Growing up in the ’90s meant making choices. There was Tamagotchi and Nano Pet, McDonald’s and Burger King, Game Boy and Game Gear. Each decision brought with it a distinction, a way to anchor yourself in what felt like an endless sea of decisions. But those were paltry picks compared to the most important—and polarizing—line a girl had to cast: Choosing her favorite boy band. There were the heavy-hitters like ’N Sync and 98 Degrees, the long-haired Hanson boys and the brothers Moffatt. For me, though, it went something like this: Good girls like the Backstreet Boys, and bad girls like … well, everyone else.
With songs such as “As Long as You Love Me” and “I Want It That Way,” the Backstreet Boys sang about love and loneliness without any of the messy sexual implications that made parents jump for the radio dial. Cousins Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell sang together in church choir, and the quintessential “bad boy,” A.J. McLean, was pegged as such for his manicured facial hair and edgy habit of sporting sunglasses indoors. The group’s first official gig was at Sea World, followed by a string of performances at shopping malls and high schools. The Backstreet Boys were a wholesome affair.
During the summer of 1999, when it was announced that the group was coming to Raleigh, my best friend, Maria, and I immediately purchased tickets. Raleigh was the fourth show of the third leg of an international tour, but for us, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event. Like everyone else, Maria and I were peering down the mysterious barrel of the New Millennium, and barring the collapse of the financial system or a worldwide Y2K meltdown, we’d both be allowed to go to the concert—on our own.
On February 18, 2000, our parents dropped us off outside the sold-out show, and we dashed inside to the sounds of Star Wars’ “Imperial March.” We screamed as the Backstreet Boys, dressed in armored vests atop silver space suits, soared onstage, sailing right above our fussed-over hairdos (“just in case they see us”) on sleek hoverboards. The place was so thick with screaming teenagers that the floor shook, and we had to scoop our jaws off the floor before we were able to sing along. Maria and I were dazzled by the promise of the future.
But that was more than a decade ago, when the Internet was still young and there was no such thing as YouTube. The Backstreet Boys, as a band, turned 20 this year, as I turned 26. And, like we did as children, Maria and I went to see the group perform at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre on Tuesday night. This time, we floated the idea past our husbands, not our parents. Maria was late because of a fussy baby; I kept company with my cell phone while I waited.
The Boys took the stage around 9 p.m., in a modest entrance that lacked the flourish of the hoverboards of yore. When A.J. began singing the opening lines of “Don’t Want You Back,” the crowd responded with an ear-shattering scream. It was a familiar sound, but the clamor was more aggressive, and with less diffidence than in the past. It wasn’t the sound of giddy teenagers preparing to see their crush; it was the sound of drunk adults, preparing to relive their youth. Kevin acknowledged the change after only three songs when he broke from the pack to scan the front row. Instead of complimenting the crowd or introducing the band, he flashed a knowing smile and said, “Raleigh, that ice cold beer sure looks good.”
In the parking lot before the show, loud, muffled bass pounded through the trees, but the music wasn’t opener Jesse McCartney or DJ Pauly D. Instead, the grassy lot opened up to a wide tailgate scene, with traffic directors all but ignoring the throngs of twentysomethings clustered around bottles of wine, their trunks popped open as though at a football game. When the crowd stumbled its way into the venue, there was nary a teenager in sight.
As the concert pressed on, it became clear that the Backstreet Boys—and their fans—had grown up. That’s to be expected; after all, the Backstreet Boys were a relatively early boy band, following at the heels of popular acts like New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men. The relative maturity of their base would be of little concern if the Boys were content to sit idly by, playing the old hits for the old fans who were willing to pay a pretty penny for a stroll down memory lane.
But in July, the group released In a World Like This, their first independently produced album, and they genuinely seem interested in pursuing the new material. Throughout the night, the Backstreet Boys peppered in new songs between the radio hits, lacing them with lengthy explanations and flashy dance routines. If the crowd’s response to these songs—that is, sitting down and checking their cell phones—is any indication, staying relevant is going to be a struggle.
The Backstreet Boys seem to know this. Before playing “Madeline,” a touching new tune that offers hope to victims of bullying, Howie told the crowd, “In 30 or 40 years, we might not be able to shake what our mamas gave us as well as we can now. So, as an insurance policy, we picked up some instruments.” The crowd roared at this announcement, though less than a minute into the song, there were more people sending texts than watching the group. It seemed that the future the Backstreet Boys had long promised arrived, and then pressed on, dragging the boys in tow.
These days, it’s the multimedia acts that get the preteens screaming. Justin Bieber was catapulted into stardom by singing R&B covers on YouTube, while London-based One Direction were originally contenders on The X Factor. The Jonas Brothers came straight from Disney’s Camp Rock, and The Wanted have their own reality show on E!
