Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nice Tunes, Played Live

I am a late and slow convert to certain pleasures that most people take for granted in their experience of music. Spurts of frenzied acquisition. The hypnotic ecstasy of playing a song over and over and over until it engraves itself on the tender spots of your brain. Standing in line for a show with other people who are so excited about what you’re about to see that they are actually standing in line, despite the damp night or burning sun or whatever uncomfortable finery they might be sporting. Music shows themselves.

I went to my first proper concert at the mortifyingly ancient age of twenty-five. Amanda Palmer at Bimbo’s 365, a glamorous old charmer of a place, all curtains and red velvet. I didn’t really know who Amanda Palmer was. I hadn’t heard the album she was touring for (Who Killed Amanda Palmer). I had heard, maybe, three of her songs before that night and was completely ignorant about what to expect, but a friend had very kindly put me and my companions on the guest list, so I went.

There was some confusion. We weren’t on the list. A phone call was made and we were fetched from the door and brought in through the back. I think a first concert experience might be warped when, before anything else, you see the artists backstage. They’re so normal. Vibrating with nerves or energy, yes. Wearing corsets and swathes of eyeliner, yes. Booming in presence and engaged in strange activities (I remember a tall, thin, impressively pale man staring at the wall and hovering a bow over his violin), yes. But, they’re drinking beer and laughing and sprawling across well-abused couches and chatting to you about normal, ordinary things, and you think, well, OK, this is nice, I guess…

And then you find your way to the front of the house and the crowd is on the edge of explosion. The headliners step out and their entrance is an incendiary device. People’s hearts might as well be bursting from their chests and flinging themselves at the stage. There’s so much love and enjoyment on display that even an ignorant and unprepared novice feels it shaking her down to her bones.

Music is such an instantaneous thing. You hear a song and you react. You have an opinion. It invades your gut. Maybe you like it. Maybe you love it. Maybe it pains your soul or leaves you cold. It’s powerful stuff, insidious and inescapable, and seeing it made live can turn the volume up on the experience a thousand, thousand times.

It doesn’t have to be a fancy thing. I have, very recently, discovered the pleasure of the casual show, the gigs in bars or cafes or strange gallery spaces with poor lighting (but, funnily, always a disco ball). I like being able to see the musicians’ faces. I like watching the way they move. They play and it’s like their efforts spill out of wherever they are supposed to be going and flood their bodies with unconsidered motion that is genuinely addictive to see. I don’t even have to particularly like the music. There’s a certain amount of interest in just seeing it performed.

And, once in a while, I hear something that makes my brain fall right out of my head. It’s so good, or I like it so much, that all I can do is listen. Pure, unadulterated magic.

Music that has, relatively recently, made my brain fall out of my head. I urge you to give all of these artists a try, if at all possible, even if you can’t see them live:

Jherek Bischoff—Composed

Jherek is the bass player in Amanda Palmer’s Grand Theft Orchestra. He is also, often, opening for her on her current tour for Theater is Evil. His lush, lush, swooping string pieces blew me sideways at a packed, sweaty show where I was not in the best frame of mind for enjoyment. His music dragged me out of a spell of self-indulgent gloom and made me want to dance. “Eyes,” a song from his new album that features vocals by David Byrne, makes me think of deranged carousels at night and I can’t stop listening to it.

Arts & Sciences—New You

I saw this quartet of exceptionally impressive, exceptionally interesting musicians play at a show that was crammed inside a living room. Their website drops words that would normally make me nervous—“genre-bending,” “free jazz cacophony”—and, at first listen, I did feel rather lost. But, it was a nice kind of lost, the kind of lost you might feel if you were watching a very beautiful equation being worked off the cuff and on the fly, and these musicians are so good and so accomplished in their oddness, that I’m now addicted.


In January, I had the unusual experience of going to an extremely fancy party held at San Francisco’s City Hall. My friend and I wandered into one of the rooms where people were dancing. Serious dancing. Sweating in their tuxes and gowns to those songs from the 80s that everyone knows, played live by a band that was basically combusting from the amount of energy they were pouring into the performance. I think it’s the most fun I’ve ever had at a dance party. I didn’t know it was possible to jump up and down so much.

Kapowski—Boy Detective

A friend of mine convinced me to go to a show that her friends were playing sometime last spring. This sort of invitation always causes anxiety because, if you can’t bring yourself to like the work of friends of friends, what can you say? But, these songs are fantastic. They catch on your brain, pop-y and infectious, but possess lovely, unusual geographies of sound that your ear wants to follow and lyrics that unfold in your head like short stories that have somehow been compressed and then sprung free. Darts to the heart, all hidden in tunes that tempt even horribly-voiced people like myself into singing along.

By Megan Kurashige

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