December 30, 2009

I remember like yesterday, the time of my life.

(December 29, 2009 Philadelphia, PA - Theatre of the Living Arts)

So, I've been to a lot of shows in 2009. This blog will vouch for sixteen of those, but I would bet money that number is more along the lines of thirty two. While some have come close, none of them are as notable as The Starting Line's holiday reunion show. It was the first time they have played together in more than a year and a half. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to see such a prolific band play together again. A small caravan of us made the trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia early on a Tuesday morning, and prayed for a better experience than our trip to Cleveland back in October. We were not even slightly disappointed. Philadelphia is my kind of city, and I hope to get back to it again within the next few months. We spent a few hours wandering South Street, checking out local record stores before we made our way to the oddly placed line for the TLA, and found our way into one of the nicest venues I've ever had the pleasure of being inside.

The first time I saw the Dangerous Summer, I made it a point to emphasize how obvious the Starting Line's influence on the band is, and it still isn't a bad thing. In fact, I think it's really cool that they've reached the point where they're playing a show of this caliber with a band that means that much to them. I could tell that they wanted to be there just as bad as anyone in the crowd. That said, I think their nerves may have gotten the best of them. They definitely didn't sound as good as when I saw them in Pittsburgh, which was kind of surprising because their following was reasonable at this show, they had a lot of people singing along. They even botched the beginning of "Surfaced," though I don't think a lot of people noticed. However, they did recover quite well, finishing off the first verse of said song with more energy than any other point throughout their set. And I believe "Never Feel Alone" is definitely one of the best set-closing songs I've heard.

set list:
Settle Down
The Permanent Rain
Northern Lights
Where I Want to Be
Never Feel Alone

Valencia took the stage, after sorting out some technical issues, right on schedule, and made their presence immediately known. A local act with a huge following in Philadelphia, the crowd also made it pretty clear that they knew what to expect. Immediately an overwhelming amount of movement happened, and a lot of singing along, but it was fun and appropriate at a pop punk show. They even had a bunch of red balloons flying around the venue, making for a great atmosphere. That is, until "Away We Go" kicked off, a pit opened up, and all the tough guys came out to play. And the drunk girls. It was just bad news. Don't get me wrong, the band sounded great, but I don't know what got into the crowd. I don't know if it's always like that for Valencia, or pop punk shows in Philly, but I had a really hard time enjoying the band. Some guys thought it would be funny to pop all the balloons that a lot of us were having fun with, and other guys thought it would be fun to do a bunch of crowd kills, even though half the crowd was girls a scrawny guys who wanted nothing to do with the physicality of a hardcore show. It was completely disrespectful, and if I was in Valencia, I'd be ashamed of the fans. I've never seen anyone cry at a show out of displeasure. Still, the band did sound really good, and since the show I've found that I really enjoy Valencia's recorded output, and I would definitely go see them again, but in Pittsburgh. Oh, and the part of "Listen Up" that Kenny Vasoli sang on was definitely the highlight of the set.

set list:
Away We Go
Where Did You Go?
Listen Up (featuring Kenny Vasoli from the Starting Line)
Safe To Say
Wake Up (new song)
Better Be Prepared
The Space Between

Still, I was definitely not in the best of moods when Valencia's set ended. Two of the three people I was with went to the back of the venue because they were so frustrated with the crowd. However, after enduring a six hour drive and a very cold day wandering Philadelphia, I was determined to enjoy myself. Fortunately, Kenny and The Starting Line made it very easy to do that. My spirits were raised along with the band's original banner, a huge backdrop to the equally large stage. I felt as if for the next hour and a half, I would be taking a trip back to the early millennium with one of the best pop punk acts from that time period, and when the band took the stage by the storm with the opening tracks from their first three records, back-to-back-to-back, in chronological order, I knew the night would go all too fast. This being my first time seeing the Starting Line, I was not in the position say anything like "they sounded just as good as they did before their hiatus." However, I can't imagine they could have sounded any better. Every single song was spot on; full of energy and emotion. What made the set even more enjoyable was the connection that everyone in the room had to the songs being played. The Starting Line has certainly touched their fair share of lives (165,000 Myspace friends can't be wrong), and almost everyone in attendance had some kind of history with the band's music, or at least sang along like they did. For a majority of the set, Kenny's vocals were mostly inaudible, but not due to poor mixing, rather the crowd's collective singing. I couldn't even tell you what my favorite moment was, I don't think I stopped smiling all night. What it boils down to is, the Starting Line is still a force to be reckoned with in pop punk, if they do decide to stick around. I feel very fortunate to have attended this show, I genuinely think this will be one that my grandchildren hear about.

set list:
Up & Go
Making Love to the Camera
Surprise, Surprise
Inspired By the $
Are You Alone
A Goodnight's Sleep
Need to Love
Artistic License
Way With Words
Given the Chance
Somebody's Gonna Miss Us
Best Of Me

Something Left to Give

December 12, 2009

Let the music breathe across my face.