Alex, the youngest member of my family, self-identifies as a “Belieber.” Although she missed the Backstreet era by about 10 years and has no idea what an obsessive fan I used to be, she’s the target audience for In a World Like This. When I told her that I was going to the Backstreet Boys concert this week, Alex politely told me she knew nothing about them. “Quit playing games with my heart,” I laughed, the joke rolling off my tongue with ease. She returned with nothing, but she didn’t have to: I might as well have asked her how her Nano Pet was doing.
Run The Jewels: Killer Mike and El-P
Friday, Aug. 9, 2013
On Friday night, Run The Jewels—the hip-hop BFF duo of Killer Mike and El-P—alternately took the sweat-soaked Cat's Cradle crowd to church, their hometowns of Atlanta and Brooklyn, and everywhere in between.
The evening captured both the unstoppable essence of their self-titled debut and their relatively new friendship, which started when Mike was shopping for beats to create what became one of 2012's best albums, R.A.P. Music. He was so taken by El-P's Bomb Squad-ian instrumentals that he enlisted the former Definitive Jux president to produce the entire project. The two have been seemingly inseparable since. At one point during the show, El-P threw his arm around Killer Mike and exclaimed, "This is my best friend right here."
Mike and El tore through the entirety of Run The Jewels, minus tongue-in-cheek bro jam "Twin Hype Back" featuring rap god Prince Paul. Concerts of this ilk, wherein artists perform an album in full, often feel like cheap cash-grabs, but Run The Jewels was built for the stage. From the chest-beating title track through the menacing, mournful "A Christmas Fucking Miracle," the set, like the album, delivered a shot of raw rap adrenaline. Chuck D and Ice Cube, two major influences, would be proud.
Their respective solo sets were equally incendiary, filled with palpable anger and new-world gospel that never lacked sincerity or sounded preachy. The crowd transformed into a boom-bap pulpit before Mike's hulking glow. Highlights included an a cappella version of R.A.P. Music's powerful "Reagan" and an in-the-crowd annotated take on "God in the Building."
El-P burst from backstage to "Drones Over BKLYN," a brain-crunching single off 2012's Cancer 4 Cure. Backed by a hypeman and a multi-instrumentalist duo, he dipped deep into his catalog. His love for his craft became most evident during "EMG," when a mid-song beat-switch found El spitting over the Slick Rick classic "Children's Story." It was just as crowd-pleasing as it was seamless, even leading into an on-the-spot remix of A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?"
Before Run The Jewels destroyed eardrums, Kool A.D. (formerly of Das Racist) supplied his free-associative rhymes with an unmatched suave. While his tourmates were more immediately electrifying, the Bay Area native controlled the crowd with wit and wordplay. That's no easy win for an MC whose lyrics bounce from one topic to the next, especially during his epic 10-minute closing track, "Dum Diary." No surprise, then, that when he asked "Who's your favorite rapper?" for the thousandth time, the overwhelming response of "KOOL A.D.!" felt genuine.
Last month, on the same weekend, two of the Triangle's most popular acts held release shows for their respective new albums.
On Friday, July 26, at a packed Cat's Cradle, The Love Language debuted Ruby Red in their retooled format. While it sounded as though the group was still ironing out a few arrangements, what they played from the new album mixed well with their back catalog. A three-piece string section, saxophonist, and vibraphonist Mark Simonsen complemented the band well. The encore included the McLamb brothers and Ben Carr of Last Year's Men performing "Stars" from the center of the crowd; nearly everyone sang along.
Below, see the group perform "Kids" and "High Life" from Ruby Red, plus the group's take on The Strokes song, "The Modern Age."
The next day at Raleigh's The Lincoln Theatre, Bombadil released Metrics of Affection. The group seems to be stronger than ever, presenting their material to a younger crowd who seemed to know the words to every song, no matter how dated or fresh. As the crowd danced to the upbeat numbers and swooned to the love songs, balloons dropped in the room, sending them into fits. When the evening ended, even getting out of the door seemed tough, as I'm uncertain the last time I saw a merchandise line so long.
Below are two new numbers from Metrics of Affection: "Have Me" and "Angeline," featuring Christy Smith from The Tender Fruit.
KEN mode, Inter Arma
Local 506, Chapel Hill
Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013
KEN mode's Jesse Matthewson is an intense frontman. Even if you're comfortable with the Canadian outfit's sound, a complex and clobbering distillation of hardcore heat and metallic might, his presence will put you on edge. His eyes blaze, glaring through face-shielding bangs with such ardor that if you look at him too long it feels as though he's staring right at you. At one point during the trio's set at Local 506, I left a beer sitting on the lip of the stage for what Matthewson must have felt was too long. He twice fired snot rockets at it, spitting in my direction once more after I removed the bottle.
