Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 2009 - Part I

Special Edition : Big Day Out Review Part I

A highlight of summer is the numerous music festivals and one of the longest running in New Zealand is the annual Big Day Out. This year shaped up as one of the best for years from my perspective. The headliner, Neil Young, is a certified rock and roll legend but he would be accompanied by several bands (Prodigy, Arctic Monekys, Bullet For My Valentine, Fantomas) noted for their tremendous live shows. Then there were several acts who delivered critically acclaimed albums in 2008 (TV On The Radio, My Morning Jacket and Ting Tings) as well as perhaps the strongest line-up of New Zealand bands yet seen at the Big Day Out. As a result, I was very excited as the train delivered me to the doorstep of Mt Smart Stadium on a perfect summers day.

Unfortunately with 90 odd bands it is impossible to see every act. As always, there were some regrettable conflicts. My approach has generally been to ask the question, ‘Who am I less likely to be able to see in the future?’. The downside to this inescapable piece of logic is that you do tend to give short shrift to kiwi bands who regularly perform up and down the country. So my apologies to The Mink Chicks, Weta, Luger Boa, Cornerstone Roots, Headless Chickens, Ladi 6, Nesian Mystik and P-Money all of whom I missed this year. I promise to check out you guys as soon as possible!

One special aspect about the BDO is that with six stages in almost continuous use, no two people have the exact same experience. As such it can be frustrating to read the next day that Zane Lowe played an incredible set, or that Prodigy were off the wall, that Lupe Fiasco was the CANT MISS performance of the day. Well unfortunately, I did miss it, but that’s the simultaneous charm and frustration of the event. So for those who werent there, or were there, but didn’t see what I saw, here is MY 13 hour, 14 band Big Day Out odyssey.

Clap Clap Riot
We arrived reasonably early on to see the last ten minutes of New Zealand band Clap Clap Riot. Winners of the MTV ‘Kick Start Your Career’ competition, they play a 60s influenced indie rock fare. Such an early slot is a mixed blessing for some bands; no one is there yet and so its hard to ‘go off’ but then, as a band member, you can probably enjoy the rest of the day as a fan with VIP credentials. CCR played a rhythmically driven set culminating in their strongest song, ‘Sorry’. Our vantage point (the, ahem, beer tent) didn’t afford us the best spot sonically (see below) but they sounded competent and engaging.

One of the bands I highlighted as ‘Must See’ were Autozamm who played the 11.30am slot on the top stage. They released a 2008 album called Drama Queen which received a couple of half decent reviews and always catches my eye in stores, mainly because it is a complete rip-off of the colour scheme from Franz Ferdinands first single. However, their live act has been hailed on the summer circuit and so I got up reasonably close to see what all the fuss was about. They are quite a beguiling mix. Three guitars and drums are pretty standard, but an additional dedicated keyboardist is slightly unusual, particularly when one of the songs is opened by a very Mozartish sounding piano intro. As a result, some of the songs are dirty hard rock (the opener sounded like a Datsuns rip-off) while others have a more synthesised 80s pop sound. Combined with quite a busy stage presence of the three guitarists and they were never boring on stage. They also earned rock and roll credit points by welcoming their new drummer. Apparently he replaced the original drummer who went off to have a baby. “That’s not very rock and roll is it?” the lead singer bantered with the crowd. I was just about to write down a 7/10 in my book when the lead singer introduced the last song with “We are going to play this because we can” leaving the keyboardist to launch into the familiar synthesiser beginning of Van Halen’sJump’. Absolute quality and had the crowd bouncing around for the first time today. Enough to change the mark to an 8!

