening to another generation’s music, but this was the music that spoke to me. It got me through those horrible years and lent me a confidence and self-assuredness that I so desperately needed. As important as those artists were and still are to me, there is something special about hearing someone your own age speak to you through song and got I that in Tegan and Sara.

I discovered Tegan and Sara in my early 20’s after the death of my grandfather. “Walking With a Ghost” got heavy airplay at the time and I was instantly hooked. My first reaction upon hearing it was: This is what I’ve been looking for, this is what I needed to hear at just the right moment. I think my only regret about discovering them in my 20’s is that I didn’t have the music of Tegan and Sara to get me through high school.

Rarely do artists revisit their own past with much reverence, much less empathy for a time filled with transgressions, mistakes and the occasional self-righteousness that seems to typify most of our youthful indiscretions. You can imagine my surprise then  when Tegan and Sara announced their latest projects to be not only a new album based on songs they had written as teenagers, the aptly named “Hey I’m Just like You,” but also a memoir about their formative years called High School

In keeping with the retro 90’s aesthetic, Tegan and Sara present to their fans a multimedia (remember that word?) extravaganza with the sole intent to look back at their high school days and look back they did as their “Hey I’m just Like You Tour” stopped at San Diego’s historic Balboa Theater on Monday night, September 30.

Tegan and Sara’s career has been defined by songs that wear their hearts on their sleeves but they’ve also been marked by a creative restlessness that has taken them from the ranks angry young punks to becoming full-fledged polished pop stars and this latest endeavor is yet another reinvention of who they are and what they can be.

Always one step ahead of expectations, the Quins are not in the habit of providing their audience with what they want but rather giving them what they need. Here on their latest tour, we find the sister songwriters in what is likely their most revealing concert effort yet, performing on stage with no backing band and supporting only each other as they ran through selections from their recently released long player as well as tracks from nearly all of their previous albums.

This production was so bare in fact that at one-point Tegan self-deprecatingly reassured fans that they would return to a more traditional setup again in the future, but I couldn’t help but ask myself: why should they? A live performance should be a snapshot of a moment in time: portrait of the artists as they are now. Why not up-end their own status quo by presenting re-worked and re-contextualized versions of tried and true classics?

This alone-together arrangement will likely be familiar to their most diehard of fans from their earliest of days and those who witnessed them on their Con X Tour in 2017. What made this night especially intimate were the between song interludes in the form of vintage VHS footage of the ladies as kids, just on the cusp of doing something extraordinary as well as readings from their memoir.

Watching and hearing the twins Quin recount stories from their time coming up in the 1990’s, I was comforted to see some of the same touchstones that littered my own life during that time but ultimately I found myself drawn in by the experiences we didn’t share, namely their experience growing up as gay women.

Tegan and Sara have never shied away from their sexuality in their work, but I was surprised with how frankly it was discussed on Monday night. Signs posted throughout the venue stated this theater to be a safe space for all. I had no idea how safe a space was being created until Sara, reading from her book, recalled her earliest moments of intimacy with a classmate while in high school. I couldn’t help but be awed by her unflinching fearlessness as she went into detail about the moment: the flood of emotions that raced through her mind and her physical reaction to the realization that she was attracted to women. It was almost surreal to learn something so deep and personal about an artist whose work I’ve followed for years.

The tours for the duo’s previous two efforts, “Heartthrob” and “Love You To Death,” have drawn in many new fans, which, given the more heavily produced, pop-oriented sound on those albums, was likely the idea. Here with the “Hey, I’m Just Like You Tour,” the Quins have developed a show that seems tailor made not just for longtime fans but for those in the audience for whom Tegan and Sara not only spoke to but have spoken for over the years.

Given the stripped-down nature of the performance coupled with the two reading passages from their book while home footage from their teenage years played on a screen behind them, the mood struck this night wasn’t unlike that of a sleepover. There was a feeling that we were in their bedrooms all those years ago, hearing them tells us their deepest thoughts while trying out a song or two they wrote the other day.

