Show Review: Jason Isbell @ Disney Hall

Under the tattered yet durable banner of Americana

February 4th, 2020
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Lead Story, Review

I’m not sure where Jason Isbell lives. If pressed, I’d venture to guess that he and Amanda Shires reside below the Mason-Dixon, in some Southeastern state, in a music-filled home that is hugged by a wraparound porch. But once they took the stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Isbell and Shires interacted as if it was their living room.

Pitched as “An Acoustic Evening with Jason Isbell,” the billing lied. Emanating Springsteen/Scialfa vibes, Isbell played all but one of nineteen songs with Shires. They first emerged from the wings holding hands. And that is how they entered and exited all night; after the set, before the encore, and at the end of the show. In between, they whispered to each other off-mic, like parents making decisions in front of the kids.

This proud intimacy crept in to their renditions of Isbell’s songs. In “Traveling Alone,” the couple each pivoted 90 degrees on their boot heels to end up singing while facing each other. The pared down stage production allowed for Isbell’s lyrics to command the room, with minimal lighting barely reaching the stage.

In today’s genre-less world, we are left to cobble together our own characterizations of nascent, hybridized genres. With Isbell’s drawl, and Shires’ fiddle, some might lean towards country. But it’s hard not to eventually land under the tattered yet durable banner of Americana.

The majority of these tunes felt restrained, whittled down to fit the quietude expected in the Disney Hall. But in “Flagship,” the couple worked up the song to bit of a rollicking jam, as if they were cutting loose out on that porch. “Elephant” included a call and response between the couple, Isbell dropping quick and dirty melodic riffs that Shires answered faithfully with her bow.

“Tour of Duty” had some slick picking as well, enough to obscure the deeper meaning of a song that on its surface feels like an anthem to living the good life. In another quid pro quo, husband and wife traded leads until everything boiled over in to a welcome foot stomper.

It’s hard to believe that Isbell’s redemption record, Southeastern, came out nearly seven years ago. The LP marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life – sobriety. The songs smell like the booze stained carpets he left behind, and are more evidence of the blurring of those pesky genre lines.

These tracks, particularly the monstrous and important “Cover Me Up,” has no single home on FM radio in 2020. It can be found on NPR, or at Stagecoach. At Disney Hall, it had a glorious trajectory, with Isbell brandishing his own voice like a weapon; a dagger to our collective heart. “Live Oak,” another cut of Southeastern, also appeared. The story of existential crisis told in the lyrics became intertwined with desperate, elegant cries from Amanda Shires’ violin.

The set included a selection from Shires’ catalogue, the distinct “Parking Lot Pirouette,” which she sang with a bit of Joanna Newsom’s pixie sneer.

To the delight of die hards in the room, Isbell elected to play a handful of new songs off a forthcoming LP, including some about (surprise) parenthood, and another that he had never played before.

One new cut is Jason Isbell’s attempt to emotionally sort the tragic loss of a friend who had taken their own life a few months ago. As performed, it was the sound of a couple grieving together. Once again, Isbell and Shires drew us in to a private corner of their world, with Isbell singing, “What can I do to help you sleep? I’ll work hard, I’ll work for cheap.”


24 Frames
Hope the High Road
Traveling Alone
[new song]
Live Oak
Parking Lot Pirouette (Amanda Shires cover)
Tour of Duty
[new song]
Something More Than Free (performed by Jason Isbell solo)
Alabama Pines
Last of My Kind
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt cover)
[new song]
If We Were Vampires
Speed Trap Town
White Man’s World
Cover Me Up

Photo assistance: Jamie Callahan, Spyral Art


A gem at the Palace Theater

December 11th, 2019
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Lead Story, Review

Not many shows happen at the Palace Theater. It’s a blink if you miss it venue, tucked in and among the theaters and jewelry shops on Broadway, and an appropriate setting for a gem of a show Thursday night, Angel Olsen with Vagabon. Continue reading…


She wanted to get it just like Joni

October 17th, 2019
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Review

Shortly before performing “River,” Brandi Carlile remarked that she “wanted to get it just like Joni.” That she did.