The Naked And The Famous
This duo (who are a four piece live) have received much critical raving for their initial debut EP This Machine and follow up No Light. They are also very noticeable in record shops with striking cover art adorning both releases. However, the set was pretty disappointing. They were not the first nor the last to suffer from the appalling sound on the top two stages. Unlike previous years where the bottom field was the main culprit for underwhelming acoustics, this year the sound at the top two stages was appalling. You basically had, HAD to be within a 20 metre radius of the centre of the stage to hear the music in anything like the correct balance. Too far back or too far either side of the speakers saw the concertgoers battered with a particularly disaffecting sonic agglomeration of sound. In particular, the fuzzy low frequency bass became extremely distorting and disturbing, overpowering the aural output of everything else (lead, rhythm, synthisiser, vocals). Very frustrating for an artists’ attempts to put on a good show. Thus it was hard to judge the quality of their output. They looked to be a band reliant on layered sounds which simply had no show in this arena. As a result, seems to be one act that you should listen to on your perfectly balanced surround sound system at home.

Black Kids
My days first major scheduling conflict (The Tutts were playing at the same time) was resolved in favour of descending to the main stage to watch The Black Kids. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, The Black Kids followed a similar path to fame as the Arctic Monkeys who would play later on the same stage. They released some of their first songs onto the internet where their popularity saw them landed with a major record contract which led to their critically acclaimed release Partie Traumatic. Although only two of them are actually black, they have a rather striking line-up on stage. Two boys stand to the left and play guitar while leading the vocals, while two girls stand to the right behind two keyboards while a drummer sits behind and astride them both, providing balance and direction. The music is infectious bouncy rock similar to Franz Ferdinand in their more poppy moments or perhaps like Soft Cell from the 80s. In fact the lead vocalist has a strong voice with a hint of tiredness reminding me more of The Psychedelic Furs.

The best track was their smash hit Im Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance which prompted (of all things), a conga line in front of the main stage. Havent seen that before! Thus it was a really enjoyable set from a band who seemed absolutely delighted to be here in New Zealand and seemed to genuinely appreciate the warm reception they received from the crowd. Christian Datsun from The Datsuns was directly in front of us, so they have certainly got more than a few musically adept people interested in their antics.

Elemeno P
One of the hardest working bands in New Zealand, Elemeno P were rewarded with a mid afternoon main stage slot for the first time. They entered the arena with lead singer, Dave Gibson extremely well dressed in a tie for the occasion. Elemeno P are the The Exponents of this generation. They have manic energy, lots of hooks, and mandatory singalongs. A good sized crowd took them into their hearts and participated enthusiastically in the bands efforts to get them singing their songs with them.

Their best track is still ‘11:57’ which had the crowd pogoing up and down where space allowed but they also debuted some new material including a track called “Pay For It”. It was at this point that they sort of lost me. They now seem to intent on writing songs with the objective of merely having it sung back to them. Quality songwriting will do that anyway; who wouldve thought “I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor” would become a singalong. Simplifying your output so you can have a stadium of teenagers remember the three words they need to sing the song back to the band doesn’t seem to be a ticket to superstardom. I enjoyed their show, and like some of their songs, but I ultimately want more from my favourite bands.
7 / 10

The Ting Tings
The best way to get into a fight at the BDO was to ask people want they thought of The Tings Tings. There was no middle ground and little indifference. People either adored them or despised them. The former think they are melodic genuises, writing, composing and performing ridiculously catchy, joyous effervescent pop gems. The latter think that represent all that is wrong with modern popular music; saccharine sugary pop reminiscent of advertising jingles best reserved for ten year olds wanting something more challenging than the Mickey Mouse Club. However, despite a couple of t-shirts spotted with the catchphrase “F**k the Ting Tings”, a very big crowd assembled on the top field to see this British pair.

Playing just about every song from their debut album, We Started Nothing, they brought an unbridled energy to this tough afternoon slot. Lead singer Katie White is tiny, but absolutely smoking hot which might partially explain some of their appeal to at least half of the crowd. But she is not just a pretty face, handling the majority of the vocals and spending time on bass and lead guitar as well as a cowbell at one point. Drummer Jules de Martino, a heartthrob in his own right to the female and non-traditional male fans, provides dynamic support, drumming up a storm while providing backing vocals on most tracks. Highlight of the set was the smash single, That’s Not My Name which had everyone singing and dancing with these two dynamic performers.

