Music is an inescapable fact of life. It streams from our computers like a waterfall; it fills the empty space in our bars and restaurants; it augments the visual impact of television shows, movies, and advertisements. On top of this universal presence of music, the democratization of the recording and distribution process has ensured that the variety of music available to the general public is vaster than ever before. Yet it is precisely because of this deep and pervasive connection between music and human culture that it is necessary for you to make sense of this cacophony. The person without a distinct musical taste risks being lost in the sonic forest, unable to converse about music with other people and unable to discern their own character. In short, having a defined sense of what music you like is vital to becoming a contemporary man. So, how do you develop a musical taste that keeps you both interested and interesting? Read on to find out!
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 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.
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.
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.
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 Law, not 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.
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.
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.
Thanks to those of you who tuned in tonight to hear Michael Pollack. He’s really come a long way from where he was the last time I had him on the show, in February. Since then, Michael has gone viral on YouTube, appeared on nationally broadcast talk shows like Today and Jeff Probst, recorded and released an eponymous EP, and played in front of a sold-out crowd at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square. If you missed the show, you can catch the whole thing here.
In talking to Michael, one of the most interesting things I noticed is how much confidence he has gained behind the mic and behind the piano. Last time Michael appeared on the show he had Hayes Helsper, another very talented student musician, sing his songs. This time, having performed for a national audience on TV and before about 2,000 fans in Times Square, he sang for himself. It brought to mind another singer who eventually learned that he had to sing his own songs: Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. On the band’s first album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, a few of the songs are sung by David Palmer, who was hired to be the band’s touring singer because Fagen had no confidence in his ability to sing live and, what’s more, suffered from stage fright. Eventually, though, Fagen realized that it needed to be his voice singing the lyrics he wrote. Indeed, his voice, with its audible New York accent and sardonic tone, is perfect for the often sarcastic, snarky words of Steely Dan songs. Michael echoed this sentiment, telling me that he found himself much more able to express the emotions behind his songs when he sang them himself. “As a writer,” he said, “a song has a specific meaning to you…no matter if I sat down with a vocalist and explained the story behind the song and every emotion that I felt, they still won’t be able to deliver the message the way that I could.” And on songs like “Get Well” and “Chances Are,” the words have emotional power derived from Michael’s life, so naturally he sings them the best.
Not all arrangements work this way, though. A prime example is the Elton John/Bernie Taupin team. John was a great up-and-coming composer and performer in the late 1960s, but it was only when he was paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin that he took off and became the international superstar he is today. Another example is Rush, a band in which the drummer, Neil Peart, is the primary lyricist. Geddy Lee, the band’s bass player and lead singer, hasn’t written lyrics to a Rush song since 1982 and was only the band’s main wordsmith on their eponymous debut in 1974. In an interview with Roadrunner Records, here is what he had to say about singing lyrics written by Peart:
“It’s an interesting dynamic because it’s a relationship we’ve had for over 30 years. Obviously, me being the spokesperson for his lyrics is an intimate and difficult relationship just in the sense that I have to really believe what I’m singing – because if I don’t, you can tell. You can’t fake something like that. So, for me I have to try and get into his headspace and I have to try and understand the lyrics from a point of view that’s meaningful to me even if it’s not always the same as the writer’s intent.” (Credit: http://www.rushisaband.com)
So it’s possible for the message to get across, but not easy. Making this more complex is that Peart has written about a diverse range of topics, from fate to fame to Greek mythology to the Manhattan Project; songs such as “Cygnus X-1,” about a space traveler visiting a black hole, have made him quite a polarizing lyricist. Yet Rush makes it work.
The bottom line is that, as I wrote in last week’s post, music has a profound impact on the soul and is a means of expressing our emotions. It’s much easier for us to sing our feelings if we are singing them in our own words. This is a revelation that has given much more power to Michael Pollack’s music than he had just seven months ago.
Hello again! It’s been a while, but summer is over and we’re ready to get back to business here at The VU Backstage. First things first: we have moved from 8pm to 9pm central. I’m sick of competing with Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.
Summer is over. It didn’t really hit me until I typed that short three-word sentence. Syllabus week isn’t really school, after all, and with my schedule providing me four-day weekends every week it was hard not to imagine these last few days as an extension of what was a glorious four-month hiatus from class. Though it was not a four-month hiatus from responsibility…being a counselor at North Star Camp sounds fun (and it is, a lot), but it can be very hard work.