(December 12, 2009 Pittsburgh, PA - The Smiling Moose Upstairs)

There are only a few bands that I've seen more than once this year, and I feel fortunate to call Good Old War one of those bands. The best part of that is they are the only band I've seen three times, and had I the chance to see them a fourth or even a fifth, I can guarantee that I would have. Unfortunately, each time I've seen them, I've gone alone (unless you count my dad, which I don't because he stays seated in the back of the venue, while I make my way into the crowd). Next time they're in Pittsburgh though, you can bet I'll have a minivan full of people. If anyone's earned a good crowd, it's Good Old War.

It's an almost fictional occurrence for me to miss a set, but I missed Chalk Dinosaur altogether, and to them I send my apologies. I walked into the venue only to find Harrison Wargo playing Beatles covers in minor keys. Just kidding about the last five words in that last sentence. What I meant was, I walked into the Smiling Moose's upstairs to find a packed house listening to Harrison Wargo and his band playing catchy pop songs that anyone can appreciate, but with just a hint of melancholy. I missed some of his set, but I loved what I heard quite a bit. Be on the lookout for a full length from him early next year.

Following Harrison Wargo came Hezekiah Jones, who upon researching led me to expect hundreds of people on stage (see their band members section on Myspace), but ended up only two guys, vocal harmonies, and two guitars - a quietly strummed acoustic and sparse atmospheric electric. I was immediately reminded of acts like Bon Iver, playing brooding songs about heartbreak and satisfying flannel-wearing college kids everywhere, but after the song they played about the end of the world, I figured out that maybe Hezekiah Jones was a little less than that, in a good way. Still, I felt like their set lacked something. They said they were missing a few members for the performance, and I think it held them back somewhat.

Dave Davison of Maps & Atlases fame, AKA Cast Spells, was up to perform next, and being unfamiliar with Bright Works & Baton, his first release, and only having the prior knowledge that Cast Spells is a solo project, I expected one guy playing guitar and singing, and I expected to be bored. What I was greeted with was much more. Keith, Dan, and Tim of Good Old War joined him on stage, and played through (as far as I remember) all of the Bright Works & Baton EP and one of the two songs featured on the Cast Spells/Good Old War split EP ("All Brass"). I was beyond impressed. The songs were fun, upbeat, catchy, and all-around enjoyable. After the show, the girl that was selling Dave's merchandise gave my dad a CD because my dad had helped her film Hezekiah Jones' set. While the free CD might have been undeserved, we listened to it the whole drive home, and it's every bit as fantastic as the live set was.

Being that there was no set up to be had, Keith, Dan, and Tim took a quick break and then hopped right back on stage as Good Old War, and jumped right into their set. Banter was frequent, which would have been annoying if the band a. wasn't hilarious, and b. didn't play a lot. The thing is, they are hysterical, and they played "longer than [they] have ever played." Good Old War is really just three best friends playing music together that anyone can enjoy. The whole show felt like how church should feel, because everyone was gathered together, singing along, and left better off than they came. After already having seen the band twice (reviews here and here), it's clear to me that they're a top notch live act, definitely in the category "Better live than on record," so I don't really know what to add to my previous two reviews. I definitely won't even be missing Good Old War if they're anywhere near me.

set list:
Tell Me
Just Another Day
We've Come A Long Way
Looking For Shelter
Get Some (new song)
I'm Not For You
No Time
Texas Blues
Breaking Down
Maybe Mine
Weak Man
Coney Island

December 7, 2009

Waltz around the room, with a glaze in your stare.

(December 7th, 2009 Pittsburgh, PA - Altar Bar)

Anyone that knows me personally knows that I'm pretty burned out on the heavy music scene, but there are a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is Norma Jean (another will be revealed in a few paragraphs). When a friend of mine and I saw that Norma Jean was coming to town, and there was a possibility they'd be playing all of their definitive debut album, Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, we made plans to go.

Said friend of mine happens to play guitar in a local band called Arcane Haven. As coincidence would have it, Arcane Haven won a battle of the bands competition with a local promoter. The same promoter who booked the Norma Jean show in Pittsburgh. You see where I'm going with this? Anyway, Arcane Haven played first. They're good friends of mine, so I will hold back on praise, but I will say I actually do enjoy their music. Brad Brunazzi, the band's lead guitarist and primary songwriter, is an incredibly skilled musician. Give them a listen, we'll call it a personal favor.