In the end, both sides to the argument have a point. The Ting Tings are nothing but trashy pop music unlikely to change lives, or save souls. But its awfully catchy and played awfully well. Whats the harm in having a cheeky bit of fun every now and then.

8 /10

A Big Day Out is made by two experiences in this humble correspondents view. Discovering a great new band you want to know more about, and having those ‘OMFG’ moments which transcend mere musical entertainment. Those moments when you come away from the set a jabbering idiot with an apoplectic look on your face, wild eyes, sweaty shirt and shaky limbs somehow stammering out over and over “How F**KING good was that !!!!”.

It is a rare band that combines the two as familarity with a bands musical output is normally an antecedent to losing the plot. However, that was before I saw Pendulum. Without much doubt, the biggest surprise of the day and I came to see them completely by accident. This was actually supposed to be my only down time of the day. With three friends, we headed to the bar at the back of the main field and grabbed a couple of beers so we could chill out while watching the festivities. We soon noticed that the field seemed to be awfully full for the upcoming band. Who are they? Pendulum. Some Australian (well Perth anyway), nu-metal drum and bass band I was informed. Sounded worse than a dental appointment for a root canal to me.

And then…. they unleashed the fury. Sitting in our seats more than 150m away, we were assaulted by a blast wave of sound and energy which did not let up for the full hour. Unfreaking believable. Our vantage point enabled us to watch in amazement as the entire field, now completely full of punters, started bouncing and cavorting ecstatically; their bodies plugged directly into the volcanic emission of noise spewing out all over them. And then we noticed the crowds in the East and West stand were also standing and dancing. And so were the people behind us. Everyone was going crazy with the avalanche of energy, speed and sound supplied by these Aussie madmen.

How to describe the music? It’s the musical equivalent of listening to the Hadron Supercollider perform. A giant ring of power circulating trillions and trillions of atoms constantly smashing together at the speed of light and we had a front row seat to the inevitable violent collision. Its like they studied the best of house, metal, trance, reggae, rock, drum n bass and took only the bits that cause fans to jump around manically and mashed it all together. In fact one of the tracks played was a remix of Metallica’s ‘Slam’ from Master of Puppets (see essential video here).

Pendulum arent a band in the traditional sense, but more a noise producing super machine with merely human attendants. Its not just about the noise, it’s the energy too. Indeed their sound system seemed to require so much energy, that the big screen next to the stage had periodic blackouts! Gigantic, pulverising beats played at warp speed before getting louder and faster and then getting louder and faster again. It was the Ramones combined with Iron Maiden crossed with Rammstein turned up loud.

The organisers were queried and chastised somewhat pre-show for putting Pendulum on the main stage rather than in the Boiler Room. But they had it exactly right. No one was immune. Everyone wanted it, everybody got it, no one will forget it. The biggest crowd in the day time that I have ever seen at BDO hailed them rightly as lordly gods of fury.

Im not remotely doing it justice so let me put it this way; I had never heard of the band before I arrived for the day, can barely stand the genre, didn’t know one song of their set, was at least 150 metres from the stage and it was one of the best BDO experiences I have ever had. Right up there with Iggy Pop in 2006 and The Flaming Lips in 2004.

So check them out, but don’t ever miss a chance to see them live. OMFG!

11 / 10

And I stand by that grade. Honestly, it was off the scale. Just like Spinal Tap, they had it turned up to eleven from the start.

