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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Live: Eric Roberson and Algebra Blessett learn the Art of Cool

Posted by on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 1:53 PM

Eric Roberson, Algebra Blessett
Motorco, Durham
Sunday, July 27, 2014
  • Photo by Ronald Parker

The Triangle’s recent two-week spate of live music has been one of a sublimely interlinked set of unrelated acts, each under the protective nimbus of soul music. It all began on July 17 at downtown Raleigh’s Red Hat Ampitheater with legendary R&B man-band, New Edition. It will end there on Wednesday night when John Legend strikes that final piano key on the Red Hat stage. But in the 13 days between these two concerts, the Triangle’s music venues have played host to a diverse roster of soul-related artists—all part of a musical gene pool which reads like a festival lineup.

On separate dates, vocalists Lauryn Hill (Red Hat), Lisa Fischer (NC Museum of Art), Maxwell (DPAC) serenaded audiences. Renowned, soulful house DJ Julius the Mad Thinker lit up Mosaic Wine Lounge’s dance floor, and J. Cole sweated out his hip-hop soul for back-to-back shows at Lincoln Theatre. Even Beck got in on the soul spree during his Red Hat set.

In fact, that’s an apt description for the the past two weeks, which eventually found its bounce settling into a three-hour, strict R&B groove on Sunday night when Mr. Independent Soul vocalist Eric Roberson (or “Erro” as his longtime fans call him), and special guest, Grammy-winning singer, Algebra Blessett, brought class, love and laughs to Durham’s Motorco. Blessett’s style—she was crowned by a tightly braided updo and covered by a floral-printed, yellow summer gown—demanded attention even before she sang a single note. If that wasn’t enough, she’d gradually win over the entire crowd with her Atlanta, ‘round-the-way-girl, charm, plus the few songs she shared, like the heartached “What Happened?” from her 2008 debut album, Purpose.

Shortly after Blessett's set, Roberson—decked out in a flamingo-colored blazer and matching plaid necktie—hit the stage with an impromptu spoken-word poem about how hot it was in the concert hall, before he jumped into the ballad, “Picture Perfect.” Then, while singing, Roberson took every chance he could to stick his face into the view of every camera phone within his reach. At one point, he even took one lucky woman’s phone and twirled around on stage with it and sang to it as if it were an actual person.

There are certainly enough bona fide slow jams in Roberson’s 10-album discography for him to make his concerts date nights, but the 37-year-old soul crooner is more interested in range rather than complete romance. He holds the stage as an entertainer more than just a singer, which may be why he and The Foreign Exchange frontman Phonte Coleman have built a brotherhood based on an equal appreciation of music, showmanship and comedy. It’s hard to imagine the two sharing the same stage and being able to get through one song together between all of their on-stage shenanigans. Maybe it wasn’t that bad when Coleman didn’t make the surprise appearance that some of the folks in attendance expected.

The long breaks between “Borrow You,” the Lalah Hathaway duet “Dealing” and “Mr. Nice Guy,” were filled by Roberson’s satirized, jazz-ditty version of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa,” and a freestyled love song made up with words like, “persnickety,” “nymphomaniac,” “conundrum,” and “diabetes,” terms he let the crowd choose.

He doesn’t need to do any of this, but it’s what separates him from the rest of today’s reigning R&B dudes who may only have their image, dance moves and mainstream hits to rely on. He’s a consummate performer, an attractive personality and a pearly voice. So, when he’s not as whimsical, he dives into love testimonials like “She,” and “Pretty Girl,” two examples of why his cult-like following has venerated him throughout his career.

Compared to the rest of the past two weeks’ soul stars, Roberson’s plead for our devotion sounded so much more personal.
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    At Motorco, Eric Roberson and Algebra Blessett delivered an evening of hot, sweet soul.

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Live: Missed Connections: We were at The Antlers show (Raleigh)

Posted by on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 1:47 PM

The Antlers
Kings, Raleigh
Thursday, July 24, 2014

  • Photo by Marc Lemoine

The Antlers’ origin story is not entirely original. In fact, you’ve probably heard it before: Sensitive songwriter suffers a loss, tucks himself away, births a batch of cathartic songs, and finds a bit of hope in new creation. If he’s lucky, the arms of the Internet scoop up both he and his progeny, cradling and soothing: There, there. It will be all right.

That’s exactly what happened with Hospice, the Antlers’ self-released third album, which Peter Silberman spent two isolated years penning in his Brooklyn apartment. With the addition of drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci, Hospice launched the Antlers into critical acclaim. Silberman’s plaintive falsetto and agony-to-exaltation songwriting guided the three-piece.

Though 2014’s Familiars is an obvious attempt to move beyond the shadow of Hospice (and the automatic tag of “sad band”), the Antlers’ live show couldn’t quite shake the sorrow last week in Raleigh. The band churned through Familiars’ opening trio of songs without pause, mostly ignoring the audience and receiving only courteous applause in return. It wasn’t until Cicci began tapping out the opening pulse to “Kettering,” the breakout—and heartbreaking—track from Hospice, that the sold-out crowd began to look perky, not just polite.

Dan Seiders, the band’s audio engineer, moved the most of anyone in the crowd, dancing around the soundboard and thumping boxy effects pedals to bring “Kettering” to its five-minute crescendo. When Lerner eased up on the drums and Silberman transitioned into the airy vocals of the newer “Drift Dive,” several listeners sashayed toward Seiders and the soundboard, checking the night’s setlist against the track listing for Hospice on their iPhones.

The Antlers swayed through the rest of Familiars, with Cicci rotating between trumpet and plucked slide guitar to create breezy melodies that hinted at calypso on Ambien. The arrangements’ slow build required either either extreme patience or slight disconnection, both of which the audience practiced. After the subdued “Refuge,” the band closed out the night with “I Don’t Want Love” and “Putting The Dog To Sleep,” which, as the titles might suggest, are sad numbers. But after the new material, not everyone was ready to get so serious.

