Category Archives: Concert Reviews

Celebrating the End of Classes With Smallpools, Grizfolk, and Vinyl Theatre at Exit/In

Last night Smallpools played Exit/In for the second time in the past six months, this time promoting their new album LOVETAP!

Last night Smallpools played Exit/In for the second time in the past six months, this time promoting their new album LOVETAP!

*Note: DJ Blumy will still be contributing occasional music commentary and reviews to The VU Backstage because he is an unemployed philosophy major and has nothing better to do.

At 3pm yesterday, I turned in the final assignment of my college career. Partially to celebrate and partially to distract myself from the terror of facing the adult world, I headed over to Exit/In with my friend Sparling to see Smallpools rock the joint. My sister loves the band and had turned me on to their music, so making her jealous was another great reason to go to the show.

We arrived at 7:30 to find the half-full floor dominated by people without the over-21 hand stamps. Any illusion I had of being able to escape feeling old vanished immediately. Pitying the venue for what promised to be a slow night of alcohol sales, I grabbed a Shiner Bock and snagged a spot in the crowd just behind a couple of girls taking selfies. Naturally, Sparling and I photobombed as many as we could.

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I Hope I Age Like Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder kept Bridgestone rocking past midnight last night.

Stevie Wonder kept Bridgestone rocking past midnight last night.

When my mom found out Stevie Wonder was coming to Nashville, she wanted me to go so badly that she helped me pay for the tickets.  Not that I wouldn’t have tried to go anyways.  Stevie is 64 years old, so who knows how long he’ll be touring?  And word was that he would be playing his seminal 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life in full.

From the moment I found my seat at Bridgestone Arena I knew the show was going to be an extravagant production.  On the stage sat two drum kits, two percussion arrays, seats for a ten-piece string ensemble and six-piece brass section, risers for a horde of backing vocalists, several keyboards and guitars waiting to be played, and of course Stevie’s setup front and center: his signature Hohner Clavinet and a Yamaha electric grand piano.

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Years & Years Is Electrifying Britain

Years & Years plays at London club Heaven, 3/6/15.

Years & Years plays at London club Heaven, 3/6/15.

Like my colleague Brandon Bout, I made sure to catch a live show over Spring Break.  For me, the destination was London and the band was electro-pop trio Years & Years.

I had heard of the group from a fellow Lightning 100 intern in December.  She had spent time working in Britain and assured me that they were on the verge of blowing up across the pond.  Her promise was confirmed when I learned that Years & Years had won the BBC’s prestigious Sound of 2015 poll–an award won in previous years by such acts as Sam Smith, Adele, and Ellie Goulding.  So when I saw that the band would be playing in the British capital during my stay there, I convinced my traveling companions that we needed to go to the concert.

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Local Acts Shine at Exit/In

Joel Levi headlined Soundstamp's local music showcase at Exit/In on Monday night.

Joel Levi headlined Soundstamp’s local music showcase at Exit/In on Monday night.

Exit/In is one of Nashville’s most famous and beloved venues.  One look above the bar at the wall of artists who have performed on its stage is enough to send the tingles of history down your spine.  Last night, though, Exit/In’s legendary stage was devoted to three local acts: Joel Levi, James and the Wild Spirit, and Vanderbilt’s own Kid Freud.  The trio of bands, though quite different in genre and style, combined to put on one hell of a show.

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Super Duped: The Decline of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Flea, your bass is unplugged...and since when did Chad Smith look like Bruno Mars instead of Will Ferrell?

Flea, your bass is unplugged…and since when did Chad Smith look like Bruno Mars instead of Will Ferrell?

If you grew up a rock music fan in the first decade of the 2000s, as I did, the Red Hot Chili Peppers likely provide much of the soundtrack of your formative years.  Songs like “Can’t Stop” and “Dani California” populated your early-generation iPods, and you familiarized yourself with the oldies that stood the test of time: “Give it Away,” “Under the Bridge,” etc.  Listening to these songs probably invokes a good deal of nostalgia.  They stand the test of time, too; listen through Californication again today, and relish in the tight, emotionally thick beauty of its fifteen tracks.

Given these assumptions, you were probably just as pumped as I was to hear that the Chili Peppers would be joining Bruno Mars for the Super Bowl XLVIII halftime performance.  By the time the teams headed to the locker rooms and Seattle had ensured that the game would be akin to watching a monster truck run over the same poor car for three hours, you were probably relieved that some good music would interrupt the tedium.  Bruno Mars, sure, cool, but the CHILI PEPPERS!!!  I was so excited, I had even set up a betting pool with my family, trying to pick the three songs they would play.

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Some Musings on Muse (and Cage the Elephant)

Muse has a reputation as one of today's best live acts, and they did not disappoint.

Muse has a reputation as one of today’s best live acts, and they did not disappoint.