On Monday night at a very sold out Disney Hall, Carlile appeared to perform Joni Mitchell’s landmark 1971 LP, Blue in its entirety. Ruminating about the significance of this kind of album is a fool’s errand; its far-reaching and enduring influence is immeasurable. It is airy, warm, pure, and endlessly personal. It is an album of place, color, and memory.

So there we were in the bowels of the great ship Disney to hear Carlile bring these songs to life. Fueled by an obvious reverence for Joni, she did so with an impeccable attention to detail.

Mitchell’s trademark mezzo-soprano inflection does the lion’s share in establishing the character of her songs. Brandi Carlile had to have spent many hours in practice as she replicated nearly every contour of Joni’s voice on Blue verbatim.

Though prepared with perfection in mind, the performance itself felt surprisingly loose. When not seated at the piano for a couple tunes, Carlile moved about the stage and past the monitors to engage the room like a Vegas lounge crooner in her bright blue suit and tie.

In all, there were 13 musicians that helped bring Blue to life, including a string quartet, and Los Angeles’ own duo Lucius, who joined on a playful rendition of “Carey” and the regretful “This Flight Tonight.” Tim Hanseroth, a longtime member of Carlile’s band, helped out the homage; he revived the Appalachian dulcimer on lead track “All I Want,” as Carlile sang of intimate quotidian memories.

As the evening progressed, Brandi Carlile offered a variety of heartfelt anecdotes as to why she wanted to take on this daunting one-off show, describing the LP as “the gateway drug” to Joni Mitchell’s music.

She also called back to 2005, when T Bone Burnett played Blue for her. At a time in her life when she was looking “to be tough, spit, swear and cuss,” the album taught her “how much toughness there is in femininity.”

Carlile’s vocals stood out most on jazzy title track “Blue” – for which she received a standing ovation – as well as “California,” in which her easy flow lyrics were basically rapped. But no moment hit harder or deeper than the pin drop silence during “A Case of You.”

She handled the first half of the song on her own, sounding as punch drunk as Joni once was. The strings snuck in midway through. Towards its end, Carlile held the microphone a few feet from her mouth for certain phrasings, helping to create the depth that comes with a sonic third dimension.

As she sang out, the melodies that decorate the song carried Brandi Carlile around the stage as if she were floating.

The yearning “River” was the Blue song that Carlile made most her own, taking a bit of melodic liberty on the Christmas-related song that she performed alone at the piano. As she introduced it, she cited its impact in licensing listeners to grieve during a celebratory time of year that often is an emotionally difficult time.

The encore included two thoughtful, if disparate, selections. Carlile chose a song from late in Joni’s career (2007’s “Shine”) to illustrate that “nothing about Joni Mitchell began or ended with Blue.” The tune took the room to church, wishing mercy upon both the deserving and undeserving.

Before playing the last song, she referenced something Joni Mitchell once said about her own songs. That if you find her in her songs, then she hasn’t done her job; it’s when you find you in her songs, that her work has been done.

And with that, Brandi Carlile came full circle by looking within to play her own song, “Party of One” as the evening’s coda.

When all was said and done, the crowd went wild with enthusiastic praise and yet another round of standing applause. But it was only the second loudest ovation of the night. The biggest roar came just before the show started when an unexpected guest was escorted in to the Hall.

Clad in a red jacket and wide-brimmed black hat, and moving gently to a seat with cane in hand, it was Joni Mitchell.



All I Want
My Old Man
Little Green
This Flight Tonight
A Case of You
The Last Time I Saw Richard
Shine (Joni Mitchell song)
Party of One (Brandi Carlile song)


Ezra forgot about the confetti

October 9th, 2019
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Review

It’s hard to believe that Ezra forgot about the confetti. This isn’t a band that suffers many oversights.

Towards the end the of their show at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night, Vampire Weekend’s buttoned-up front man simply forgot that the canons would fire during “Ya Hey.” With an expansive 30-song set, replete with the old, the new, covers and guests, we’re gonna let this one slide.