“My God, would you please shut up?” one man yelled to a particularly loud set of talkers, prompting a rash of nervous giggles and applause. Unfortunately, it was one of the only times Silberman made eye contact with the audience, and for a brief moment, the entire crowd—as well as the band—seemed present. Strangely, that connection made for a special moment, prompting a crowd-wide singalong and feverish head-bopping. “I just couldn’t help it,” the enforcer later explained. “I was having feelings.” 
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    Me: the audience. You: The Antlers. Something didn't quite click.

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Losing gear, getting cool, being offensive: A Q&A with American Aquarium's BJ Barham

Posted by on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 9:47 AM

Woof: it's been a wild ride of a year for American Aquarium and BJ Barham. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BJ BARHAM
  • Photo Courtesy of BJ Barham
  • Woof: it's been a wild ride of a year for American Aquarium and BJ Barham.
A few weeks ago, American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham got a little more than he expected from Twitter—and, to be fair, I had a lot to do with it. His band's van had been stolen and destroyed in Indianapolis; in an online eulogy, the band shared that the van was jokingly called "Rape Van Winkle," language that I and several others admonished.

After the online standoff settled, Barham and I caught up and cleared the air one recent afternoon at Joule in Raleigh. We talked about some of the other hurdles the band's had to deal with—the van theft, the gear loss, navigating unexpected success. Tonight, Barham plays a solo set at Slim's, and the band will finish up its next LP, Wolves, later this summer. Barham estimates it's about 57% done, and the band is hoping to release it early next year after working on it a little more at Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville. 

INDY: You were thinking of doing solo stuff on your own before Burn. Flicker. Die. picked up the way it did. What made you want to do that?
BJ BARHAM: Before Burn. Flicker. Die. came out, we were all just talking about hanging it up. We’d been touring at that point for six years, seven years, making zero progress—spinning the wheels, basically. Everybody was just tired of making no money. I was living in a storage unit on Capital Boulevard for three years during that process. It sucked. The band was like, yeah, we’re done, so I had to start really thinking, if I’m going to keep doing this, I have to do it solo. I started writing a lot of songs, and a lot of songs ended up being Burn. Flicker. Die. It brought us to this national level of being able to do it. We’re full-time musicians now. Back then, we were all kind of busting hump just to pay any kind of rent, to get by.

I’m getting ready to do a solo tour, starting at Slim’s. I do it once a year just because I love it. I love going out, playing small rooms in front of people that really give a shit about the songs. The American Aquarium shows are about the experience—it’s a really full band, it’s a fun time. My acoustic shows are not fun. They’re depressingly sad. At the root of all the American Aquarium songs, they’re still pretty depressing songs. They’re just really upbeat. So people are like, “Oh, it’s a happy song!” And I’m just like, “No, it’s not! Listen to what you’re dancing to!” Solo shows really give me a chance to play the songs the way I wrote them, and tell the stories behind them without people going “Play another song!” 

How has the reception of your solo stuff been different from full-band American Aquarium?
On first listen, a lot of people get put off by the American Aquarium stuff. It’s loud. It’s boisterous. There’s no “cool” about it. Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill is really, really cool, and a lot of their bands sound really cool. We do not sound cool. We’re just a good bar band. This new record changes everything. Brad Cook produced our new record, and it’s a little bit cooler. But for the most part, when you see us live, we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We’re straight ahead.

A lot of people are really put off by that, but I’ve had some of the hipster elite come to the acoustic show and they’re like, “Oh, man, you’re a really great songwriter.” And I’m like, “These are the same songs I play with the band!” And they’re like “Oh!” It’s been funny, over the last couple of years, when I’m playing the acoustic shows, to see some of the indie rock royalty around here kind of at least tip their hat in respect. They may not like what I do, but at least they respect me. If only I could get the other one-percenters of the indie music scene to actually just give it a listen, I think some of them might actually like it. But that’s another fight.

What happened with your van? 
We had an amazing show in Indianapolis, Ind., a packed house at the Old National Centre. It’s this gorgeous theater in downtown Indianapolis. So then we go this Wyndham—it’s not a Motel Six, it’s not a Travelodge, it’s a nice hotel—and we park our van outside. The next morning, we get up, and the van’s not there. We walk around the building to make sure one of the guys didn’t move it. The van’s still not there. After eight years, the worst possible thing you can imagine happened.

So we called the cops, and they were like, “Oh, we found your trailer on the side of the road already.” We go to look at the trailer—shit’s missing. They have our van, and they have a bunch of gear. The Indianapolis PD was amazing. They tracked down the van, but they totaled our van. They cut the brake lines, they put water in the gas tank, they took all the lugs off the wheels. They ripped up the interior. They went through every possible bag and just dumped it out. They took the weirdest things—they took our dreamcatcher off of our rearview, they took a teddy bear we had sitting up in the window. They took a picture of me and my girlfriend—creepiest things ever. They took some really cheap guitars, but then they left some extremely expensive guitars.

There was really no rhyme or reason. I think they were looking for money or tools, and they realized they didn’t rip off a work truck. They actually ripped off a musician truck and they were just mad. We got the van back, and it was declared totaled. Luckily one of our fans stood up and was like, “I rented you a pick-up truck and a car to get the trailer and everything back home.” We still had six days—and we didn’t miss one day of tour. We had people offer to come to Indianapolis and pick us up and drive us to Louisville, our next show. It was insane. I guess now, still, six guitars are out on the loose. Hopefully they get returned. If not, thank God for insurance.

And in the aftermath of this came the Twitter beef.
We got a lot of flack. We called our van Rape Van Winkle, and we got flack from six or seven people in the Raleigh-Durham area. The easiest thing to say, to answer one person’s cruel e-mail, no, I do not condone or support rape. I do not think it’s a laughing matter. I do not think it’s funny. I don’t think saying our van was creepy as a rape van was making fun. Was it slightly insensitive? Yes. But I think half the things I say on Twitter are kind of insensitive to somebody. To anyone who was offended by it, I truly apologize. Two of my girlfriends have been the victim of sexual assault. It’s not funny, it’s not a laughing matter. It wasn’t even a joke. It was just a name that someone called our van when I was picking up my girlfriend one night from work. I pulled up and someone said, "Who’s driving the rape van outside?" We walked in, and some guy was like, “Oh, what’s up, Rape Van Winkle?” It stuck.