Pendulum - Blood Sugar (1:49)

TV On The Radio

Oh boy, TV On The Radio must have loved the organisers for putting them on after Pendulum. In retrospect, it was a no-win from the start. Firstly the massive crowd took almost 20 minutes to exit so fans of TV On The Radio struggled to even get near the stage. And anything was going to be a let down after Pendulum. Playing mainly songs from their latest album Dear Science, TV On The Radio are perhaps a band better heard on your stereo. So much of their music involves careful and precise layering of delightful sounds, adroit samples and jaunty rhythms. In stadiums, it tends to distintergrate into an ambiguous mess, less sonic symphony and more clashing cymbals. They played with energy (despite the effects of a 36 hour flight the day before), were genuinely enthusiastic and are clearly a band with immense musical talent. But on the day, it just didnt do it for me (nor any of my companions).

So a slight let down perhaps. It wasnt really their fault but they would have been better served performing on the smaller Top Stage. They are not a stadium act trying to get you to jump around. They are an extremely talented and musically diverse band aiming to inspire and entertain with their clever lyrics, musical interplay and charming counter points. Clearly a very talented group, but not the best show of the day.

TV On The Radio - DLZ (2:28)

The Datsuns

My favourite live act of the last few years has to be The Datsuns. The boys from Cambridge have given me five OMG moments in five attempts. This was my second time our paths crossed over the summer after catching them at Rhythm and Vines festival where they played an absolutely monumental set which left me jabbering away to anyone who would listen. Today, they were not quite at that peak, but certainly were worthy of their late afternoon main stage slot. It took them a few songs to get into it, but that was partly sound related. The guitar track seemed strangely distant from the rest of the sound, as if it was being played from a speaker from behind you while the rest of the music was coming from in front. Quite disconcerting and made it harder to emerge yourself into the performance.

However, after that was rectified by about the third track, they climbed into their work. Dolf de Datsun's vocals are the equal of any NZ rock vocalist past or present, and he was in fine voice today. Scorching through Hong Kong Fury (the only decent track of album #2), Sittin Pretty and then System Overload, they had everyone up close and a few beyond moshing frenetically to keep pace with the band. The only down moment was for Following The People when Christian Datsun hops off lead guitar and onto the keyboard synthesiser thereby mellowing out the sound and with it, the crowd. However they were straight back into it with Waiting For Time which was outstanding and features Christian showing he has mastered the difficult art of slide guitar followed by a version of In Love with Dolf standing on the speakers for maximum impact. Brilliant stuff.

Several years of continuous touring have turned them into a formidable live act. Very reluctantly, with My Morning Jacket beckoning, I bade farewell to my favourite NZ band 2/3 of the way through their set and headed up to the upper level. A top shelf performance from a top drawer band marred only slightly by the sound problems and having to leave early.

My Morning Jacket
Well, this was almost a disaster. Arriving slightly late after a dash up the stairs to the top level, I made my way to see one of the anticipated acts of the day. As profiled, in an earlier Nevstar Music Guide, My Morning Jacket have released several astonishingly eclectic and diverse albums with the otherwordly It Still Moves ranking highly as one of my all-time personal favourites. But from my immediate vantage point way off to the left, the sound was again, absolutely horrible. It was ok at low volume during the intimate moments, but every time the music lifted in tempo, it conglomerated into an amorphous, bass dominated, feedback laden cacophony of wretchedness.

Fortunately, through the charging efforts of one of my companions who showed immense leadership, we plunged determinedly through the mellow crowd so that we were soon ten metres from the front of the stage, right in the middle. Much, much, much better. Now we could hear the music, appreciate its subtley, recognise the musicianship, hear the melodies, and start to have our faith rewarded as we took in the respective talents on display before us. We were fixated by their insanely energetic guitar jamming, the resounding strength yet also exquisite tenderness of the vocals, the complicated and intricate keyboard work and the big woolley bear of a man striking his drums with seemingly pathological hatred (and continously requesting more volume, very rock and roll!).

Playing several songs each from their albums It Still Moves, Z and their most recent Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket were as good, if not better than advertised combining manic energy with bouts of quiet intimacy. Revitalising and reinvigorating everyone all at once.