Hey everyone,

In the immortal words of Ice Cube, “Today was a good day.”  Not for the reasons he suggests, though.

I arrived in downtown Nashville just after 4:00 pm and, after treating myself to a delicious dinner at Jack’s BBQ, began waiting outside Bridgestone Arena for the doors to open.  My fraternity brothers arrived far too late for me to tactfully invite them to my place in the line, so I instead made friends with two Belmont students standing behind me.  That’s one of my favorite things about concerts; everyone is there for the same purpose, so you automatically have common ground upon which to start a conversation.  As it were, I wound up sticking with these guys in the fourth row the whole night, bonding and talking about music and football and other things, and have two new Facebook friends to show for it.  Also in line, much to our delight, was a middle-aged couple that had driven seven hours from Hot Springs, Arkansas to see Muse for the first time.  Muse doesn’t generally attract Baby Boomer fans, so I found it remarkable that these two people had become enthralled enough with the band to take such a long trip.  Generally, these things work the opposite way; young fans come to love the music of their parents and support those aging artists.  To see the status quo reversed was really cool and gave me a sense of intergenerational connection that I have never before truly experienced.

The crowd outside Bridgestone Arena, awaiting the mind explosion within.

The crowd outside Bridgestone Arena, awaiting the mind explosion within.

The show began at 7:30 with Cage the Elephant, originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky but recently relocated to Nashville.  Prior to the show I knew a couple of their songs, namely “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked” and “Back Against the Wall,” but my knowledge of the band was sorely limited.  After tonight, my opinion of Cage has changed, mostly for the better but with some reservations.

I was unsurprised but somewhat disappointed that “Ain’t No Rest” remains my favorite Cage song.  It has a very different sound from the rest of their body of work due to the prominent slide guitar riff and relative lack of distortion compared to their other work.  I think it would have sounded even cooler, though, done acoustically.  It would have provided a nice break from the constant energy of the set and made the performance more interesting, while still rocking pretty hard.  You can see an acoustic version of the song here; see if you agree with me.

Cage the Elephant was energetic but didn't strike me as an extraordinary act.

Cage the Elephant was energetic but didn’t strike me as an extraordinary act.

The rest of Cage the Elephant’s set was fairly standard indie punk with southern rock and rap influence, sort of a hybrid between the thudding distorted riffs of Wolfmother, the minimalism of the Black Keys, and the attitude of Rage Against the Machine.  Unfortunately, while the music was performed well, it really didn’t excite me as anything extraordinary; for a band said to be a contender for the next great American rock outfit, Cage’s performance disappointed me.  I’m not entirely sure what it was about it.  Maybe it sounded too generic, or maybe there wasn’t that element of exceptional musicality that I love in bands (remember, I see the world through Rush-colored lenses).  One aspect of the performance that was fantastic, however, was the energy of lead singer Matt Shultz.  He was dressed like a sort of Mick Jagger-turned-glam rock, wearing tight white pants, lipstick, and eye shadow.  This appearance foreshadowed a similarly eccentric, wild performance, as Shultz twirled the microphone on its cord, staggered into the faces of his bandmates, and crowd surfed twice, among other antics.  His personality alone makes this group’s live act worth watching, and definitely fits the role of lead singer for a five-piece band; It’s near impossible for five vivacious and bombastic musicians to fit on one stage, so these groups have to develop this sort of arrangement of personas.  For the most part the rest of the band fit their roles: a rhythm guitarist who uses enthusiasm to make up for his lack of exciting contributions to the music; a bass player who stoically delivers the low frequencies without making a spectacle; and a drummer who does his thing.  My only complaint was that the lead guitarist never really moved, remaining lifeless even during his solos.

Perhaps Cage the Elephant will become wildly popular with the release of their upcoming album, Melophobia, in October.  If so, it will be on the shoulders of Shultz’s craziness and pseudo-rapped lyrics, which actually go well with the thrumming bar chords pervasive in the band’s music and are not hard to sing along to.  For me, though, Cage has not yet found that sound that will distinguish them from the rest of the burgeoning alt rock scene, and must find some aspect of their music, performance, or both that allows them to rise above the fray.  Although I think they’re already above The Fray–Matt Shultz doesn’t whine.

A nice shot of Matt Shultz and his glorious white pants.

A nice shot of Matt Shultz and his glorious white pants.

The show really started, though, when Muse took the stage.  They have a reputation for incredible live performances, and they did not disappoint.  Even if the band wasn’t performing live the light show itself would have been a spectacle.  Among the stage’s cooler aspects were a pyramid of LEDs that twice enveloped the band, a piano that rose from the ground, a rotating drum kit that I found quite familiar, and an obligatory outcropping for Matthew Bellamy (and occasionally Chris Wolstenholme) to move closer to the crowd.