Anybody that knows me personally knows that I would never make a joke about that stuff. I’m a pretty twisted human being, and I joke about a lot of stupid shit. But anybody that knows me personally knows my work with the Love Army and knows everything I’ve tried to do for the progression of North Carolina and its stereotypes. We’re a country band that is 100% Democrat. We are the anomaly. Our crowd is very much a mixed bag. We’re playing songs every single night in front of people that hate what I believe in. But I still try to talk to them after the show and let them know that there’s two sides to an argument. Keep your guns. I don’t want to talk about that sort of stuff. Let’s talk about social stuff. I feel that everybody who attacked me on Twitter has no idea who I am, doesn’t know me as a person. I’m not a bad guy. I’m not George Carlin, just spouting off rape jokes. It was an insensitive pun, and to the folks that were offended by it, I truly apologize.

What did you learn from that whole experience?
I post a lot of stuff that the band says, because a lot of people really like to see what goes on day-to-day. I posted it as kind of an insider thing, and then I realized that people who don’t know us might take it the wrong way. You definitely have to worry about that. You have to worry about offending people, especially when you have 20,000 people reading something. There’s going to be somebody that might be offended by it. You just have to be ready for it. I can at least say that I understand why; it was insensitive. That word in general is a very polarizing word. The things you say can affect people, even if you don’t think it’s offensive. That’s what I take away from it. Try to watch it, and try not to offend anybody. That’s the ultimate goal, at the end of the day: to get through the day and not make anybody mad at you, not hurt anyone’s feelings, not to bring up anything that might ruin their day.

BJ Barham's solo tour starts tonight at Slim's in Raleigh. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $10–$12.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Live: Merge 25 ends hot, humid and with a silly Neutral Milk Hotel kowtow

Posted by on Mon, Jul 28, 2014 at 7:36 PM

  • Stroke of Genius by David Ford Smith
Merge 25 Day 4: Neutral Milk Hotel, Caribou, Teenage Fanclub, Bob Mould, Mikal Cronin, Ex Hex, The Love Language, Vertical Scratchers
Cat's Cradle Parking Lot, Carrboro
Saturday, July 26, 2014

Jeff Mangum wants your money, and he’d like your memory, too. On Saturday evening, as the sun began to settle on the fourth and final day of Merge Records’ 25th anniversary festival, the day’s emcee, comedian Margaret Cho, stepped onstage to announce that there would be no pictures during the next set. Mangum, she explained, didn’t want his photo taken, so she offered, in exchange, poses of her tattooed ass, so long as onlookers had the gumption to make them their social media avatars. But Mangum, she said, was off-limits; his concert with his reunited band, Neutral Milk Hotel, was for those in attendance only, not Instagram friends in distant locales.

That precious declaration wasn’t exactly news to those who had spent their Saturday roasting on the black asphalt of the Cat’s Cradle parking lot while standing in front of a large, temporary stage. Festival organizers had affixed a dozen signs to poles throughout the makeshift venue, asking that the artist’s right to privacy be respected and that the band’s photo not be taken. Neutral Milk Hotel has been touring with this policy for a while now; two weeks ago, in Chicago, the massive video screens that flank the stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival were turned off before the band performed. Stage lights were kept at a minimum, and photos were banned there, too.

Saturday’s show was different, of course. This one was a celebration of Merge, an event where long-winded performers like the Mountain Goats were content with eight-song sets and acts like The Clientele, Rock*A*Teens and Teenage Fanclub agreed to make rather rare appearances for the label that put some faith and capital behind them long ago. Years before the cult of the hermetic Mangum was legion enough to make Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea one of indie rock’s best sellers, Merge had invested in his twisted, strange and scarred hybrid of folk, punk and chamber pop. As Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner put it on Friday, she owed her career to such faith

Mangum’s appearance at Merge 25—his first show at any of Merge’s five anniversaries—represented a triumph, then, a real-life manifestation of the slow payoffs that belief in art can have. It was the return of the prodigal who, in many ways, helped turn Merge into the revered industry bellwether it is in 2014.

So, maybe Merge’s early and unwavering allegiance to Neutral Milk Hotel would earn their hometown crowd an exemption?

Alas, before the bearded-and-capped Mangum walked onstage, the lights shifted to a garish light indigo, as though to camouflage Neutral Milk Hotel inside the fading day. Just a few songs in, the band asked that the remaining lights at the front of the stage be cut off so that they could see the faces of the people to whom they were playing. The move obviated the potential for a good photo—that is if you dared violate the restriction, enforced by a pack of eager yellow-shirted security guards lacing through the crowd. It also made Mangum and his band difficult to see; when he reached back for those great big yelps of his—which he hit, almost without fail or age—you couldn’t see the feeling or the trace the origin of the strident sound you were hearing. It was like watching a high-definition film on an early color television, and paying a premium for the experience.

I’ve seen a half-dozen explanations for Mangum’s photographic moratorium, from the ghoulish glow that cell phones cast on people’s faces (It was an outdoor show that started around twilight…) to the on-stage distraction that it presents (Can you tweet or text while watching Neutral Milk Hotel? Is this like driving?). None of these explanations suggest that photos are against Mangum’s religion, or that they somehow consume part of his soul—too bad, as that’s the only reason that seems to not be baldly cynical and capitalist.

The reason, I think, is that Mangum is attempting to preserve the same legacy of an enigma that turned into a bankable career during his prolonged absence; in an age of instant information and updates, where what you had for breakfast becomes part of your digital identity, can you actually prove that you saw Neutral Milk Hotel without telling and showing your friends? That kind of self-advertising and personalized content creation can be an unsettling aspect of modern life, sure, but that’s not Mangum’s decision to make for people who waited a dozen years to see him—and paid a lot of money and withstood a lot of miserable heat and humidity to celebrate his relationship with Merge.