For the last couple of tracks, lead singer Jim James, who looks like a love child of Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall and The Pretender’s Chrissie Hydne, donned a rather shapeless hooded cape. Completely covering himself during the verses, he emerged for the choruses with flair and a flourish accentuating the stepped up vocals. Not sure of the message within. Was he the Caped Crusader for indie music, paying homage to James Brown or simply showing off his own “morning jacket”.

All too soon it came to an end with a rousing version of Highly Suspicious culminating in the most furious guitar duelling seen all day outside of a certain Mr Young. The crowd was spellbound, and I wasn’t sure how such a quiet, intensely personal band had somehow rocked us all. A quite brilliant show.


January 2009 - Part II

Big Day Out Review : Part II

Simian Mobile Disco
A Big Day Out must is to spend some time in the Boiler Room. A more apt moniker is hard to think of as its hot and sweaty from the start. Its a nascent netherworld of light and sound mashed together transporting you to a different time and dimension. You can dance, sway, rock, trip, waltz, pogo, or combinations thereof. A place to be at one with the sound or the crowd. With a busy schedule, I only had time for one trip and thus selected one of my favourite dance acts, Simian Mobile Disco. Thus I ducked into the big tent to attach myself to the conjoining masses.

Perhaps not as well known as some other Boiler Room acts, Simian Mobile Disco are a duo who put out a very strong release, Attack Decay Sustain Release in 2007. It’s a fantastic dance album and I highly recommend it, but its also a great title as that’s basically the standard template for Dance DJs. Firstly, Attack with a outpouring of frenetic energy to ramp up the crowd, then slowly Decay that moment bringing the crowd down a touch, then Sustain the tension with a gradually building wall of sound before finally initiating the Release of all the pent up angst, rage and emotion in an explosion of sound and deep dark dirty bass. And that’s exactly what they did. Perfect mixing from Simian Mobile Disco took us up and then down, along and then up, Up, and UP !! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhh.

A half hour later, I emerged a sweaty mess albeit re-energised and reinvigorated for the final part of the day. This is my church.

The Living End

For what seems like the 20th consecutive year, The Living End were again amongst the list of Big Day Out artists and they somehow made it as third billing on the main stage. Someone must really like them, but its not me. Determined to get a spot up close and personal for the Monkeys and Neil show to follow on the main stage, I found myself taking in the second half of their show. Its not that they arent competent, its not that they didn’t try hard. Its just, well, they are really quite dull. Its clean, overproduced rock by rote that they’ve done a thousand times before and it feels like it. Rock has moved on, so should they.

Arctic Monkeys
8.00pm brought about the biggest schedule dilemma of the day. On the top stage were NZ band Weta, purveyors of one of my favourite albums, Geographica. In the Boiler Room were the immensely talented UK electro pop act Hot Chip and then on the main stage were the Arctic Monkeys. After much gnashing of teeth, I settled on the polar primates if for no other reason to be up front and close for the Neil show to follow.

Few people are unaware of the Arctic Monkeys, a band that didn’t exist five years ago. That’s quite a impact from four young guys from Sheffield of all places. This is their third trip to New Zealand but first time that I have managed to get to see them so I was looking forward to seeing how they fared. On they came, all smiles and charm and you are immediately shocked by how young they look. Even after three years in the industry spotlight, composing songs which are bywords for the Y Generation, they look all of about seventeen. With a quick “Hello Auckland”, they got straight down to it launching into This House Is Circus before playing a set mixing several new tracks (Dangerous Animals, Pretty Visitors) with the ones they became famous for. Standout song is still I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor which got everyone around me dancing, and virtually everyone singing along too. Biggest surprise of their show was a rather cocky cover of Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand off his essential Let Love In album. That I did not expect but it was excellent.