Like their music, KEN mode's performance was an assault, and it was too much for many in the crowd. The room, which was packed tight during the set from supporting act Inter Arma, quickly whittled down to a crowd of about 30 when the headliners started.
The trio were in fine form, dealing top-notch aural punishment. Matthewson staggered through strung-out passages and then tore into tenacious riffs. Bassist Andrew LaCour—the new addition on KEN mode's acclaimed fifth LP, Entrench—was dominating, dropping burly tones that rumbled long after he plucked the string, while still finding space for rich dynamics and unexpected counter-melodies. His chemistry with drummer Shane Matthewson was impressive, allowing them to provide pummeling support no matter where Jesse (Shane's brother) chose to take them.
Frequent, abrasive samples sparked their quicker rampages, and though their slower songs did take some time to brood, the threat of the coming storm was never far away. It was an impressive display, but as the crowd's reaction suggested, it didn't line up with the excellent performance provided by Inter Arma.
Singer Mike Paparo worked himself into a frenzy, growling forcefully and bugging his eyes. At one point, his mic stopped working. He threw it violently to the floor, jumped to the lip of the stage, and shouted his lines a cappella. His vehemence made up for his lack of volume.
The band steadied his vigor into controlled crescendos. Guitarists Steven Russell and Trey Dalton escalated their riffs into an enveloping squall as T.J. Childers' double-kick kit maintained a thunderous pulse.
Violent but never jarring, Inter Arma was an odd match for KEN mode's oppressive attacks. Both sets were exemplary, but they might have done better on different bills.
NC Music Love Army
Monday, July 29, 2013
By all accounts, this week's "Moral Monday" demonstration was the largest yet. After three months of chanting and singing and praying in Raleigh's Halifax Mall, after more than 920 arrests—mostly doled out to protesters who have refused to leave the N.C. General Assembly's chambers when asked—a crowd of several thousand filled the outdoor space to once again decry the actions of the state's lawmakers. Led by the state NAACP, they affirmed their determination to fight on by marching down to Fayetteville Street, stopping in front of the Capitol building for more chanting and singing and praying.
A couple hours later, a smaller crowd packed inside the nearby Kings Barcade. The NC Music Love Army, a loose but fiery assembly of local musicians who aspire to be "the soundtrack to the Moral Monday movement," were set to play their first official show. They'd hosted an open rehearsal, and they'd performed at "Moral Monday" and on the radio, but this would be the first time they'd play songs for a paying audience—with all money raised being donated to the NAACP legal defense fund, which will defray the costs incurred by arrestees from the protest, a nice little bow tying all of this up.
But the problem is that none of this is really tied up yet. The actions of this legislative session—slashing public education funds, restricting abortion rights, limiting access to the ballot—are still in place. The crowd at Kings was revved-up and ready to keep fighting, but will they still feel so inspired on Nov. 5 when the Army plans to releases their EP of original protest songs? Can those tunes keep them simmering until the next November, when they'll have the chance to vote out the politicians that instigated their outrage?
Kurt Vile & The Violators pulled into the Cat's Cradle on Thursday, touring behind Wakin on a Pretty Daze. A large banner with the band's name hung behind them as they walked on stage for the near-capacity show. The tempo of the tunes varied a bit, as Vile and company tend to lean back and stretch out live. But no one seemed to mind, as the group still packed a lot of new and old material into a 100-minute set.
Below, hear 2009's "Hunchback" and the new "KV Crimes."
On Wednesday evening, Raleigh favorites American Aquarium were set to perform at the lush Sarah P. Duke Gardens for the Duke Performances "Music in the Gardens" series. Due to expected rain, though, the show was moved indoors to Motorco Music Hall.
American Aquarium had planned a very quiet acoustic set that usually wouldn't fly in the loud rock clubs where the group typically performs. In the move to Motorco, some of the delicate songs were lost on a crowd who seemed to switch to bar mode spontaneously. Still, with the assistance of cellist Kaitlin Grady, the group put on one of their strongest performances to date, digging deep into their back catalog to pull out songs they have never performed live. American Aquarium is no longer a one-trick-pony playing only rock shows; it can turn on a dime and deliver a different type of performance now.
Below are two deep cuts: "Water in the Well" from Small Town Hymns and "Road to Nowhere" from The Bible and the Bottle.