Mangum’s set was sloppy and messy and fine and nothing if not a memory tickler, a reminder of the myriad connections people have made with his music in the almost two decades since he released a new record. But the unexpected and unfortunate part of that exchange is that he’s dictating how those who actively fund him can interact with their own nostalgia, the exact thing he’s been preying on and profiting from for several touring years now. Mangum’s reluctance to be photographed seems less like a savior complex or a production concern than a brilliant financial ruse: If you can’t preserve this experience, then goddammit, you will have to pay for it again and again and again. (Neutral Milk Hotel played inside at the Cat’s Cradle on February 1, 2014, almost two years to the date after playing solo at the nearby Memorial Hall.)

At least the rest of the afternoon didn’t erect such arbitrary, asinine parameters between the bands and the fans. This was a big indie rock show in a former grocery store parking lot, and it often felt just like that in the best ways. Mikal Cronin’s set was louche and languid, his guitar-rock sizzling against the blacktop. And Ex Hex was lean and angular, the three-piece’s frantic rhythms bobbing and weaving against acerbic harmonies and slanted guitars. Backed by Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster, Bob Mould barked and barreled his way through his hour, unfazed by the heat or the river of sweat running from his scalp and onto his guitar. (The backup vocals from Cho on two songs helped neither the trio’s otherwise no-frills sound nor her valuation as an emcee worth minding too much.)

And just before Neutral Milk Hotel, Caribou—the great electronic outlier of the whole weekend—was perfect and perfectly timed, the four-piece’s complicated rhythms and tidal melodies washing over the crowd in bright pastels just as the sun began its slow fade. That moment was, for me, the true finale of Merge 25, the embodiment of a label that’s risen above a fray of industry trends and faux-rock-star demands more often than not to build a remarkable quarter-century of history.

So, sorry, Jeff: Caribou’s moment was a remarkable parting snapshot of a mostly incredible weekend, and your photo surfaced several times on the Internet, anyway. 
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    Jeff Mangum says no pictures, and at least some fans comply.

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Live: Longevity, liberty and Imperial Teen at Night 3 of Merge 25

Posted by on Mon, Jul 28, 2014 at 11:59 AM

In motion: Wye Oak at Merge 25 - PHOTO BY GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN
  • Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
  • In motion: Wye Oak at Merge 25
Merge 25 Night 3: Hospitality, Imperial Teen, David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights, the Mountain Goats, Wye Oak, Destroyer
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Friday, July 25, 2014

Sets get cut short at music festivals, especially at events such as Merge 25, where bands gather to celebrate something besides boosting their own signals. Acts accustomed to having control of the night and playing until they’re ready to quit must squeeze as many songs into 45 minutes as possible, bidding adieu to an audience that sometimes boos simply because they want more. Of the six bands who played at the Cat’s Cradle Friday night, for instance, four of them—Destroyer, The Mountain Goats, Wye Oak and Imperial Teen—could have headlined the 750-capacity club. Instead, the Mountain Goats played eight songs, David Kilgour, visiting Carrboro from New Zealand, even less.

Despite the truncated performances, almost every act at Merge 25 took a pause to thank Merge Records, whether for giving their career a start or a second chance or for simply being an upfront, artist-first, artist-run imprint. “We’re so proud to be on Merge Records. I would talk more about it, but we’re on a strict time limit up here,” John Darnielle said at the midpoint of the first full-band Mountain Goats show in more than a year. “So here’s the first song from our second album on Merge Records. It’s called ‘Amy.’”

In the next slot, though, Wye Oak spared no words about the impact the label had on the duo’s lives. “Merge Records is the reason we have a career,” Jenn Wasner explained, recounting the moment she learned that her new band was signing to Merge. “It’s a collection of people who value music and art and let you do what the fuck you want to do.”

Wye Oak’s brilliant, varied set encapsulated that last bit, which seems not only to be a central ethos of Merge but also the underlying message of Friday night’s bill. In only four albums, Wye Oak has graduated from a serpentine college-rock act to a bracing pop-rock band to, on this year’s Shrieka dance-music duo that’s embraced electronics but not forsaken the momentum of their earlier material. One three-song section of their Friday set hopscotched from seductive electropop to head-banging grunge to swerving, chirping rock. It all felt of a whole, guided and united by the power of Wasner as a singer and the instrumental versatility of both her and drummer/programmer Andy Stack. On stage as on record, Wye Oak’s veering directions felt like wide-eyed explorations of tastes and interests, not a band chasing trends to see if a new sound might stick.

Indeed, Wye Oak’s elders on the bill—David Kilgour, Imperial Teen, the Mountain Goats, Destroyer—collectively testified to the free-range that Merge allows. To an extent, all of those bands are legacy acts who had an established reputation (and, sometimes, major-label deals) before landing on Merge. That roving zeal applied especially to Destroyer, who headlined Friday night with an eight-piece band of horns and drums, guitars and keys. Dan Bejar stalked the stage like a confused lion, kneeling on the floor to drink a beer or slowly spinning in dizzy circles when he wasn’t singing. Bejar seems to project his entire insouciant being through his voice, unfurling reams of self-referential detail as though they were his reason for expending any energy at all. He’s like those long-distance, endurance athletes who don’t swing their arms so as to divert resources like oxygenated blood to the rest of their moving body. The band matched that range, simmering for his low-lights disco or sweeping behind horn-led fanfares for the roving rock of “Rubies.”

When Kilgour played Merge’s 15th anniversary in 2004, he’d just released the effervescent Frozen Orange, a pop-rock record with instant hooks and an abiding sense of effortless ease. But his recent material has taken a turn toward the menacing, attaching a Crazy Horse grit to a Television-like intensity. As he sweated through his blue button-up Friday night, that was the sound his aptly named Heavy Eights embraced. They leaned deep into the rhythms, which in turn pushed hard behind the guitars. When Kilgour too stopped to think the crowd and the label, he matched the music’s mettle by chiding the crowd. “Can you even understand what I’m saying?” Kilgour asked, suddenly shifting his voice. “If I speak in an English accent, does that help? Can you understand me now?”

The Mountain Goats raced through eight songs, slowing only for an exquisite cover of American Music Club’s “Who You Are.” They ended with a one-two sequence of the hits “No Children” and “This Year," sating the general fans in attendance, if not the Mountain Goats obsessives there only for those 45 minutes. But they likely reveled in hearing two new, unreleased songs, which showed Darnielle’s increasing embrace of the bona fide rock band, a process that’s been ongoing for a decade but has found new poignancy on his two Merge albums to date.

