I Saw Them Live! Memories From a Godspeed You! Black Emperor Show

With the release next week of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s new album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (which is now available to stream), this is the perfect opportunity to reflect on one of the most remarkable concerts I have ever experienced.  Seeing Godspeed live was such a mind-blowing event that I spent weeks after the show contemplating the fundamental nature of music.  When a band forces you to engage in philosophical debates with yourself, it means that it was a pretty special performance.

For years, I was only a moderate fan of Godspeed You! Black Emperor; I was intrigued by the unusual name (including the shift in the exclamation point over the years) and the odd facts I had read about the group, from the fact that they were some sort of amorphous collective that conducted “post-rock” songs to the claim that the band trafficked in extreme politics despite the fact that their songs were strictly instrumental.  I picked up a few of their records in college and was often content to leave them playing as ambient drone music during study periods, rarely fully engaging myself with the individual songs.  It was pleasant background music, but I often struggled to maintain any focus on the individual songs during my attempts to listen with greater intent.

The band had fallen off my radar when they went through their lengthy post-Yanqui U.X.O. hiatus, but when they announced they were reuniting to go on tour in 2011, I immediately decided to snatch up a ticket.  I had heard excellent reports about their live show, and the fact they were playing an unusual venue (a Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, I believe) indicated that it would be a memorable experience.  However, my excitement was short-lived, as circumstances changed and I ended up missing the concert–I attended South by Southwest instead, the thought being that the thirty shows that I would end up seeing would make up for the one that I had missed.

Soon after the initial success of the reunion tour, the band released the fantastic comeback album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  Unlike previous albums, I had a much more instantaneous appreciation of ‘Allelujah, and it made me reconsider my assessment of the band.  The band announced a tour in support of the album, and I finally had the chance to atone for my previous absence.  GY!BE swung their way through Portland’s own version of SXSW, performing at the Roseland Theater for two nights during MusicFestNW.  Back in 2013, the “festival” was still a week-long affair of loosely-affiliated shows at venues all across the city, and because of the necessity of tickets for each show and the vast distances between them, it was a significant decision to choose a specific show like this because of the additional opportunity cost.  The stakes were high.

Initially, it seemed that I had made an unwise gamble with my time and money.  The band took its time getting to the stage, arriving one at a time, and once they were there spent several minutes seemingly attempting to get in tune, creating a cacophonous drone that gradually enveloped the theater.  For a good ten minutes I was having serious doubts about whether or not it was a good idea to see a band for whom I had previously only mild feelings, knowing full well that the live experience could very well end up being a compilation of the most boring aspects of the band.  Then, there was a sudden shift, and the music coalesced into something that can only be described as pure beauty.

“Mladic” may be the closest that Godspeed has ever come to writing a “hook”, with a melody that evokes Slavic motifs that bring to mind my own Mediterranean roots.  With this melody stuck in my head, I now had a toehold within the morass from which I could explore wherever the band ventured.   In other words, there was now a purpose in the noise.  Once I had this realization, I began to analyze the sounds circling around venue, and began questioning my assumptions as to what constituted “rock” and what defined “music” itself.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor has often been described as a “post-rock” band, a term with little meaning to most people, but it was at that moment that it seemed that the band had embodied the meaning of the signifier; it seemed as if the band was commenting on the nature of the form, a hallmark of “postmodernist” movements.  Godspeed eschews the verse-chorus formulation, but simulates their effect by playing with dynamics, utilizing huge crescendos that build over several minutes and sudden diminuendos.  The band also explores dissonant tones and plays around with pure cacophony, with several members playing extremely disparate parts that seemingly have no relation, but will gradually blend into recognizable melodies.  The result is music that creates the effect of a rock show, without including many of the more recognizable elements that one would expect from “rock”.

By the end of the show, as the band exited in a similar manner as they had entered, screen flickering all the while, I had a completely different opinion of the band.  Now I can’t wait to see them again.


I Saw Them Live! Memories From a Show with The Hives

Portland music fans come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing that unites them is their enthusiasm.  They may not know how to dance, and they may not know all the words to a song, but dammit they’ll clap and yell like hell to show their appreciation.   Usually when a band like The Flaming Lips tells a Portland audience at this crowd is “the loudest they’ve ever heard,” the assumption is that they’re being polite; however, considering the sheer number of bands who as they pass through the Pacific Northwest take the time remark about the intensity of the crowds, the evidence indicates that this is a genuine fact.* But sometimes the Portland crowd’s passion gets the best of them.

Though The Hives have faded a bit from the mainstream, they still remain one of the best live shows that you can go see.  Singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist always is a delight with his theatrics and stage mannerisms, and drummer Chris Dangerous is worth the price of admission alone as he flies through each song at warp speed while at the same time keeping perfect time.  A couple of years back, due to a scheduling snafu, we had tickets for two concerts at the same time, and as a result we had to race across town and were able to catch only the last ten minutes of The Hives’s set.  But even though we only heard the last three songs, we still came out feeling pumped and eager to share the fun that we had, including the fact that Pelle had the audience on the floor at one point.