But their own material is what we were here for. And it really is quite simple rock and roll. Unsophisticated, unadorned guitar based sound wrapped tightly around withering staccato delivery of sharp and insightful lyrics without any attention seeking stage antics. Whats not to like ? So why wasn’t I moved ? They finished their set and I was left with a “Is that it” feeling? I concluded that they really don’t suit stadium rock. They are not overpowering or overly loud but cheeky, good humoured and mischievous. They arent looking to blow you away, just make you clap, dance and sing. They played a gig at the Powerstation the previous night and, much like their ertswhile counterparts, Franz Ferdinand a couple of years earlier, that was probably a better environment to really appreciate their talents and charms. An immensely gifted band and much to like about them but not a vintage performance.

Arctic Monkeys - Dancing Shoes (0:26)

Neil Young
From the moment the artist list was announced, the most anticipated moment was going to be as Neil Young strode onto the main stage to close the festival. So as the Arctic Monkeys headed off, an artist 40 years their senior walked on having promised to play a Greatest Hits set. I knew Neil must be getting close because the cigarettes being smoked around me started to smell different! Certainly a few ageing hipsters had made their way to the main arena, but quite a few of the kids too. And why not? Almost every band which play electric guitars owe a partial debt to Neil Young who didnt necessarily invent electric rock and roll, but certainly made it indispensable.

You really only need to outline the set list to get some idea of how magical the event was. It went something like this: Love And Only Love / Hey Hey, My My / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Powderfinger / Spirit Road / Cortez The Killer / Cinnamon Girl / Oh, Lonesome Me / Mother Earth / The Needle And The Damage Done / Heart Of Gold / Old Man / Get Back To The Country / Cowgirl In The Sand / Just Singing A Song / Rockin' In The Free World / Encore: A Day In The Life .

Personally, I was mesmerised from the start not so much by the songs, but by the guitar playing. You only really appreciate his messianic guitar playing ability seeing it live. He mashes his guitar with a visceral rawness, a primeval passion. He loves his guitar, he loves playing it and it really, really shows. And boy can he play that thing.

In a show of many memorable moments, three in particular stand out. Hey Hey, My My is one of those iconic songs that you have heard a thousand times. But there is nothing to compare hearing it live in concert under a perfect starlit night surrounded by thousands of devotees. An incredible moment which lived up to expectations as it was the one song that he absolutely had to play. Similarly Heart of Gold was perfection but only after an imperfect start. Launching into it, his harmonica kept slipping and so he humbly requested our forebearance while he fixed it. Everyone had their phones and cameras out to record the simple, elegant melody of this beautiful song.

And finally, we were treated to one more timeless moment when he came back for an encore. After a perfect performance of the anthemic Rockin In The Free World, he disappeared only to return for an unexpected encore. And it was none other than The Beatles' A Day In The Life! Incredible. One of my favourite artists playing one of my favourite songs. And it was an astonishing version as well, soaring, chilling, cathartic. A magical thrilling conclusion to an amazing day.


Neil Young - Heart of Gold (4.12)

Neil Young - Hey Hey My My (1:48)

Neil Young - A Day In The Life (0:58)

And so to the awards:

Best T-Shirt Seen – An Orange staring at a glass of Orange Juice with the caption “Is that you Mum?”
Best Outfit – One individual came as The Joker from Dark Knight. His paint leaching as the day rolled on only increased the effect
Best Band – My Morning Jacket
Best Performance - Pendulum
Best Moment – Neil Young covering A Day In The Life
Best Surprise – Autozamm playing Van Halen’s Jump
Best Solo – Christian Datsun on In Love
Best Track – A Day In The Life
Best Experience I Will Take To Grave – Hey Hey My My live

And so it ends until next year. Any day when you’ve seen your all time favourite NZ band, a monumental live performance from one of the worlds leading bands, a legitimate legend of rock and roll preceded earlier in the day by an OMFG moment from a band you’ve never heard of, you’ve had a pretty good day. In fact, you’ve had a Big Day Out. Funny that.