There was no better acknowledgement of Merge’s long-range liberty—and, really, no better set at Merge 25—than that of Imperial Teen. They charmed their way through a dozen songs, smiling all the while and acting like they were the new kids on the roster, not ’90s survivors. Lynn Truell was witty and irreverent behind the drumkit, while the frontline of Will Schwartz, Jone Stebbins and Roddy Bottum were locked in perfect harmony. They were an early-evening energy jolt, summarizing nearly 20 years of songs in less than an hour. The set felt long because every tune felt like a hit, but it felt short because you didn’t want them to stop.
Always bright: Imperial Teen at Merge 25 - PHOTO BY GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN
  • Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
  • Always bright: Imperial Teen at Merge 25

Though Merge in 2014 sports a roster loaded with veterans, from Lambchop and Bob Mould to the Mountain Goats and Magnetic Fields, the label hasn’t lost its early incubator spirit, either. It actively invests in bands that are good and intriguing but not yet great or altogether distinct. Two of Friday’s earliest acts said as much: Saint Rich, who played on a small raised stage in the gravel parking lot behind Carrboro watering hole Orange County Social Club, make twisting and pleasant pop-rock. Saint Rich’s hooks are winning, its spirit bracing. And at their best, their songs betray a faint psychedelic lace, thanks mostly to the swiveling guitar of co-founder Steve Marion, better known as the acrobatic and eclectic instrumentalist Delicate Steve. But either on their debut LP, Beyond the Drone, or Friday in the sunshine, you couldn’t pick Saint Rich’s songs from in a lineup of similar acts, no matter how much you enjoyed them.

Much the same goes for Hospitality, the Brooklyn quartet that’s released both its albums through Merge. Onstage first at the Cradle, they suggested something they’ve yet to become. Amber Papini has a bewitching and agile tone that she bends with British affectation. It’s the four-piece’s best asset, but they're still deciding how best to use it, whether as the bait for tense post-punk or the pillow atop a bed of pleasant guitar pop. Behind and beside her, the supporting three-piece occasionally traded instruments, one guitarist moving to the drums at one point as the drummer advanced to the keys. But the effect was minor, reflective of a band that puts a lot of effort and attention into songs that, at least so far, don’t give back much of an identity.

Still, Merge has rarely, if ever, been in it for the short payoff—good news for Hospitality and Saint Rich, a lesson reinforced by a one-night string of very short sets.     
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    Imperial Teen wins the day, and the Mountain Goats offer some new tunes.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Live: Superchunk rules Night 2 of Merge 25

Posted by on Fri, Jul 25, 2014 at 12:34 PM

Superchunk, being Superchunk - PHOTO BY GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN
  • Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
  • Superchunk, being Superchunk
The night had been stacked against Superchunk’s success. Five bands preceded the Merge flagship to the Cat’s Cradle stage on Thursday, creating a rollercoaster of momentum that seemed to dip deep past the point of recovery before Superchunk could even play well after midnight. Parts of the venue’s PA and lighting rig lost electricity during a barreling bunch from the undeterred Rock*A*Teens, while Reigning Sound’s often-exquisite set slipped into a malaise of broken strings and out-of-tune guitars. “Dee-sastrous,” Greg Cartwright said, smiling between songs and sensing the late-night crowd’s waning energy and patience. “Seriously, we’re a pretty good band. Come check us out next time.”

But as much as Merge 25 could be any one band’s party, it is Superchunk’s; co-founded by the band’s frontman Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance, the label’s fourth release was also Superchunk’s first single. History at their backs, they emerged Thursday like three pinballs and a set of flippers, with McCaughan, Jim Wilbur and relatively new live bassist Jason Narducy careening in front of the emphatic motions of drummer Jon Wurster. They behaved not like a band that’s been playing for 25 years but instead like a just-formed crew of 25-year-olds, trying to impress the old cynics in the room with high-energy stunts and heavier, faster, hookier songs. Just three tunes in, for instance, Narducy bounced back toward the drum kit and fell down. He never let go of his bass and only realized he was bleeding from the face two songs later, when Wurster politely told him about the damage.

“The ol’ fake blood routine,” McCaughan explained.

For the next hour, Superchunk barreled through 15 songs, slashing from the old to the new and treating it all as equal parts of one emphatic whole. They sandwiched “What Do I,” that first single back in 1989, between the radiant 2012 sparkler “This Summer” and “FOH,” a highlight of last year’s I Hate Music. They showed veteran poise, as when the band kept playing “Low F” while a frustrated McCaughan swapped one dead guitar for another. He plugged in mid-verse, focused on the upcoming chorus and delivered.

But again, they really throve on youthful zeal, sneering at their age and the reality that it was a work night. Late into the set, for instance, they added an extemporaneous bridge to “Digging for Something,” McCaughan singing “I’m not that old/25 years old/Is really not that old” to the general shape of the melody. It was a tad hokey but entirely endearing, a recognition of circumstances and a rejoinder to them. McCaughan chided those standing in Cat’s Cradle’s notorious “Friendship Corner,” the area near the stage and the backstage entrance where old pals gather to watch bands before heading to Orange County Social Club. He asked them to sing along like kids, and they did.

Superchunk’s set was the exclamation mark—no, a series of them, emblazoned in italics—atop an uneven and long evening. Just after 7:30 p.m., Eleanor Friedberger began the night by herself, delivering her close-up reflections over tangles of dry guitar notes and brusque chords. Friedberger’s most fascinating songs link series of concrete images in an illusory fashion, so that she asks more questions even as she delivers new answers. There was a bravery, then, to that specificity when offered solo, as though Friedberger invited the early arrivers into some secret confessional. That only became more apparent when the four members of Telekinesis casually walked onto the stage, joining her for a final song. She dropped the guitar and grabbed the microphone, dancing about the stage as the ad hoc quintet swapped intimacy for bravado. The moment was tremendous, a reflection of the versatility that’s powered Friedberger’s already-prolific career. (Speaking of which, yes, she played one Fiery Furnaces song, “Benton Harbor Blues.”)