The first national act to play was Arsonists Get All the Girls. It's funny, I filled in on vocals for an Arcane Haven show opening for this band once, but I left early, and I've never even listened to them. Well, I was actually really impressed. Musically, these guys are incredibly skilled. It's not your typical generic metalcore. I also love their lead vocalists screams (even though he's not going to be able to do it at all in a few years, because his technique is terrible). Still, it's heavy music, and most of it sounds the same. Chances are, I won't be seeing these guys again, unless they find themselves on a bill with one of the few heavy bands I still enjoy (see: Converge).

Okay, so if I didn't seem too into Norma Jean, it's because I'm not. The real reason I wanted to go to this show so bad was this video. The Chariot have created quite a reputation for themselves in the scene. I had absurdly high expectations, but all of them were met, and far surpassed. Anyone who tells you The Chariot suck live is only half right. They didn't sound very good at all, I can attest to that, but live shows are a fifty-fifty experience. You also get the visual half too, and The Chariot was a real treat in that sense. All five members of the band were all over the stage, and occasionally off of it too. The crowd was equally fantastic. There was no overdone two-stepping or anything, just a lot of pissed-off people pushing and shoving each other, screaming the words, and having a good time, in our own way. The set list was an excellent mix of all three of the band's full lengths and their EP. Opening with the second half of "Teach:" was the perfect way to gradually introduce the crowd to the chaos that they were in store for. For me, the highlight of the set was "The Deaf Policemen," from The Fiancée. During the "blood on the roots/blood on the branches" part, I got up on top of the crowd and Josh Scogin, the band's frontman, shoved the microphone into my face, and I might as well have lost my voice right then and there. I didn't keep track of the setlist, but I know that along with those two, "Before There Was Atlanta," "Die Interviewer," "Yellow Dress," "And Shot Each Other," and "Daggers" were all played. They certainly made the most of their brief time on stage too, where every other band spent a little bit too much time on banter, not a word was spoken throughout the course of The Chariot's set - it was a half an hour of nonstop mayhem. I found myself exhausted at the conclusion of "Daggers," the last song played, and subsequently I stayed out of most of the action for the rest of the night. That 30 minutes was worth whatever the ticket, parking, and food ended up costing me though, and I'll be doing it again soon enough. The Chariot is something that needs to be fully experienced to be understood.

So how do you follow up an act like that? Whoever booked the tour must've thought something along the lines of "by furthering the outright confusion of the unsuspecting Norma Jean fans!" because that's exactly what HORSE the Band did. I honestly have no idea what was going on for the forty minutes or so that they were on stage. One second they'd be playing an incredibly technical breakdown, but then the next just drunkenly rambling. I wasn't all that impressed, but they drew the biggest crowd of all the bands that played, without a doubt. I spent about half of their set in the crowd, but I found myself indifferent, and much preferred talking to The Chariot's merch guy about 80's movies and foil shirts. I guess they're cool if you're already a fan, but HORSE didn't win me over.

When HORSE's set wrapped up, the room thinned out somewhat, leaving the few die hard Norma Jean fans that had been on the edge of the stage throughout the show, holding on for dear life to their prized spots. Most of the attendees knew ahead of time that the set list would consists almost entirely of songs from the first album, and excitement was mixed. I'm sure there were a lot of old school fans that were there only because of that, but personally, I don't care for Bless the Martyr. I'm partial to Redeemer, but I think even more fans prefer O' God, The Aftermath. Still, this handful of shows is pretty notable because of the front-to-back performance of an album, something not a lot of bands do. And honestly, the band sounded so much better live than on record for every single song. Maybe it's the poor production on the original release, or maybe it's the seven years of age the songs have, but regardless, I would much prefer to listen to live versions of these songs than the ones that appear on the album. I give the band credit for that reason. They also had more energy than most of their peers, but in the context of the other bands playing (cough The Chariot cough), it didn't strike me at the time. Overall, the set was good, definitely worth staying for, if only to see Josh Scogin of The Chariot do two songs with the band. Josh also happens to be a founding member of Norma Jean, and it's his vocals that you hear on Bless the Martyr, so it was really cool to hear him do these songs. The set ended on a good note, but the encore really killed the atmosphere. Note to bands that play heavy music: don't drag out your songs, end with a bang. The extended jamming the band did on "Vipers, Snakes, and Actors" was bland and uninteresting, and a terrible way to close out the night that was actually much better than I expected.

approximate set list:
The Entire World Is Counting On Me...
Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste
Creating Something Out Of Nothing...
The Shotgun Message
Sometimes It's Our Mistakes...
I Used To Hate Cell Phones...*
It Was As If The Dead Man Stood...*
The Human Face, Divine

Organized Beyond Recognition (Partial)
Vipers, Snakes, And Actors

*with Josh Scogin