There are precious few groups that successfully evolve while never betraying the immediately identifiable sound that once made them famous. For Vampire Weekend, this is where cerebral meets fun. VW songs shape shift from the ornate Baroque indie prep, all the way to Afro punch pop – and beyond. But make no mistake: they are, at all times, Vampire Weekend. Never mind the fact that with the departure of Rostam Batmanglij, and the release of Father of the Bride, the group has been reborn as…a jamband?

Vampire Weekend 2.0 is now a seven-piece band that includes four new ready, willing and able members. Greta Morgan (Springtime Carnivore) added pretty vocal strands to “Giving Up the Gun,” and Will Canzoneri took an 80’s synth solo in “Stranger” that evoked an unexpected cinematic soulfulness. OG drummer Chris Tomson now has a partner in crime in the form of Garrett Ray, who played the Kreutzmann to Tomson’s Hart.

And then you have new flare from the playfully unhinged lead guitarist Brian Robert Jones. Sure there was that sticker of Britney Spears slapped on his pink electric, and his hair did add about 10 inches to his height. But he also bounded around the stage executing high kicks, and bouncing incessantly as if he were skipping rope like some Brooklyn-based boxer in training.

Though is wasn’t only the aesthetics. His solo on “Unbearably White” squealed like a trumpet, and after the angular intro of “Sunflower,” Jones stepped to the forefront to manifest the sonic equivalent of the expanse of big sky country.

Chris Baio presented as a direct descendant of Flea, his rubber band dance moves helping him snap around stage left enough to earn the bassist unsung MVP honors. He kicked his own legs high in “Walcott,” relocated himself backwards with a two-legged frog hop riding the frantic pace of “Cousins,” and even returned large inflatable beach balls to the audience with his busy legs.

Tomson, on the other hand, was relegated to do his bidding behind his kit (in a T-Pain t-shirt). His drums crashed hard, especially in “A-Punk,” where the cascading strikes rattled the Bowl’s brain into a sonic loop version of Escher’s confounding staircases.

If you’re still doubting the jamband claim, consider the one-two confection of “Horchata” > “New Dorp, New York.”

“Horchata” percolated as if it were cut with boiling milk, then made contact with deep space via the interstellar echoes of Jones’ electric wand. Just when VW flirted with minute 28 of the Alpine Ruby Waves, they went full throttle on “New Dorp, New York.”

Strobe whites and bloody reds alternated in illuminating the Bowl’s shell during the SBTRKT cover. A space disco interlude birthed a guitar solo that sounded like the band was being chased up the Cahuenga Pass; the berserk peak would’ve levitated the room at an LCD show, and this all from your 2019 edition of Vampire Weekend.

The venue was damn near sold out, causing the typically cool and confident Koenig to marvel a bit: “This is a big spot.” Considering that their self-titled debut surfaced more than a decade ago, perhaps it makes sense that there were so many young kids in attendance, escorted by parent hipsters of yore.

When mixed in and among tunes from their debut such as “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (which was sealed with a kiss from Jerry), “Oxford Comma,” and an audience request section during the encore, each of Vampire Weekend’s previous LP’s received due attention.

But it was the freshly baked Father of the Bride tracks that anchored the set.

Early single “Harmony Hall” is a perfect modern pop song, and a likely future candidate as a signature VW song. It injected pure joy far and wide as Brian Robert Jones climaxed it as if it were the mid-90s, and his last name was Anastasio.

On “This Life,” the Haim sisters emerged to help out, before usurping the controls and making it sound like one of their own. Sister Danielle stayed on for a massive rendition of “Hold You Now.” When the song approached its chorus, blinding rainbow lights flooded the crowd as someone in the band triggered the album sample of a children’s choir that sounded like it could swallow the Bowl whole. It was like a Benetton commercial on LSD, a specific energy that was later reprised during the communal uplift of “Worship You.”

But precision ruled the night, even when VW stretched the set closer “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” north of 8 minutes. On FOTB the song is a meditative coda. Live, it became a prayer epic, adorned with multiple movements. Its trajectory, however, was inverted. There were sternum-buzzing bass notes when it began, and the delicate tinkling notes of a music box to end it.