Water In The Well
Road to Nowhere
Saturday night, Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers returned to Local 506 in Chapel Hill for the first time in many years. Cooley reminisced on his time living in Durham and the plethora of songs he had written and first played out in the Triangle. Throughout the evening, he picked his way through 20-plus songs in his deep catalog of contributions to the Drive-By Truckers. Some were quickly identifiable during the introduction, while many had been given new arrangements. Cooley displayed ninja-like skills to ignore a rowdy crowd in the front row; they constantly tried to talk to him and yell out song requests.
In the end, everyone got what they came for—an up-close look at a brilliant body of work sometimes lost behind a wall of muddy vocals and roaring guitars.
Below are a few clips from the evening, including a few stories from Cooley's time in the Triangle.
"Loaded Gun in the Closet"
Saturday night at the Casbah brought about the continuation of the venue's series of songwriters circle shows, with performances by Jason Kutchma, Chip Robinson, Kevin Abernathy and Mic Harrison. Below are three clips from songs played by Robinson, including two oft-overlooked ballads ("Psychic Friend" and "Two Candles") from the Backsliders' 1999 album, Southern Lines.
Robinson frequently digs into his back catalog from that era, but it's fairly rare to hear those numbers performed to a quiet and respectful room. The environment created at these types of events at the Casbah allows for songs of all decibel levels to flourish in front of a welcoming audience. It's also intriguing to watch the depth and soul with which Robinson performs these older songs—and to wonder what new material he might have still to come.
Playing a solo acoustic guitar set at a crowded bar is a dicey proposition. But Chapel Hill expat Chuck Johnson—visiting Durham from Oakland for the release party of Crows in the Basilica, his new record for Triangle label Three Lobed—worked his six- and 12-string guitars like a snake charmer at the Pinhook on May 23, magically becalming a well-lubricated audience into rapt, respectful silence. Thus did I find myself sprawled out on the floor of a nightclub for quite opposite reasons than usual.
It was an especially impressive trick because the social energy level had been set high in an opening performance by a new, unnamed, prospectively ongoing band led by Mount Moriah’s Jenks Miller on vocals and guitar, with Some Army’s Elysse Thebner on keys, Mount Moriah’s Casey Toll on bass and Bowerbirds’ Dan Westerlund on drums. They slammed down a pair of long, stormy arcs that thundered through passages of heavy but melodic blues-based choogle, pounding drone-rock, woozy string-bending odysseys and chiming cool-downs. Meanwhile, the Pinhook bar did brisk business.
Yet the room, at least within a generous radius of the stage, went chamber-music quiet the instant Johnson touched the guitar with fingertips and thumb pick, his clear and silky tone captured in all its dimensions by three microphones. That’s not to say the vibe was somber—to the contrary. Johnson is an alumnus of Chapel Hill indie-rock pillars Spatula, and there were enough old-school scenesters in the audience that it felt almost like a convivial, Chapel Hill Class of ’99 reunion.
“Do we have to whisper right now?” Dave Cantwell bellowed between songs, chuckling, right beside the stage. “Silence!” Johnson shot back with mock fierceness. Such deadpan, self-deprecating remarks, humorously contrasting with his vaguely monastic visage and graying viscount’s beard, tempered the solemnity of rococo acoustic guitar music, in which complex runs elaborated themselves, recoiled and sprang forth again.
Johnson began with a nod to his local roots. Before the show, he had performed and given an interview on the program “Backyard Barbecue” at WXYC, the UNC radio station where he once was a DJ. He talked about seeing posters and graffiti dating back to his time there. “I’m a survivor,” he cracked, before launching into the first song from Crows in the Basilica, “Across White Oak Mountain,” in which a brambly melody slides through humming open arpeggios.
Video by Dan Schram
From that rhythmically hitching beginning, Johnson retuned and shifted into a duskier raga mode for “On a Slow Passing in Ghost Town,” with a wobbling howl persistently crying out from the low E string. “A couple more sleepy songs, is that all right?” he asked before playing the ominously lyrical title track of Crows, with that same heavy wow in the low end. It was the most overt manifestation of the tuning-contrived shadow melodies lurking behind the lead ones, their overtones lightening and darkening the room.
Johnson rounded out songs from Crows with “Wild Geese Descend on Level Sands,” a minimal 12-string piece he learned with world-music improv band Idyll Swords; a sweetly twanging tribute to Chapel Hill-born folk innovator Elizabeth Cotten; and “The Stars Rose Behind Us” from 2011's A Struggle Not a Thought. The last served as an encore after Johnson, standing just offstage for a moment during a hearty ovation, walked back smiling with comic brittleness and clapping along—a final moment of good-humored parody from someone who clearly takes his music seriously, but not himself.
Video by Dan Schram