Back in the U.S.A.: The Clientele - PHOTO BY GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN
  • Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
  • Back in the U.S.A.: The Clientele
Telekinesis’ own set could have benefited from such an escalating curve; instead, Michael Benjamin Lerner and his three-piece started with “Coast of Carolina,” the appropriately ebullient second song from his Merge debut, and ended with “Tokyo,” the wonderful sing-along that follows it. Everything in between, though, stuck together, even when Lerner left the drumkit to step to the lip of the stage as an awkward, semi-dancing frontman. At one point, bassist Eric Elbogen yelled “Come on, y’all” and didn't stop, as if he could sense that this set would need a lot extra if it were going to last through the weekend as more than a hazy memory.

The Clientele, who represented a mid-evening comedown in the midst of the six-band rock stack, seemed content to be just that. “Thanks to Merge for having us yet again,” offered frontman Alasdair MacLean after six songs, emphasizing that last part as though to apologize for The Clientele’s absence. They haven’t released a full-length in five years and have toured very little in the same period. Last night, though, their balmy, brooding tunes sparkled as well as they ever have, with MacLean’s guitar chiming like bells and twinkling like stars over a rhythm section that’s always balanced senses of torpor and tension.

With festivals like this, quiet bands tend to suffer loud crowds, and the back of the Cradle was indeed a madhouse of small talk. But close to the stage, people gathered in hushed reverence, giving the sadness and sentimentality of songs like “E.M.P.T.Y.” and “Reflections After Jane” the reflective space they politely demand. At one point, a woman in a red dress, standing just a few rows into the crowd, dropped a beer can to the concrete floor and gasped when it clinked, putting her hand over her mouth. No one seemed to mind, but that’s the vulnerability The Clientele’s music can create. It came as a welcome reprieve last night.

The technical troubles that plagued the somewhat rare sets from Reigning Sound and the reunited Rock*A*Teens stopped both bands short of full engagement, but moments of both woud-be-hit parades more than justified their length. Rock*A*Teens, for instance, seemed oblivious to the power loss and simply kept playing, meaning that their wonderful hooks-and-ladders pop simply had to fight through another barrier of distortion and intentionally abstruse mixing. The speakers returned during the middle of “Car and Driver,” the opening anthem of the newly reissued Sweet Bird of Youth. The crowd went wild, joining in the song like it had been a Top 40 smash in another time and place. Reigning Sound were brilliant when everything worked, with Dave Amels’ roaring organ lines (and maybe his hairstyle, too) wrapping around Cartwright’s songs like a warm blanket. They were like a set of radio waves reflected from another era, at least until the strings started to break.

But then there was Superchunk—spastic and practiced and, to be honest, perfect, the late-night wait made good.
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    Some technical difficulties beset Night 2 of Merge 25, but Superchunk triumphed at the end.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Live: Beck gets sweaty and does disco in Raleigh

Posted by on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 3:23 PM

Where it's at: Beck in Raleigh - PHOTO BY LISA SORG
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • Where it's at: Beck in Raleigh
Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh
Wednesday, July 23, 2014

“Reach out into the night/It’s a little too hot/It’s a little too wet/Is everyone wet?”

Beck was approaching the one-hour mark of his 90-minute show in Raleigh, and the midsummer’s heat, humidity and humanity had congealed into a block, like a Yankee candle made from the essence of armpits and shampoo, beer and pot. (However, to paraphrase “Milk and Honey,” I could not smell VD at Red Hat Amphitheater.)

With a 20-year discography, Beck could arrange seemingly limitless permutations for an evening’s worth of songs, depending on the setting. Hip-hop? Soul? Orchestral? Pop? Lo-fi? As such, the night’s ever-changing moods bounced between a gospel tent, a dance party, a carnival and a coffee house.

The song selection bordered on predictable. That’s not a complaint, as Beck has a job to do—to entertain the majority of fans, not only those of us who would be happy hearing him sing the ingredients of breakfast cereal accompanied by bongo drums. Nevertheless, the concert demonstrated the depth and breadth of his artistry.

Beck began with “Devils Haircut,” which used two basses, the frequencies of which prompted my spleen and liver to trade places. He introduced the frenetic “Sexx Laws” with a reference to North Carolina’s turn toward political retrograde: “Raleigh, you have a lot of laws,” he said. “Who wants to defy the law?” (The answer: Everybody except the plainclothes policeman standing two people away from me.) Several thousand strong, the crowd subsequently moshed to “Loser” and “Where It’s At.” “Think I’m in Love” morphed into Donna Summer’s disco mainstay “I Feel Love,” from the summer of 1977.

Little Beck, big guitar - PHOTO BY LISA SORG
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • Little Beck, big guitar
Beck’s backing band, which played on both Morning Phase and Sea Change, should not be relegated to a footnote. They reminded me of James Brown’s Famous Flames. Adroit on drums, piano, mandola, banjo, Farfisa, guitars, bass, cello and samples, the band was tight yet double-jointed, the lubricant that allowed Beck’s vocals to glide over complex backbeats and twisting arrangements.

During quieter moments, Beck performed six songs—“Blackbird Chain,” “Waking Light,” “Heart is a Drum” “Wave,” “Say Goodbye” and “Blue Moon”—from his latest record, Morning Phase, plus “Lost Cause” from Sea Change. They are nothing short of lush psychedelia that might have been better-received in a concert hall rather than a monolith made of concrete and plastic. Had the folks around me not chatted through these numbers, they might have still heard their intricate architecture.

The night’s performance cemented for me a feeling that I’ve long had: With his gift for song structure, lyrical sophistication and a respect and knowledge of musical history, Beck is as close to the Beatles that my generation will ever have.

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    Armpits and shampoo, beer and pot: Beck gets wet in Raleigh.

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Live: Merge 25 begins with Lambchop, Mount Moriah and William Tyler

Posted by on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 12:11 PM

  • Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
  • Lambchop at Merge 25

No one seemed to care that the first letter of “MERGE 25” needed to take a nap last night. At the opening show of the label’s quarter-century summit, seven large and well-lit characters that spelled out the event’s name had been propped against a stage right wall. They served as subtle stand-ins for the sort of advertising banners that normally flank festival stages and as Merge’s solitary onstage concession to the celebration of itself. Still, the “M” slumped well below the plumbline, its heavy lean suggesting an elementary school student sleeping through a history class.