Jamband or not (pssst, they are), musical justice is served when an instrument-driven act can fill up the Hollywood Bowl on a Wednesday night in October, just a few months shy of the new roaring 20’s — Vampire Weekend’s third decade as a band.

Photo: Jamie Callahan, Spyral Art


Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
Finger Back
Unbearably White
My Mistake
New Dorp, New York
White Sky
This Life (with HAIM)
Hold You Now (with Danielle Haim)
Harmony Hall
Diane Young
Hannah Hunt
Oxford Comma
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin (with Danielle Haim)
The Boys Are Back in Town (by request)
Boston (Ladies of Cambridge) (by request)
Giving Up The Gun (by request)
Worship You
Ya Hey

Boris – Love & Evol

Another essential release from heavy rocks heroes

October 3rd, 2019
Lex Voight
Category: Review, Staff Pick

Boris are an institution. There are no other bands I can think of with the kind of impact that the Japanese noise-rockers have had over the course of the last nearly 30 years. The band is a constant evolution, responding to every whim or fancy that one of its three (still original) members take an interest in. Boris, as a project, is one of the purest forms of artistic expression as their collective oeuvre seems a fully exploratory outlet of its members’ wonts.
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Show Review: Why I am a John Mayer Apologist

Sonic stew bitches brew for your pop-loving heart

September 20th, 2019
Kyle B. Smith
Category: Lead Story, Review

John Mayer is an evolutionist. He came crashing through the gate as an unlikely torch bearer, defied the odds, perfected his in-studio craft, won major awards, blew THE FUCK up, dated the entire A-list, became a TMZ darling, said a bit too much, lost his voice possibly in a twist of karmic retribution, retreated to Montana, expanded his wardrobe, came back strong, joined remaining members of the Grateful Dead, apparently experienced an ego death, and then showed up Saturday night at the Forum to play his 2006 magnum opus, Continuum, from front to back as a surprise. But it’s how he played it that mattered.

Enter the band, John Mayer, and his seemingly endless wellspring of confidence. Mayer’s primary Jedi trick is the ability to play so loosely within the confines of such sturdily-built songs. When the group took the stage, they wasted no time dropping straight in to 5th gear with opener, “Helpless.” By its terminus, Mayer had already created his own pocket, a private world where he set an organic call and response loop between the titular lyrics and dagger riffs from his electric guitar.

Perhaps time spent as part of Dead & Company opened his eyes to the possibilities when playing a two-set show: the perfect set and spike. First, a career-spanning set inclusive of colossal Grammy-winner “Daughters,” a jazzy and percussive “Neon” (performed alone), a Beyoncé cover (“XO”), and more recent deep cut gems, “Edge of Desire” and “In The Blood”; and later, the spike: the presentation of Continuum in the second set.

Each tune of the night was played down to the last drop; a final lick from Mayer, or a cohesive ending that synthesized contributions from all nine humans on stage – a sonic stew bitches brew for your pop-loving heart.

If you overlooked some of the saccharine lyrics of newish single, “Love on the Weekend,” you found a piece that started with a boomy EDM pulse, but evolved in to an organic, driving rock jam. The brooding “Edge of Desire” sexed up a Police riff, slowed momentarily, then climaxed with a towering tension and release solo from JM himself.

The self-effacing “In The Blood” closed the first set with stomps and claps, striking a nerve with its naked inquisition, “what about this feeling that I’m never good enough? Will it wash out in the water, or is it always in the blood?”

Anyone perusing the merch stands before the show might have seen a Continuum branded t-shirt, the Forum show date on the sleeve, and the track listing on the back. Having last performed the album at Madison Square Garden in July (its only other start-to-finish performance to date), this night was to bookend the summer on the other coast.

Continuum fully-legitimized John Mayer as a multi-dimensional warrior 13 long years ago. When most artists revisit entire albums in the live setting, it’s usually a sign that they lack new material, or are leveraging nostalgia for the quick and dirty cash grab. But for Mayer, this was an opportunity to reimagine 12 songs that best showcase his bone deep musicality.