Seated in the Balboa Theater, a thought occurred to me: I’ve been going to Tegan and Sara concerts for the past twelve years and still vividly remember my first time seeing the band. It was at the Orpheum in LA during The Con tour and the thing that struck me at that time was hear I was amongst a crowd of fans right around my own age at the time seeing a band that was also around our own ages. It was profound. But as the years went on, I noticed something happening around me. To paraphrase a line from Dazed and Confused, I got older, but the fans stayed the same age.

This is the remarkable power these two women have. It’s no minor accomplishment to be able to reach out to young people and speak to them through art but Tegan and Sara have done it and continue to do it. This is no nostalgia act, but a real and immediate connection formed through shared experiences and an innate ability, on the parts of Tegan and Sara, to craft undeniably catchy songs.

As the evening drew to a close, Sara recalled the moment when, after having signed to a label right out of high school, she and her sister decided to buzz their hair. After getting a look at the two, their aunt remarked, “You look like yourselves.”

In the midst of a career that has crossed genres and defied expectations, by reflexively looking back and mining an album of new material from their past while realizing it with all the experience a 20 year career in music can engender, it can be said now that Tegan and Sara sound like themselves too.


The Curious Case of One Scott McCaughey

Originally published on blurredculture.com

A stroke is a hell of a thing. Coming back from such a devastating attack on the nervous system is no small feat, even with years of therapy and treatment. So it’s with this in mind that we turn then to the curious case of one Scott McCaughey who, through enormous goodwill from fans and friends in the industry and what must have been sheer determination, was able then to bounce back from his own stroke of just two years ago to deliver a solid new long-player through his own musical outfit The Minus 5, the aptly named Stroke Manor (available now via Yep Roc). Not just back with a new album, the man has also hit the road with his band for a series of dates throughout the summer with a stop at LA’s Bootleg Theater this past Friday, August 2.

As an R.E.M. fan for as long as I can remember, Scott McCaughey’s presence was almost always felt by me if not immediately known. Originally of Seattle’s alt-rock duo The Young Fresh Fellows, McCaughey served as both live and studio support for R.E.M. during the band’s final stretch from their mid-90’s commercial peak to eventual disbandment in 2011.

Formed by McCaughey, along with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and initially accompanied by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, The Minus 5 has been an outlet for McCaughey to cultivate a pop-rock sound reminiscent of Big Star.

Friday night’s show at the Bootleg Theater on Beverly must have felt like some sort of redemptive arc for the man they call The Hoople. Two years ago, McCaughey, along with fellow ‘Fivers Peter Buck and Kurt Bloch, was touring with singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo with a date set for the Bootleg Theater during the tour.

I had a ticket for that show and was stunned to learn shortly before (and possibly the very day of) the show that Scott McCaughey had suffered a stroke and the show would be canceled. In the days that followed, fans rallied to support McCaughey and if Friday’s performance was any indication, McCaughey’s road to recovery was a successful one.

Scott McCaughey is an uncommon frontman, slightly shy and genuinely effusive between songs while projecting an image of an expert craftsman when playing, he nevertheless comes off as the quintessential music fan in the most endearing way possible. Beyond possessing a clear and deep knowledge of rock and roll, his enthusiasm shined throughout on Friday night as he belted out old favorites, (“Aw Shit Man”) fresh cuts (“Beatles Forever”) and closed with a searing rendition of Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied” which was nothing less than a defiant rallying call from a man who seemed undeterred and unstoppable in the face of adversity.

The Minus 5 has seen a revolving lineup over the years, usually anchored by McCaughey and accompanied by Peter Buck. The band’s lineup at the Bootleg show featured guitarist Kurt Bloch, percussionist Linda Pitman and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. For a band that’s ostensibly an amorphous amalgam of all-stars, they completely gelled on stage and got on like old friends jamming for the sheer joy and pleasure of making music.

Living in LA, (or in my case, LA-adjacent Orange County) it’s easy to get jaded with the sheer wealth of amazing performers and bands that roll through town on the daily. Miraculous moments and outlandish spectacles are a common occurrence here but, on this night, something else happened.