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The music was everything I expected and more.  Check here for the full setlist, which I thought was a phenomenal selection.  There were really no bad choices, though the more diehard fans I talked to were a bit sad that the band only played one song from Origin of Symmetry.  To that I say this is a tour in support of The 2nd Lawnot Origin of Symmetry.  And the songs from The 2nd Law were awesome live.  I was fascinated by Wolstenholme’s touchscreen bass on “Madness,” which enabled him to play the track’s signature synth-bass riff by tapping and dragging his fingers on his instrument.  “Supremacy” was a fantastically energetic opener and “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” achieved something I previously thought impossible: a guitar, bass, and drums playing dubstep music.  It was also cool to hear Wolstenholme sing “Liquid State,” a track about his battle with alcoholism that could become Muse’s version of the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain” (though Wolstenholme sings much better than Phil Lesh).  The undisputed star of the show, however, was Matthew Bellamy and his superhuman voice.  He commanded the crowd without having to resort to insane levels of energy; he shredded on guitar, jammed out on piano, and led the audience with his microphone in anthems such as “Uprising” and “Knights of Cydonia.”  “Madness” was probably the best overall display of Bellamy’s skills, as he stepped out onto the outcrop and serenaded the crowd before and after nailing the short but emphatic guitar solo note for note.  That being said, my favorite song of the night was “Hysteria,” as it featured the most complex bass line and the best overall blend of the Muse at its best: powerful drums and bass-driven riffs punctuated by Bellamy’s signature falsetto and bursts of guitar wizardry.  The icing on the cake was that Bellamy played “The Star-Spangled Banner” to lead into the song as a clear homage to Jimi Hendrix, one of his major influences.

Matthew Bellamy enchants the crowd with his electric falsetto and Freddy Mercury-esque range.

Matthew Bellamy enchants the crowd with his electric falsetto and Freddy Mercury-esque range.

Yes, Muse was mind-blowing, and the crowd was bouncing and dancing and singing throughout, adding to the atmosphere.  That being said, there are a few criticisms I have of the show.  One is that the band did not work together onstage nearly as well as they could have.  The music was tight and each player was clearly in his respective zone, but with a three-man outfit I like to see some more working together.  Not once did Bellamy and Wolstenholme come together, nor did any of the band members really interact with one another during the show.  The closest they came was when Bellamy joined Dominic Howard on the rotating drum platform during “Liquid State.”  And while Bellamy was electric as a frontman, a little back-and-forth between him and his bandmates would have displayed their close connection and humanized the performance a bit more.  One of my friends described Bellamy to me as a “demi-god,” and indeed he came across as divine; but a great frontman and singer should be able to connect with his audience on a deeper, more personal level.  This leads into another interesting point raised by my friend Clay Hatridge, who after the show declared the show “so close to perfect.”  When I asked him what could have been better, he said he felt the show lacked a message, something that was necessary if Muse wanted to present themselves as true artists.  After some discussion, I came to realize the root of this feeling, which lies in Muse’s lyrics.  So many of their songs, particularly recently, deal with an us-vs.- the world theme; songs like “Uprising,” “Resistance,” Supremacy,” and “Knights of Cydonia” all come across as very powerful protests against “them.”  But who are “they?”  Against what is Muse protesting?  I suppose one could say that the point is for the listener to internalize the message and apply it to whatever challenge they might be currently facing, but at a concert, there isn’t really a challenge to be faced, unless you are the event security and someone has had too much to drink.  The songs are anthemic, yes, but when they are directed at nothing, their words ring hollow.  While Muse is incredibly talented musicians and their love songs, such as “Starlight,” can touch the soul, their protest music doesn’t really serve a purpose other than to amp up the crowd in a rage against a nonexistent “man.”  Still, it is great music and should be recognized as such.

UNSUSTAINABLE!!!

UNSUSTAINABLE!!!

All in all, last night’s concert probably ranks as the second-greatest that I have ever attended, behind Rush on the Time Machine tour in 2011.  From the friends I made to the music that was played, the experience was unforgettable.

This weekend is far from over, though; be sure to tune in to The VU Backstage tomorrow at 9pm central for Eli Teplin’s performance and interview, and like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to keep up with all the latest in the Vanderbilt and Nashville music scenes.

-Zach

Battling the May Lazies

Hey everybody,

Last time y’all heard from me we were wrapping up a great second season of The VU Backstage with a performance from Elizabeth Lyons.  It’s hard to believe that was over a month ago.  Since then, my life and attitude toward the world can be summed up as a battle of epic proportions, brought on by the warm sun and green trees in Nashville and back home in Chicago: the battle between the May Lazies and my drive to accomplish something meaningful in all this time I have.

This is the first picture that came up when I googled "lethargic."