Right off the bat, the funk-jazz shuffle breakdown in “Waiting on the World to Change” (one of three larger than life songs on the LP), preceded a solo that sounded like an homage to Eric Clapton’s 1980’s hits.

“I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” crept along disguised in a sly lurch until JM unleashed newly refined tricks; riffs copped from Jerry Garcia’s palette. More Dead surfaced with double drum crashes in “Belief” that positioned the song to be accentuated by a white hot closing solo.

What can be said about “Gravity”? Clearly the fan favorite of the night (and probably of his career at-large), the audience illuminated the room with their phones as John and band walked the song on a deliberate upward trajectory towards communal pop oblivion delirium. This level of fanfare typically ushers in the dread that comes at the end of a show. So to hear “Gravity” mid-set was simply a treat; much music was left to be played.

The tender “Heart of Life,” was the unlikely death knell for any doubt lingering in the arena. Whereas some of John Mayer’s slower songs can sound like overt efforts to woo, the oft-overlooked “Heart of Life” registers as a sincere meditation.

“Vultures” got the room – and Mayer – moving again. He swaggered around the stage in the intro, relaxed a bit when the song found its 1970’s FM groove, only to ramp up anew with more Dead-inspired energy and tones.

The third song of the album’s worldwide hit trifecta, “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” provided the musical moment of the evening. Included in the supremely patient ten-minute performance were bent harmonic notes, and a mid-song finger-picked solo that would qualify as the best solo at most any live show these days; but it was just the second best solo in “Slow Dancing.” Like a prospector, JM discovered more and more room for the song to grow until he side-stepped away from the microphone and went for the Forum’s collective jugular with the final signature stratospheric solo.

The rest was gravy. Starting with the album’s Hendrix cover (“Bold as Love”), the band eventually found its sixth gear after the slow roast simmer of sleeper track “In Repair.” They ended with Continuum coda, the kiss off tune, “I’m Gonna Find Another You.” Mayer flirted with flaunting but executed with precision to close out the album set, the journey now complete.

It would have been easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of the Continuum moment if the songs hadn’t sounded so vibrant, colorful, and alive. But after taking a look back, John Mayer directed his focus forward. There was a statement embedded in the decision to encore with a pair of brand new songs. It was time to evolve again.


Set 1:

Moving On and Getting Over
Who Says
Love on the Weekend
Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey
Edge of Desire
XO (Beyoncé)
Neon (acoustic)
In the Blood

Set 2: Continuum

Waiting on the World to Change
I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)
The Heart of Life
Stop This Train
Slow Dancing in a Burning Room
Bold as Love (The Jimi Hendrix Experience)
Dreaming With a Broken Heart
In Repair
I’m Gonna Find Another You

Carry Me Away
New Light

Photo credit: Christina De La Torre
Assistance: Jamie Callahan

Jurassic Park In Concert @ Hollywood Bowl

David Newman leads a dino-mite event

August 18th, 2019
David Fisch

Film director Steven Spielberg kicked off the unofficial start of the “summer movie event” when he released Jaws in 1975, and he has since perfected and dominated the fan-centric movie-going phenomenon every few summers with a tentpole release. In 1993, the “summer movie event” was Jurassic Park, and just like Jaws before it, it has become an entertainment mainstay that has its housing on the screens of everywhere from backyard barbeque parties to rooftop poolside lounges. It is tailor-made for the outdoor viewing experience, as its breezy thrills, iconic lines, meme-ified shirtless Jeff Goldblum, and impressive visuals can envelope and entertain viewers across all generations as they bask in the cool and calm nights before the workload begins once again toward Fall. Let’s also not forget that the roars of a T-Rex echoing throughout and the Velociraptor’s hushed brustling through the bushes would make anyone’s hair raise.

But the key ingredient, as with most, if not all, of Spielberg’s projects, is the score by John Williams. Spielberg is a master of evoking emotion visually with close-ups of expressions and lingering shots of familiarity, but it’s Williams and his penchant for motifs and themes that elevate these moments with overwhelming emotional resonance. With Jurassic Park, he provides the audience with a little bit of everything: tenderness, hijinks, tension, excitement. This is all brought on with rolling bass drums ramping up the moments a character has to escape or French horns to coronate us into the large and unexplored vistas of Isla Nublar or piano to symbolize the importance of togetherness in trying times.