That single errant detail aptly summarized the wonderful tension that shaped the start of Merge 25,  held in the regal and remodeled Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University’s East Campus. Merge is an indie rock label, born of and still thriving in small, cramped rock clubs. But there were ushers last night, tickets with perforations to be torn and in-house acoustic engineering that makes Baldwin a world-class listening room. Lambchop was set to play an old album in its entirety, preceded by two austere openers. It could have been Merge, gone high-brow. 

Despite the night’s auspicious and ballyhooed circumstances and the stately setting, an air of indie rock modesty prevailed. When Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald began his opening remarks, for instance, feedback shot through the auditorium. And when Merge co-founder Laura Ballance read a short speech from notecards, she confessed to nervousness and to being the label’s in-house introvert. The pomp vanished; dome ceiling and comfortable seats or not, the big room felt very familiar.

William Tyler embraced his shortened opening set with elevated intensity, strumming the dense acoustic parts harder than is typical and letting the noisy electric impasses roar well past the point of polite. He emphasized his control by suggesting at first a lack of it, a feint made apparent when he lifted or slinked from those fraught passages into the more diaphanous portions of each piece. During “Terrace of the Leper King,” from his non-Merge 2010 LP Behold the Spirit, he danced along the strings at one point with conspicuous arrhythmia, a move that only highlighted the song’s prevailing and lovely arches. And “Going Clear,” a new piece for an electric 12-string, pitted stacked sheets of shimmering notes against a distinct, low melody played along the guitar’s neck, as though Tyler were reaching down through a cloud to move boulders beneath. It was a narcotic preamble to Merge 25, an invocation that pulled the audience close and whispered “Welcome.”

William Tyler at Merge 25 - PHOTO BY GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN
  • Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
  • William Tyler at Merge 25

It didn’t take long for Tyler to pick up his guitars and the rest of his gear, freeing the stage for Mount Moriah to plug in its own instruments and settle into place. It did take them a bit longer, though, to settle onto the grand stage in front of an expectant crowd. At the start of their set, divided evenly between four new unreleased numbers and four of their best old tunes, they felt rehearsed but distant, trying somehow to find the shortest path from their elevated platform to the attentive house. They were the green ones on the night’s bill, anyway; although their Merge debut arrived a full month before Tyler’s, he’s played on a dozen other label albums and at previous Merge fetes with Lambchop. Mount Moriah were the new love interest brought home for the holidays for the first time, working to establish a rapport among the already-intimate.

They steadily got there, too, thanks in large part to the strength of the new material. Guitarist Jenks Miller inched ever closer to the lip of the stage, while Heather McEntire took her hands from her own guitar and moved them in motion with her words, forcing her thoughts and images into the crowd. There’s a soul-music swagger to the new songs, a gusto that Mount Moriah has always been working toward. You could feel its effects during a particularly poignant version of “Plane,” which the band used to close the set like an elongated ellipsis, as suggestive of the future as it was declamatory of the present.

The decision to lead the night with Tyler and Mount Moriah in advance of Lambchop was a smart one. Tyler and Mount Moriah have become satellites to Lambchop’s strange country mothership, as longtime Lambchop collaborator Mark Nevers produced both of their recent records. What’s more, laments of nostalgia always hound events like Merge 25, as though celebrating the success of the past were simply a sentence to grow content with it. But the openers proved that the roster is still pressing the label’s limits, both in terms of stylistic variety and family tree.

Of course, there was also no need to protest the past while Lambchop played its 2000 opus, Nixon, in entirety. Nearly 15 years later, Nixon still sounds like extraterrestrial country-soul, wonderfully mercurial stuff that’s easy to cherish but hard to comprehend. Kurt Wagner’s voice, for example, seems deep and round and full-bodied for a moment, but only until it fractures into falsetto and dissolves into the air. And the six-piece that stood and sat to his right in a wide semi-circle Wednesday night rendered the music in perfectly prismatic form. Guitars sometimes sounded like the record’s string sections, sometimes like the doom of industrial giants. Rhythms cantered and scattered, and harmonies blossomed and vanished. Nixon felt beautiful and alive, an intoxicating shape that remains just beyond actual grasp.

You could sense that, too, in Lambchop’s concentrated performance. Their sets are generally full of jokes and asides, split between Wagner and pianist Tony Crow. But they remained silent throughout the night, focused on getting through the songs and getting through them well and only speaking (graciously, effusively, almost tearfully) during the encore. In his horn-rimmed glasses, thin plaid shirt and a ballcap with holes in the back for perspiration, Wagner suggested a farmer fixing an old tool or a craftsman quietly plying his old trade, shut off from the distractions of the modern world.

The performance was so perfect that I wondered whether or not Wagner noticed that slinking “M,” located directly across the stage—an off-note in an auditorium of true ones. If he did, I doubt he would have cared to fix the lean. It just felt right.

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    The august setting of Baldwin Auditorium didn't make the first night of Merge's anniversary feel cold.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Live: Falling back in with Fall Out Boy in Raleigh

Posted by on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 12:44 PM

Fall Out Boy, Paramore, New Politics
Walnut Creek Amphitheatre
Tuesday, July 22, 2014

January 18, 2007: The night before my 15th birthday, I stood in the cold in a hand-painted T-shirt with two older cousins, waiting for the doors to Raleigh’s Disco Rodeo to open for my first-ever club show. It was the "Friends or Enemies Tour," featuring Permanent Me, The Early November, New Found Glory and, of course, my personal favorite, Fall Out Boy.  Much of my world revolved around Fall Out Boy for a rather intense period of time, and they were touring in anticipation of the forthcoming Infinity on High. 
Seven-year-old skeletons emerge from the back of the closet in the form of ugly handmade band merch - PHOTO BY BRIAN HOWE
  • Photo by Brian Howe
  • Seven-year-old skeletons emerge from the back of the closet in the form of ugly handmade band merch

The second track on that record, “’The Take Over, The Break’s Over’,” sports the bridge "Don’t pretend you ever forgot about me.” Despite my efforts to do just that, I couldn’t teach myself to forget Fall Out Boy. Fast forward seven years, and I’m a much happier, self-assured college graduate, with a gig that involves getting paid to write about music. Gone are the days of purchasing clothing from Pete Wentz’s Clandestine line, memorizing the band’s catalog and obsessing over every move they made. Still, when the opportunity arose to go see Fall Out Boy and Paramore’s Monumentour, I jumped.