My favorite memory of The Hives is from a show they performed back in 2008 at the Roseland Theater, in support of The Black and White Album.  Even though there was an extra-long delay between the opener and the main act, the band was quickly able to win over the crowd with their infectious energy and an absolutely blistering performance, as they tore into all their hits from Tyrannosaurus Hives and Veni Vedi Vicious.  At one point in the show, Pelle climbed up a giant stack of amplifiers and into the Roseland’s balcony to sing one of their songs, a feat that I haven’t seen replicated since.  Each member got their time to shine, and the crowd ate it up.

As expected, the band left their mega-hit “Hate To Say I Told You So” for the encore, and when Nikolaus Arson launched into that memorable riff, the crowd lost their minds.  Everything was fine until the band hit the breakdown, when Dr. Matt Destruction received his moment in the spotlight as he played the riff on his bass.  There he was, motoring along, and the crowd was clapping right there with him, except…the audience was seriously dragging behind the beat and everything sounded like ass.  Dr. Matt Destruction, being the professional that he is, didn’t miss a beat and kept chugging along.  Meanwhile, Pelle heard the carnage that was taking place, and his face clearly indicated that he felt shocked and appalled at what he was witnessing.  He looked to the crowd, and asked the immortal question in his best Swedish-accented English:

“Port Land…Where’s your rhythm?!!??!”**

Pelle then proceeded to clap, and set the beat for us, and eventually order was restored.  I will never forget that moment, though I get constant reminders whenever I go to a show and I see Portland’s “rhythm” in action.  And thus, I can say that this Treme clip is just about the most accurate comment about Portland ever seen on television.

*Makes those “records” that you see for loudest crowd at Autzen Stadium in Eugene and CenturyLink Field in Seattle seem a bit more accurate, and not just the result of fancy acoustics.  Also, having seen shows on both coasts, I can speak to the volume of Portland crowds personally, for what it’s worth.

**Note: the emphasis on each syllable of ‘Portland’ is something that Pelle did throughout the night, and is an accurate transcription.

Franz Ferdinand, Live at the Roseland

We need to have a serious discussion: Franz Ferdinand is an incredibly underrated live band.

I have never been particularly passionate about Franz Ferdinand, instead merely content to listen to their albums every so often, with a periodic defense of their post-debut output.  However, after seeing them at the Wonder Ballroom back in 2012, I had to reassess my position, and I became more insistent about their talent due to their unbelievably fun live show.  Saturday night’s stellar performance at the Roseland was able to fully confirm their greatness.

RIJR continues to provide the finest random concert photography

RIJR continues to provide the finest random concert photography

The show started off with a bang, as Franz opened up with the explosive single “Bullet” from the recent Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (sharing the number 8 spot in our ranking of last year’s albums, for the record).  The band kept the momentum up with the fan-favorite “Michael”, a delightful twist on the usual sexual dynamics of the traditional pop love song.  A raucous version of “The Fallen” followed, with Alex Kapranos stretching out some of the lines and throwing in a little flair with his guitar playing, and “No You Girls” signaled that the party had officially arrived.  Throughout their set, it was clear that the band had perfected the mix of caddishness from their early days to the more libertine seediness of their recent work, all done with a grin and a catchy dance beat.

The band was able to effortlessly shift through their four albums, though the band made sure to showcase most of Right Thoughts.  A combined version of Tonight‘s “Can’t Stop Feeling” and “Auf Achse” was a perfect example of this, with the latter nestled perfectly in the middle of the former.  It took a few moments to realize that the band had transitioned between songs as they played, and I was surprised because I never heard the parallels between the two songs before.

Throughout the night, the band effortlessly engaged with the audience, dancing along when appropriate or goading participation from the crowd.  The audience was eager to clap along, and in a manner unusual for Portland audiences, actually kept the beat (most of the time).  Kapranos in particular was a delight, with his goofy dancing and his playful come ons.   When the band played “This Fire”, the crowd eagerly joined in on the chorus and shouted along, until Kapranos was able to bring the volume of the chants down to a minimum, before of course exploding in the end (though I should note that if it was a hip-hop show, if the crowd chanted “We’re gonna burn this city!”, the Portland police would have shut down the whole show before the end of the song).  The band concluded their set with and extended full-band drum solo in “Outsiders”, as each member grabbed sticks to play along on the drumset–a trick that they pulled off at the Wonder Ballroom before, but I’m glad to see that it’s now an established part of their set.

The only issue was that at some points the band’s tempo was out-of-step with the audience, with the band more willing to slow it down a bit and grind while the crowd was eager to explode.  Such tension could easily be felt with songs like “Take Me Out”, where the crowd wanted to lose their minds but the band wanted to rein things in to the proper deliberate stomp of the original.  But that’s really a nitpick, and it shows discipline on the band’s part for adhering to tighter rhythmic control.  However, it was pleasantly surprising that the show ended up selling out, considering I was able to purchase tickets earlier in the week with ease, and too bad for those who were unfortunate enough to miss out, because they missed an amazing show.  If word continues to spread, I may need to make sure I make my purchase well in advance.