It’s simply hard to imagine any other composer in Williams’ place, as he quite literally creates the world of Jurassic Park in the context of his orchestrations. I’ve heard and seen performances of the “Theme to Jurassic Park” on countless occasions by Williams himself and by Gustavo Dudamel, who is the musical director of the LA Phil Harmonic, but I had yet to see the film with the score performed in its entirely to the film onscreen. For fans of the film like myself and anyone who happened to grab a ticket this past weekend in Los Angeles, they got to witness just that with the LA Phil Harmonic lead by David Newman, who has once before been tasked to bring the best of Williams, and witness it at the Hollywood Bowl, which is the class example venue for the outdoor “summer movie event” experience.

For films exhibited in this nature, the music score is extracted from the film so that the orchestra can perform it, and though sometimes it’s a little hard to discern the score as it is in the film from one performed live (unless you’ve studied the film repeatedly and know every minutiae of the cues and have written a biography about it), this was a case in which I was able to focus on all of the little details in the performance. Specifically, it was interesting to see that the scene educating the characters about dinosaur DNA – a cartoonish anthropomorphic DNA strand explaining how the park could have even been conceived – was a part of the score at all, involving frolicking brass for a flying mosquito and fast-paced string stabs and xylophone as the DNA code overwhelms the screen. It’s not a part of the film I think about having been scored (it’s not technically a part of the soundtrack release), but it showcases just how much every musical component of the film has to be conceptualized.

What’s also fascinating is seeing how much of Williams’ score there isn’t. Arguably the most compelling sequence of the film – the entrance of the T-Rex – is virtually devoid of any scoring, allowing the dread of the T-Rex’s booming thuds and the torrential downpour of rain to soak the viewer in before the imposing T-Rex roar enacts the first realization of terror. Though seeing an orchestra taking a break during these moments isn’t captivating, it brings to a point how important it is when the music does cue up again when the film requires it. It’s a testament to the analysis and brilliant direction of Mr. Spielberg and his studied collaboration with Mr. Williams.

It’s a fun experience seeing any movie outdoors, but seeing a film made for the outdoor summer movie season, with the intricate sounds produced by a full orchestra, witnessed with thousands of adoring and newly-minted fans, right in the backyard of Hollywood itself, is something you just have to do.

For more info:

LA Phil
Hollywood Bowl

Sound and Fury 2019

Historical (imo)

July 26th, 2019
Lex Voight
Category: Lead Story, Review

In 1966 Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech, during which he said “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times.” Only about three years later, Janis Joplin followed that up with the maxim “Time keeps movin’ on.” This is all just to say that we continue to live in interesting times. Perhaps the most interesting, as far as old Chinese curses go. We look back in history–of which the Cold War era seems particularly comparative (when we aren’t feeling particularly unkind)–and we see more than a few contemporary resemblances. And while the news cycle can get brutal, its incredible to have spaces that can act as a temporary haven from daily woes…even when its a haven of brutality, itself.
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Lingua Ignota – Caligula

Absolute radiance

July 22nd, 2019
Lex Voight
Category: Review

Caligula is a piece of profound resonance–within its abyssal depths there are multitudes. It’s brilliance is it’s fiercely unique welding of genres, most reminiscent of bands like Oathbreaker or Thou, that blends traditional, almost operatic delicateness that, moment to moment, may swell and rise to colossal heights before breaking to inhuman screams.
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Vale live at The Lexington

Living in darkness, destined for light

Lex Voight
Category: Lead Story, Review

An unassuming woman in Milo glasses ascends the stage and squints into the (relatively dim) bar lights with a frown. The guitarist backing her seems to shy from the dull yellow light, using his long locks as a screen from his eyes. A couple jokes are made before a small voice asks through the speakers,

“Can we turn those down please? Y’know…make it dark and creepy in here?”
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