This is the first picture that came up when I googled “lethargic.”

During finals, the battle was much easier to fight.  I had exams and essays breathing down my neck, and failure was not an option (speaking of which, the highlight of my exams was seeing a girl wear a sweatshirt with this on it to our Ethics final).  Even then, though, I could feel the May Lazies creeping up and snatching away minutes and hours of my time.  There was the afternoon I spent sitting outside Rand with a few of my fraternity brothers, distracting them as they studied.  There was the hour-long pause in my essay on French existentialists to watch Nate Robinson turn into Derrick Rose.  There was the cramming of an entire semester of abnormal psychology into two hours because I had to read all the comments on ESPN’s recap of the NHL regular season.  Luckily, I have no regrets about all this, since my exams turned out okay and I got to see Rush put on an incredible show at Bridgestone Arena on May 1st.  Frankly, even if exams hadn’t been okay, the Rush show would’ve made up for it.  It’s truly remarkable what those three sixty-year-old men can still do on their instruments, and the addition of a string ensemble to back them up during the second act added brilliant new color to old classics “YYZ,” “Red Sector A,” and “Manhattan Project,” as well as all the great tracks off their newest album, Clockwork Angels.  Geddy Lee’s voice is definitely not what it once was, but he was still able to hit that high note in “The Spirit of Radio,” which is all that matters in life.

...offffffffff SALESMEN!

…offffffffff SALESMEN!

Then I got home and, with the fire of exams extinguished, the May Lazies redoubled their assault on my time, occasionally even defeating my desire to go hang out with friends I hadn’t seen since winter break.  When I wasn’t forcing myself to remember my desire to see people I care about, my days were generally spent on my couch, watching old South Park episodes or the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Here’s a little story that illustrates just how little I wanted to do work.  I got home from Nashville at 5:30 PM on a Friday and an hour later departed for the United Center to watch my beloved Chicago Blackhawks wipe the ice with the Minnesota Wild.  During the game, my brain, converted into a quasi-music critic by a year of maintaining this blog, started to formulate a piece I could write on the emotions and memories triggered by certain songs.  If you go up to any Blackhawks fan, for example, and start singing “Chelsea Dagger” by The Fratellis, that person will start to smile like a deranged lunatic and sing along, most likely jumping up and down in time.  This is because “Chelsea Dagger” has become synonymous with the ‘Hawks scoring a goal, since it’s blasted over the United Center PA every time this happens.  The crazy thing is that this song can also induce horrible memories in opposing teams…same song, opposite feeling.  I thought, wow, this is going to be a great post, something to get me off my figurative ass and staying keen this month!  I can even relate it to the NHL playoffs!  I can’t wait to be productive!

Well, as you can see, that post never materialized, despite the fact that I literally had no plans the whole week after that game.

All that energy mysteriously left my body upon returning from the United Center.

All this energy mysteriously left my body upon returning from the United Center.

So here I sit, on the verge of leaving to spend ten days with my family in the lush paradise of Kauai, and I can’t help but feeling like I have some loose ends to tie up.  It’s been awesome being lazy after a semester of hard work–and I did work hard–but it’s gotten to the point where I’m actually bored of being lazy.  I want to do something.  One thing I’d like to do is finally come through on a promise to Michael Pollack that I would write a review of his recently released self-titled EP.  Believe it or not, I was too lazy to even buy it for $2.97 on iTunes until yesterday, but I’ve been listening to since then and have nothing but good things to report.  Most of all, I’m happy that Michael’s finally singing his own songs; Hayes Helsper sang for him when he appeared on The VU Backstage, and while Hayes has a brilliant voice, there’s always more emotional punch when the words come from the singer’s own heart.  Michael’s voice has a profound quality that I’d characterize as a hybrid of BIllie Joe Armstrong attitude with Jason Mraz suavity, and it actually strikes me as very similar to that of Eli Teplin, another past guest of The VU Backstage.  Naturally the piano playing is a highlight of the EP, especially on “More Than Ever”–after all, this is the kid who managed to steal the spotlight from Billy Joel on “New York State of Mind”–but the other musicians bring their A-game as well.  The songwriting is fresh, both lyrically and musically; while the themes addressed aren’t new by any measure, Michael forges them into melodies that beg to be sung along to.  Overall, the EP shows a lot of promise…Michael Pollack already has his foot in the door thanks to Mr. Joel and Jeff Probst, and if he continues to take advantage of this fame, his natural talent will manifest itself and one day he may be hailed as the Billy Joel of the first half of the 21st century.

Wow, it felt great to write a music review again!  Take that, May Lazies!  Now I can spend the next ten days rewarding myself for this spurt of productivity by sitting on the beach and doing nothing.

Hoping that June brings an end to this lethargy,

DJ Zach