Saturday, August 09, 2008

All Points West: Friday

I haven’t been to too many concerts lately. Working the night shift means I can’t go to any shows during the week, but with some time off coming, I took yesterday off and went out to All Points West, the latest attempt to start a New York area music festival. The lineup yesterday was full of bands I liked, and on the whole, it was a great experience.

I started things off with The New Pornographers. I’ve seen them four times now, and only once did they totally impress me. Not coincidentally, that was the Summerstage two years ago where they headlined. The other times I’ve seen them, they were either opening for someone else or at a free show. It’s a huge difference when the whole crowd is there to see a band. Most people didn’t seem to know their songs, and the energy level just wasn’t as high as it was when they headlined.

But, it’s always good to see them, and they played most of my favorite songs. “Bleeding Heart Show” and “A Testament to Youth in Verse” are always fantastic live. Nothing they do can top the wordless chorale moments on those two songs. However, without Neko Case, their stage presence is pretty low energy. They sprinkle in lengthy self deprecating banter between songs that drains the show of momentum. I’m no fan of the stereotypical “Hello Cleveland!” classic rock style audience pandering, but at the same time, I think the endlessly rambling “I don’t know what I’m doing” style banter has gotten old too. We paid to be there, you guys have played a bunch of shows, I think you can string together something better than saying the camera looks like that thing from Wall-E and trailing off ashamed.

Compared to the other bands I saw, the NPs seemed to be actively trying to crush any momentum their set had. They need to get the drummer out in front, he’s the only one who seems to be really enjoying himself. But, the music was still good, particularly a great cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” to close out the set.

I next headed over to the ‘Bullet’ stage to see CSS, who thankfully had a fifteen minute delay on their start, so I could catch all of it. I loved their first album, but have been totally underwhelmed by my few listens to their new one. But, hearing the newer songs live, they played pretty well. They’re not as distinctive as the first album’s, but they keep the energy up live. LoveFoxx was a manic presence on stage, but got outclassed by the restrained cool of her bandmates. Still, her craziness is a huge part of the band’s success, and she killed it throughout.

Next up, I caught the last few songs of Underworld. I’ve listened to some of their stuff, and generally like it. ‘Born Slippy’ is the obvious classic, and I walked over right as it was starting. Their set was a bit odd, one guy on a mixer, and the vocalist dancing around with various video effects behind him. It’s definitely the kind of set that would play better in a club setting, where you’re expecting one guy with a DJ, rather than a festival setting like this, with a full band. It was still fun to see, but a bit underwhelming.

Of course, the real attraction was Radiohead. They came out with an amazing stage setup. Surrounded by hanging lights, and backed by a video screen that featured a multitude of angles on the band, processed through color filters. The video screen visuals were so good, you could record them and make a great music video without any editing. It was one of the best light shows I’ve seen from a live band.

Most of the set was drawn from In Rainbows. I had mixed feelings about the album going into the show, and coming out of it. I definitely liked it, “Reckoner” and “All I Need” are standout tracks, but it’s definitely a lower tier Radiohead album. My ranking of their albums as a whole would be:

Ok Computer
The Bends
Hail to the Thief
Kid A
In Rainbows
Pablo Honey

The issue I had with In Rainbows was that most of the songs had a similar feel, in the same way that Amensiac did, but Computer or Thief didn’t. They used similar instrumentation on most of the tracks, and there weren’t as many of the emotional shifts that songs like ‘Lucky’ or ‘Paranoid Android’ had. Ironically, it’s like In Rainbows was all painted in one color, whereas their best work used a spectrum.

However, as the show got going, they played a bunch of tracks off Rainbows, and I was wondering why I didn’t love it. “15 Step” was a great opener to the show, and “All I Need” was fantastic live. Other than an amazing “Lucky,” most of the early going stuck to songs from Rainbows. That was fine, I figured they would start with newer stuff, then segue into older songs. It’s not that I only wanted to hear the older stuff, I just wanted a mix.

As it went on, I was loving the show, the light effects were amazing, and the song selection was pretty solid. However, towards the end of the opening set, the momentum started to slip. Closing on “How to Disappear Completely” meant a loss of energy after they left. The crowd reaction was pretty small, I’m guessing people assumed there would be an encore so they didn’t feel the need to get too loud. Still, going out on a more uptempo song would have probably left things with more emotion. It’s not that the softer songs can’t work at all live, it’s just at one point they strung three or four low tempo songs together in a row, and that cut a lot of momentum. When they came back with ‘House of Cards,’ I was like, didn’t they play this one already? They hadn’t, but it’s when Rainbows fatigue set in for me.

Still, I’ve got to stress how amazing the visual presentation was, and the performance. The slower songs still sounded great, it’s just a question of scarcity. When I’ve only got a few Radiohead songs to see, it was frustrating to have a bunch of songs I don’t particularly care for. I’d have to liked to see more off Hail to the Thief, and a couple more tracks off Computer or Bends. I don’t want to be one of those people just asking for the old stuff, I’m sure it’s more exciting to play a song you wrote a year ago than to play one written twelve years ago for the thousandth time, but by the end, I was reminded why I had issues with Rainbows in the first place.

But, this was still one of the best shows I’ve been to in a long time. The stage presence was amazing, and they had the crowd rapt throughout. I’d definitely like to see them when they pass through New York again.

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