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.

Setlist

Set 1:

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

Set 2: Continuum

Waiting on the World to Change
I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)
Belief
Gravity
The Heart of Life
Vultures
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

Encore:
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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Show Review: Mitski @ The Hollywood Palladium

Mitski and her table electrify at The Palladium.

July 21st, 2019
Lesley Park
Category: Lead Story, Review

In response to one of many screams of “I LOVE YOU, MITSKI!” that would be heard between songs from the sold out crowd at the Hollywood Palladium, the artist looks up while adjusting on stage and replied, “That is a good diaphragm. You should consider singing.”

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Cave In – Final Transmission

Scofield’s coda.

June 14th, 2019
Lex Voight
Category: Review

The ominously-titled Final Transmission is a devastating and surprisingly optimistic work and homage to a fallen comrade.

The entire hardcore scene mourned the loss of Caleb Scofield, bands as far-afield as Young Widows, Converge, ISIS (as Celestial), Pelican and more rallied to raise money for the fallen musician’s loved ones. Scofield had already begun demoing songs for what was to become Final Transmission, and many if not most of those demos and ideas the band has incorporated and worked into the finished songs, building around the ideas of their fallen comrade just as they always have done.

From the opening chords–clearly rough licks and ideas recorded–you hear friends giving bittersweet goodbyes. If you already know the backstory this immediately brings a tear to your eye, not only for the loss, but for the love these friends all share and how integral Scofield was to the scene at large.

Similarly, “Shake My Blood’s” rejoinder “don’t leave…don’t leave me saying goodbye,” is just as heart-rending as can be expected, but lands in a song and a record that never feels despondent. It never feels like the band is wallowing in their well-earned grief. It sounds instead like a heartfelt, confused, and earnestly bittersweet farewell. Theres a sense of the bafflement when a loved one passes so suddenly and completely out of nowhere..songs can come and go abruptly (“Night Crawler”), or seem fuzzed out like a voice coming through the static in “Lunar Day” or “Led to the Wolves.” The variances in production to suit each approach, too, always seems absolutely appropriate. “Shake My Blood,” “Winter Window,” “Led to the Wolves,” and “Strange Reflection,” seem poised to be Cave in Classics for me personally, with some of everything of what the band has in their considerable arsenal on display.

Now, Cave In’s discography is long and largely flawless, but its also incredibly varied. Final Transmission, I think fittingly, nestles itself right in between my two favorite records of theirs–Jupiter and Antenna. With all the melody of Antenna, and some of the spacey-ness of Jupiter, albeit with some of the punch of Perfect Pitch Black (“Lanterna” and “Led to the Wolves,” in particular display a lot of the bands more metallic flourishes, with the latter’s instrumentation just as easily appropriate for Scofield’s other project, Zozobra).

While its hard to think of Cave In, much less a world, without as influential and vital a musician as Scofield, Cave In has produced one of their best releases around the sketches that their friend left behind, honoring his memory with a fitting, touching, and warm tribute. What the band has in store seems to be unknown to the band themselves, if optimistic, with Converge’s Nate Newton (a longtime friend and collaborator of Scofield) taking up his place for touring duties. Whether this is simply Scofield’s “last transmission,” or the band’s I’m not sure anyone really knows yet, but goddamn what a transmission it is.

Necronomidol – Scions of the Blasted Heath

Less Jpop, more rock, please.

Lex Voight
Category: Review

Listening to Necronomidol’s Void Hymn was an absolute rollercoaster.

My brain at first recoiled in horror at what the capitalist machine had spat out. Some ungodly fever-dream creature half formed of JPop and power metal. Dear god, I thought, could it be that Baby Metal was just the start of these abominations?