Midway through the night, McCaughey turned to bassist Mike Mills to provide vocals on a song. Little did we know that song in question would be the perennial R.E.M. classic “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” The second the instantly recognizable chords hit, a smile grew on my face that stayed there for the rest of the night. Not just a smile but a well of emotions swelled within. I had always loved Mike Mills’s version of this track, having heard numerous live versions over the years, but I had never heard it performed live by Mills, until now.

As I looked around the crowd during “Rockville” I saw a sea of faces, many much older than me, and some I’m assuming who may have seen R.E.M. while I was still in diapers. That didn’t matter. What had happened was nothing more than a transcendent moment that crystallized for me that enduring power that one good song can have on an eager audience ready to receive it. We were all there in that moment, sharing this experience and happier than you could believe. It pierced the veil of artifice and detachment, of cool and immediate that so permeates the LA scene to create something lasting and real and something I’ll likely think about for many years to come.


ALBUM Review

Album Review: Metric - "Fantasies"

Originally published on mishmashmag.com

Metric fans rejoice. After a nearly four year wait since the Canadian indie quartet's last studio release the band has returned with the polished and impressive "Fantasies." From the killer opening track to the near euphoric finale, Metric's fourth official album is everything its last three have promised and, without sounding too much like a corporate lackey, may represent the band's best shot at wide commercial acceptance yet.

It's easy to hail the new album a triumph but for the uninitiated much is lost when merely listening to the tracks on this album without the context of the band's history. "Fantasies" is more than just another stellar entry in the cannon of a distinguished combo that has earned its reputation through tireless touring and a devoted fan base. It represents a real turning point for Haines and company's songwriting abilities and a further development of just what Metric is and can be.

Not content to muddle about with sharp left turns mid song and tangential French-language asides spoken in a hush tone, Metric has seemingly found the focus that it has occasionally lacked in past outings. Gone is the sometimes shrill straining of singer Emily Haines' vocal abilities beyond her range in favor of a star vocalist that knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. While some may deem such tailoring as a lack of ambition on the band's part, the truth couldn't be further from. The songs on "Fantasies" all showcase a satisfying structure and consistency that is indicative of a band confident in its own voice and vision.

The tracks move from one to the next with effortless grace, a feat made all the more impressive considering the loud, hard charging nature of many of "Fantasies" cuts. Nothing on this album feels out of place and you may be hard pressed to pick a single song that embodies the album as a whole. Just when you think you've found a favorite, the band surprises you yet again with another gem. While the album washed over me on the first play through, subsequent listenings revealed greater personal resonance with "Front Row," "Help I'm Alive," "Stadium Love," "Gimme Sympathy" and "Collect Call" being standouts. Your mileage may vary but the fact that I've named over half the album as highlights should tell you something of the quality to be mined here. No one ever said making a great album was easy, harder still is the album that actually improves with time.

There's never been much doubt in my mind that Metric has always been bound for great things. Ever since I heard "Combat Baby" from the band's first released long player I've been hooked and now it's time for the rest of the world to join in. "Fantasies" confirms what I've long felt. It's everything I've ever wanted out of the band and one of the best albums I've heard so far this year.


BOOK Review

Leonard Cohen Hallelujah, A New Biography by Tim Footman

Originally published on mishmashmag.com

Few artists have enjoyed the career resurgence that Leonard Cohen has seen over the past two years. That the man is also well into his seventies and still able to sell out arenas (arenas!) all around the world is something remarkable indeed for a man that has never been especially popular with the mainstream. But as more and more contemporary artists cover his songs and his own work finds its way into pop culture perhaps it's no surprise that a reintroduction not just to the man's work but the man himself would be necessary.