The opening set Tuesday nigh's show, from the baffling Danish three-piece New Politics, was a mercifully short half-hour, with co-headliner Paramore taking the stage next. Even in my heyday of Fueled By Ramen fever, Paramore never quite caught my attention. My mistake. Given news of the band’s line-up shuffles, it wasn’t surprising to see the stage set up like it was The Hayley Williams Show. Three of her five band members stood on a high riser at the back of the stage, keeping them mostly out of view.

Indeed, Williams owned every second of the set. She has all the trappings of a bona fide pop star—the energy, the charm, the vocal chops. But Paramore’s music trends more toward “proper” pop-punk. She commanded the enormous stage and massive crowd as well as any arena rocker, running and bouncing all over the place as lights flashed and disco balls sparkled. Williams interspersed messages of positivity through the songs, encouraging the audience (which, let’s be real, included a lot of teenage girls) to keep going even when it got rough. Williams might not be your image of a riot grrrl, but she’s an intense, even inspirational figure in her own right.

Next—finally—was Fall Out Boy. I quit the band cold turkey shortly before the release of its 2009 record Folie a Deux, looking for something that felt a bit less forced (I fell head-over-heels for folk music shortly thereafter). I never listened to that record, or the more recent Save Rock and Roll—a little out of bitterness, a little out of stubbornness. Indeed, I pretty much quit that “scene” entirely. Fall Out Boy pulled heavily (alas!) from these later records, and their ambition to save rock ‘n’ roll was clear: the show was a proper rock spectacle. There were shooting flames, enormous rotating screens, fireworks—these grand, sweeping gestures fit well with the band’s shift towards straight-up pop rock.

At one point, Patrick Stump took a seat at a grand piano, where he led the outfit in the first verse of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Throughout the set, Stump seemed to pull typical rock ‘n’ roller gestures (the big over-the-head-clap, diva hands) as often as he strummed his guitar, which wasn't the Gibson SG I fondly remembered. One odd moment came during the drum “battle” between Stump and drummer Andy Hurley to some piped-in music. Hurley’s a monster of a drummer with a long pedigree in hardcore, so it didn't seem so fair or fitting to pit him against his bandmate.

I didn’t hear all my favorite FOB songs, but I still got a few. The notes of tunes like “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More 'Touch Me'” and “Grand Theft Autumn (Where is Your Boy)” will probably be tattooed into my brain forever. Fall Out Boy ended the night with “Saturday,” just like they did that night in January when I was about to turn 15.

I’ve changed a lot in seven years, and so has Fall Out Boy, but there are still a few things that come full circle and stay the same. Maybe it wasn’t everything, but it was enough.
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    Reminiscing with Fall Out Boy at their big-time Walnut Creek rock spectacle

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Live: The Milk Carton Kids surmount illness and hecklers in Durham

Posted by on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 10:58 AM

Milk Carton Kids
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Thursday, July 17, 2014

The last time the Milk Carton Kids were in town on a tour of their own, the duo played at Casbah, the Main Street club that closed at the start of the year. The outfit got a major venue upgrade for its current round, playing the quiet, reverent and less-than-full Carolina Theatre last Thursday night. Though some fans seemed to think they were in a rock club, the acoustic duo still delivered a sweeping set of gentle songs, pulling heavily from its Grammy-nominated 2013 LP The Ash & Clay.

The two men of the Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, singer-songwriters who met a few years ago in California through their mutual musical interests. The acoustic-guitar-playing pair shares songwriting duties and complement each other perfectly. Their vocal harmonies weave together, with Pattengale’s impressive picking flitting over Ryan’s steady rhythmic strums. And while Pattengale focused on getting his old guitar in shape between songs, Ryan took care of most of the stage banter. His dry, sharp sense of humor lifts the duo’s more mournful tunes.

A couple songs into the first of the band’s two sets, Ryan said he’d been feeling sick, that the audience should give the band about a five percent leeway on the show’s quality. Anything less than 95 excellence “is on us,” he said. Still, Ryan and Pattengale flew through their first set, drawing mostly from The Ash & Clay before taking a short break.

During the second set, a few audience members derailed the show with fairly bizarre antics that Ryan and Pattengale handled gracefully. The first incident came while Ryan delivered a sarcastic yarn about the band’s new merchandise. A fan in a balcony seat took a flash photo—then another, and then two more—before Pattengale spoke up to say that having the flash on from that distance didn’t actually do anything to help the photo quality. 

Ryan picked up his merch tale, and with it, two particularly rowdy guests acting as equal parts guffawing Greek chorus and hecklers. Their color commentary was enough to prompt Pattengale to ask if weed had just been legalized in the state. The tickets weren’t cheap—the floor seats cost upwards of $60—so it’s bizarre that anyone would spend that much on tickets just to go and hassle a band.

Rudeness aside, the duo breezed through the rest of the set, which included three new songs. Another audience low point was the laughter during “Memoirs of an Owned Dog”—a song that’s devastating at heart rather than funny.

The night came to a close with a brief geographical theme, closing with “Michigan” before returning for a double encore of “New York” and “Memphis.” The gentle songwriting of the Milk Carton Kids meant the evening was far from a foot-stompin’ folk throwdown; rather, it was an opportunity to listen closely, in a way that many venues simply can’t accommodate.
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    Acoustic folksy duo The Milk Carton Kids packs a punch with tunes that seem soft.

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I certainly hope so. I sorely miss their lyrics and sound.

by Jennifer Gibe Hall on Live: Third Eye Blind: Out with the new, in with the old (Music)

I was at the show and I loved it!! He earns extra points for coming out and greeting the fans …

by Leroy Walker Jr on Live: Eric Roberson and Algebra Blessett learn the Art of Cool (Music)

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