Gonzo-ian rants aside, it was absolutely mind blowing to me to do a deep dive into Japanese Idol culture and music. I spent several hours following some school-girl-skirted rabbit down a deeply off-putting rabbit hole where Baby Metal truly was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg with groups like this. As fun and entertaining as that band is, and as deserving of accolades for their hard work and savvy gameplaying, every scumbag tr00 metalhead, I discovered, was just as deserving of their cynical outlooks. Idol Music is essentially music as made in capitalist dystopia–music engineered by committee for the maximum market impact. And not as necessarily as a group individually, but as a network of such, each individual unit catering to one certain demographic and frequently members are traded like sports players.

This is not to mention the seeming dogmatic control these PR companies exert over the young women who make up these groups. Groomed from a young age to inhabit a different role, in a band that in itself inhabits a role, and seemingly incapable of exerting creative or artistic control whatever, which is instead ceded to executives and hired musicians and composers.

This is truly the capitalist music nightmare, I thought. Horatio Alger would be proud.

Then I took a step back and tried to relax and just hear the music for what it was and…was with track one of Void Hymn, “Dawnslayer,” blown away by how goddamn fun it is. With backing musicians like the ones they have in Necronomidol, these are clearly technicians who’s mastery of their instruments rivals the talents of even powermetal lords like Dragonforce, similarly maintaining utter commitment with an irreverent and self-aware sense of the ridiculous.

Things went downhill after track one, though, and devolved into anonymous electronic-influenced JPop with the occaisional nod towards metal.

Despite the band’s reputation as the “darkest idol group around,” this still, at worst, sounds like bad bubblegum pop or, at best, the guitar-solo busting soundtrack to an anime fight scene–and too often its the former.

Scions of the Blasted Heath keeps this conflict up. The trappings of “darkness” and metal are there, but these seem only in a cynical “this is what the market responds to” way. What isn’t self awareness may just be utter slavish commitment to capital–from the short-skirted anime girl on the cover to the band’s bdsm-alluding promophoto (see below)…its a kind of bald-faced telegraphing of intentions that is almost admirable in its brazenness, until one begins to question how much of a stake, a role, or an investment the performers themselves have in these decisions.

The EP itself is more of the same of the back portion of Void Hymn, however. More songs-by-committee that don’t quite seem to jive until “Children of the Night.” This is ironic as it is unquestionably also the most “metal” song on the EP, as “Dawnslayer” was before it. The group clearly has a talent for this type of music if they would just shake the “Idol” aspects of their image altogether.

Give me a gut-busting powermetal record led by a couple of these women fully embodying their powerful roles as frontwomen and I would be first in line for the Necronomidol army.

Vale – Burden of Sight

Deadly, dangerous, and absolutely killer

Lex Voight
Category: Review

The Bay area has always been known for it’s incredible thrash scene, though though the scene has been quiet for what feels like awhile now. Vale are undoubtedly about to change that. Burden of Sight is a monster of a record that wears its Bay Area thrash influences emblazoned proudly on its standard.

Everything about this release immediately is in league with the current greats of the genre–Power Trip and Skeletonwitch undoubtedly being two of the most well known. Caustic vocals drip contempt and malice, feeling every bit as venomous and dangerous as Landmine Marathon (one of the few bands of the death/thrash scene that I was legitimately frightened by in college just from listening to them) did when they were around. An unholy blend of death, thrash, and black metal that ends up being everything you could possibly want out of all of those genres individually.

This is an album replete with desolation. Its the voice at the back of your head every time you read a headline about climate change that says that the sky really is falling. Its every curled lip in disgust at flagrant disregard for moral standards, or perhaps even standards in general its difficult to tell. It feels like a shot pure misanthropy handled by incredible musicians who revel in the genre’s they are playing in. One of the best records of the year thus far. Check it out.

Aggrolites – REGGAE NOW!

Rocking-steady for 15 years

Lex Voight
Category: Review

As I get older I find that more and more I don’t have as much contempt for records that aren’t deliberately trying to be confrontational and challenging listens. While I never held that same contempt for Reggae as a genre, its one that I passed over all too often in favor of deliberately less welcoming genres. Now I am starting to appreciate things better that simply…are. REGGAE NOW! is a great example of a record that is what it is, does what it does, and does it with love.
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