Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bummer In The Bowl: Underwhelming Performances Rule The Night At The Hollywood Bowl Summer Close Out. Only Warpaint Truly Shines.

TV On The Radio in the middle of their dreadfully mixed show.
Look, playing the Hollywood Bowl is a daunting, difficult task for any rock 'n' roll artist.

Saddled with strict curfews and volume limitations that inhibit spontaneity, and designed for a picnicking classical audience far less concerned with the visual components of a performance, the expansive Bowl is the farthest thing from intimate...even seats in the front third of the arena, where I was seated, feel like they're positioned a mile away.

Throw in the typically aloof, rudely chatty, Hollywood hipster crowd, and you've got a nightmare scenario for any band.

But over the years, I've seen many acts transcend this venue's hurdles. 

Unfortunately, this would not be one of those nights.

Chicago's Smith Westerns took the stage promptly at six p.m., and immediately set the tone for a disappointing evening. 

Launching into a five song set of material from their latest release Dye It Blonde, they sounded decent enough, but had zero stage presence, and seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the environment.  I don't think the bassist or drummer mustered the courage to look up at the vast audience even once.

One's tempted to grant the band a pass, given their youth and especially the possibility of lingering psychological trauma stemming from the Pukkelpop stage collapse tragedy they were witness to this summer, but no matter how you slice it, this was just not an impressive set.

Warpaint delivers the evening's one thrilling set. 
As soon as they scampered off, the central portion of the stage rotated 180%, bringing Warpaint out to face the crowd.

Luckily, theirs would be the one fabulous set of the night, though maybe not fabulous enough for actor Peter Sarsgaard.  That's him standing in the blue windbreaker in the photo to the left.  In typical, too-cool-to-care, Hollywood fashion, he spent the whole Warpaint set standing with his back to the stage, more interested in doling out wine and baguettes for friends in the row behind him than the killer music being produced below.

But back to Warpaint. 

Quite simply, they crushed it. 

Opener Set Your Arms Down immediately established that the great separation of sound they achieved back at Coachella was no accident...they sounded almost as good here.  Then after another strong track from their debut The Fool, they kicked it up several notches with lead single Undertow, which was mesmerizing, easily the best single song performance of the entire evening.  Maintaining their heightened peak, they closed with a new song, a lengthy jam that swelled and soared through multiple passages, and which they continued to play even as the central turret rotated them out of sight.

A brief intermission followed, and then Panda Bear took the stage.

Now, truth be told, I'm hardly the biggest Panda Bear/Animal Collective fan, but as far as he/they go, on a musical level, this set wasn't half bad...far more compelling a listen than Animal Collective's horrendous Coachella set five months back.   His voice was impressive, and the six song setlist couldn't have been stronger, closing out with Tomboy's two best tracks, Last Night At The Getty and Afterburner, and then two of Person Pitch's best tracks, Comfy In Nautica and an abbreviated version of Bros.

But all of my fundamental issues with the Panda Bear / Animal Collective approach remained.

Despite the often childlike positivity of their music, he / they are amongst the most disengaged and joyless of contemporary live performers.  Hiding behind a phalanx of sequencers with fellow "press play" artist Sonic Boom, and backed by another dated, cliche stream of hippie-blip videos, there was zero effort on his part to connect on any personal level with the audience.

No banter, no acknowledgement other than a thank you at the end, not even a smile or a frown.  Just the music, which for me, at least, wasn't enough.  And this isn't a case of just being green and nervous and still needing time to season as it was with Smith Westerns, or a genuine exploitation of non-interaction to heighten the mystery, as one gets with My Bloody Valentine; with Panda Bear, it feels like genuine disinterest.

Which leads me to a very pointed philosophical artistic question - if connecting with one's audience in a live setting means so little, and you've already established yourself as a top tier album artist with a passionate following, aside from the money, why perform at all?

I probably just answered the question myself, but you get the gist of Panda's set - interesting sounds, zero heart.

Arctic Monkeys were up next, and their hour long set was without question the second best of the night.

Tossing out an eclectic mix of cuts from each of their four albums, they played with fine energy, and lead singer Alex Turner was far and away the evening's most engaging frontman, frequently stopping between songs to inquire "So how we doing, Bowl?"

Really only had two issues with their set.

First, the Bowl is just the wrong venue to see a band such as this...the vast open air over magnified the choppy rawness of their sound.  A little echo off interior walls would have gone a long way to blur the amateurish feel of some of their songs.

Second, while I respect them for putting together such an unpredictable set list...the number of Arctic Monkey songs I hoped to hear but didn't (Dancing Shoes, Riot Van, Fake Tales Of San Francisco, Do The Bad Thing, 505 to name just a few omissions) was much longer than the number of Arctic Monkey songs I hoped to hear and did.

But still, a number of engaging efforts in their sixty minute span, of which I probably enjoyed Do Me A Favour best.

Finally, it was time for TV On The Radio, and within the first fifteen seconds, all I could think was, "Will this amazing studio band ever learn how to properly mix their shows?"

Seriously...through their first three numbers, which included Cookie Mountain's Blues From Down Here and Dear Science,'s Dancing Choose...the mix was beyond awful.

It was pure mud.

Which to me is a pure shame.

We're talking about one of the premiere album acts of the last half-decade, blessed with a world of passion, originality, tremendous songs, and two of the most idiosyncratically compelling singers around in Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe.  And their energy level on this night was superb, which is why these never ending live mix issues that have haunted the band for years are so damn frustrating.

For most of the night, all one could hear clearly were the drums and the drone from Dave Sitak's buzzsaw guitar.  Kyp and Tunde's vocals barely cut through, and the trombonists brought in to add a touch of brass would have been better of going to bed...over twelve songs, I think I only clearly heard the trombone once.

The show's saving grace the band's latest album, Nine Types Of Light.

Brighter, cleaner, and less reliant on textural drones than TV On The Radio's previous releases, the material from Nine Types cut through with a clarity the older material lacked.  And while I wasn't crazy about the specific choices from this album, picking weaker tracks like Cannonball, Will Do, and Forgotten over the much stronger Keep Your Heart, You, No Future Shock and Killer Crane, they were welcome respites from the show's overall wall of sludge nonetheless.

Oh, and as always, no matter how bad the mix, Wolf Like Me destroyed.

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