Probably the best thing about working at camp was that I got to play a ton of music. This is probably not a surprise, considering what you loyal readers know about my passion for music and the images that come to mind when you picture summer camp, some of which probably involve a guy at a roaring bonfire with an acoustic guitar leading a group in a song by Harry Chapin or Cat Stevens or some other folk singer. Indeed, that would be very close to the truth, right down to the campfire setting. My buddies and I played a lot of those folksy types of songs over the summer, and not only was it so much fun getting to jam out and share this music with the campers, but we sounded darn good. Like three-part harmonies good.
But the type of music we played at camp got me thinking, Why is this folksy music so associated with camp? At home, I rarely listen to Simon and Garfunkel or James Taylor or Joni Mitchell, yet here I was playing their songs and singing along perfectly with every word. It felt so right to be playing that particular music in that particular setting. But why folk music? Why not Kanye West or Rush? (Incidentally, those two artists played a large role in my summer, as I became a fan of Yeezus and I made my campers into fans of 2112.) One could say that it goes back to the whole idea of escaping from technology; there’s no electricity at a campfire, so acoustic guitars are the best way to make music. But I think it goes deeper than that. The whole idea of folk music is that it isn’t being produced primarily for commercial value, but rather for the message of the song. And much of the music generally considered to be “campy” comes from a time–the late 1960s and early 1970s–when musicians were reacting to the tumultuous times by preaching love and respect for our fellow human beings through their lyrics and melodies. Upset by how quickly the world was moving, they turned to song to ensure that old-fashioned human decency wasn’t forgotten. These are the types of messages that camp is supposed to get across to kids who are otherwise ensnared in the rapidly flowing current of the “real world.” They go to school and are expected to work hard and succeed. They have fun by using technology as a crutch for creativity. They have little time to think about anything but what activity they have next, or what assignment is due tomorrow, or what video game they will be playing at the slumber party next weekend. At camp, kids get a rare opportunity to escape from this cycle and experience a climate in which fun is the ostensible priority but the underlying goal is to allow for tremendous personal growth. And not in terms of academic ability; in terms of values. Things like taking responsibility, or learning to appreciate the differences in people, or creatively making the best out of anything from a boring afternoon to an apparent crisis–these are the lessons taught at camp. These are lessons that can be learned at home, but are learned far more effectively when their teaching is the sole teaching that occurs and their message is undiluted by what we refer to as reality. And these are the lessons taught in the folk music that is so associated with camp.
For better or worse, this is a major realization that I had this summer. But at the basest level, it provided me an opportunity to stay musical even without hosting the best talent Vanderbilt has to offer every Sunday night. Speaking of which, Michael Pollack will be our first guest of the season. He had a big summer, playing at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square and otherwise advancing his musical career. Even if he wasn’t one of the fastest-rising stars on campus, I’d still have him on the show first for the sole reason that the recording of his show in February was compromised and never made it on the website.
So that’s that. Though the summer was incredible, like the notes of a folk song it had to end eventually. Keep those campfires burning and keep up with The VU Backstage on Facebook and Twitter for a great season of live music.
As I host a live music radio show and am a staunch supporter of the #vandymusicscene, it seems obvious that I am a big music fan. I’d like to take this opportunity to, like DJ Nick did last week with Joe Pug, plug one of my favorite artists.
Rush has been my favorite band ever since I can remember. I have all sorts of memories associated with their music: pretending to fight an aliens vs. zombies vs. robots war with “2112” blasting in the background…cruising down the highway playing “Red Barchetta,” imagining that I was driving that fabled roadster…laying in the summer grass, humming strains of “The Analog Kid.” Hell, I even use the epic ending of “The Spirit of Radio” to open and close The VU Backstage each week. The fact that their music is incredibly complex yet somehow catchy is a great attribute of the band, as are their prodigious talent and longevity (39 years!). But to me, Rush is the band I grew up listening to, the band whose multitude of songs can define the zeitgeist of my twenty years of life, and thus I will always love them.
Rush is coming to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on May 1st; tickets go on sale today. If you’ve never seen them play, I highly encourage you to go. No band is crisper live, and their shows encompass a unique blend of comedy, musical ability, and energy that emanates from both the band and its rabid fan base. Rush also doesn’t carry an opening act, so you’ll be treated to nearly thirty songs from their vast catalogue, including the majority of their 2012 studio release Clockwork Angels, an album that perfectly mixes the band’s hard rock roots with their years of musical experience. If you go, look for me…I’ll be singing along to every word and looking something like this.
Do you have similar feelings about an artist? Is there a band who literally has defined your life? Or is there an artist you feel we should know about? If any of these are the case, feel free to share your story with us in the comments, and we’ll try to work some of these into a feature we hope to air on Super Bowl Sunday.