Tim Footman's new biography, Leonard Cohen Hallelujah, portends to be just that for a whole new generation that's just becoming acquainted with the man who "was born with the gift of a golden voice." The title of course refers to Cohen's most popular and signature song. It's a little uninspired for the title of a book about the man and as musician biographies go, so too is the book. Using various sources, though nothing particularly new or revealing, Footman adequately constructs a timeline charting Cohen's career, starting with his childhood & early years and arriving at his current success as a touring act and inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Being that Hallelujah is an (implicitly) unauthorized biography, author Footman culls from various sources for his biography and this lack of first hand accounts and interviews is evident throughout. The book lacks true insight to Cohen's inner workings as a songwriter and person and is fairly dry in recounting the details of his life. Footman does editorialize from time to time and some of the better moments in this otherwise routine read come in the form of appendices which delve into the topic of Cohen's longevity & appeal, comparisons with Bob Dylan and personal favorite works.

Cohen may have shied away from the spotlight at points in his career but he's never entirely been a Garbo-esque recluse of whom only whispers are heard. The man's put his life on record and in book, albeit in narrative, poetic or lyrical fashion. In this sense you cold say Cohen has already written his own autobiography and continues to add to it with each performance and new song he crafts (even if they have yet to be recorded). There seems to be more mystique than mystery surrounding the man. Hallelujah doesn't do much to dispel this mystique, and that's a good thing, but it also doesn't offer anything that can't be gleamed from a quick search on Wikipedia. That said, it is nice to have one, consolidated bookshelf source to reference from time to time.

For all its redundancy, those late to the party will find Leonard Cohen Hallelujah to be a comprehensive look at one of our most important, fascinating and vital songwriters. Footman is an affable writer and I'm sure readers will be able to dive right in to this relatively quick read. Longtime admirers, however, are best served by other resources. Whichever direction you go, all roads lead back to Leonard.


GAME Review

Gone Home (PC Game Review)

Originally published on http://www.gameyaks.com/gone-home/

There’s a maxim film critic Roger Ebert was fond of that informed nearly all of his reviews: it’s not what it’s about but how it’s about it that matters. I usually find myself agreeing with that statement but sometimes you find yourself liking something not because of the way it was told but because it’s speaking directly to you.

While it may have the appearance of a rote FPS, Gone Home by The Fullbright Company is less a video game in the traditional sense and more a first person point and click adventure. It’s ostensibly made up of the more banal elements found in most contemporary video games, namely finding audio logs and in-game notes that otherwise fill in the blanks left untouched by a game’s central plot and makes finding each note substantial and revealing in its own way.

To be certain, Gone Home is not for everyone. Eschewing a traditional narrative and gaming tropes in favor of exploration and discovery, the game’s story basically revolves around a young girl returning home from a yearlong trip abroad to her family’s new house. Without sounding too reductive or revealing too much, that’s about it as far as setup is concerned. There is, of course, much more to the game but revealing anymore would be a disservice to anyone that has yet to play it.

I spent about two and a half hours playing Gone Home, broken up over two sessions in a single day although your mileage may vary. Because every plot point, every peak into this family’s life reveals itself at your own pace there’s a sense of discovery and surprise that makes those two to three hours feel more meaningful than the average ten hour campaign found in most triple A games.

There’s a lot of people who have labeled Gone Home as a game with artistic ambitions, thereby either dismissing it or hoping to heap praise upon the the title. I’m not fond of referring to games, or any media for that matter, as art; after all a coffee table can be art. I think it’s much more worthwhile to discuss the way a movie, song or, in Gone Home’s case, video game affects you personally. For better or for worse, we each bring our own baggage to every game we play. Certain things will stand out to some while being glossed over by others. Gone Home is the kind of game that’s made up of all those things that might otherwise be ignored by most players.

Taking place in 1995, Gone Home revels in the mundane details that made up teenage suburban life in the mid-nineties; riot grrrl mix tapes, X-Files episodes and random movies taped from TV, SNES games strewn about a bedroom floor and old bric-a-brac occupy the house where all of Gone Home’s exploration takes place. Everything in this house tells a story, this family’s story. It’s a rare feat Gone Home manages to pull off: making the intensely personal wholly universal. Rarer still in a medium that is dominated by generic ideals of heroism and epic storytelling.

The small, dedicated team at The Fullbright Company have created a truly special game here, the kind that loves its characters and invites players to learn more about the family that inhabits this house and it’s something I doubt I’ll ever forget.