The Swell Season @ Alys Stephens Center, Birmingham, AL, 26 May 2010 (review)

Normally, I prefer recorded music to the live alternative.  My girlfriend and I differ greatly here — she, I think, backs the intensity and rawness of an in-the-moment performance, where as I really like the feeling of something that is larger than life, through layering and production.  The very nature of live performance, I’ve always thought, makes a cinematic experience improbable at best — think of the difference between the potentials and possibilities of theater and film.

And then along comes Swell Season.  The band is not one that I was familiar with (although I’m not sure how that’s even possible) — singer-guitarist Glen Hansard and singer-pianist Markéta Irglová play a sort of folky storytelling reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.  Just this morning, I’ve learned through the magic of Wikipedia that they toured together, shot a movie called Once, fell in love, won an Academy Award, fell out of love, made more music… It’s not your usual overnight-success rock band story.

I went into the night with absolutely no expectations — I purposefully and uncharacteristically avoided exposing myself to their music beforehand. Normally I like to have some sort of aural anchor for the evening, so at least I’m on familiar ground, but the girlfriend encouraged me to try it differently for this one. I’m glad I did — not that their recorded versions are bad, but the band is enough out of my usual alley that I might have missed out on the big picture of the experience.

Opener Justin Townes Earle played a set of what my brain insists on calling Stephen King’s soundtrack — the kind of music that would fit perfectly over the childhood scenes in IT or Christine, tunes that make me think of radio shows in the 1950s midwest. Usually, the support act sets the tone for the evening, and so my brain was being pulled in the wrong direction completely for Swell Season, who came out after an intermission.

I had a really hard time describing this to the girlfriend in our post-show wrap-up discussion, and I’m fairly certain that I’m still not going to be able to put it into words, but: for the most part, the next two hours was one of only two cinematic live concerts that I’ve ever experienced.  It was a perfect storm combination of the players’ abilities, the sound engineer’s work, and the acoustics of the Alys Stephens Center hall that turned the show into an immersive experience, especially on the more dynamic songs.

A lot of what it boils down to is dynamics and space.  There’s a real magic to letting each song build through volume and attack (or lack thereof) and intensity, and Swell Season have that mastered.  The individual instruments and voices ebbed and flowed from the spotlight, gradually coming to and leaving the focus instead of jumping sharply in and out.  Each instrument had it’s own place in space, clear and precise — and still the emphasis was on the overall picture and combination of sounds. It was the live performance equivalent of Seal’s second album (1994)*, something I never would have imagined possible.

I’d give you a set list, but since I don’t know the band… Some standout moments of the night, though, included Falling Slowly (the song from Once that won the Oscar), In These Arms, Backbroke, and Glen’s solo encore performance of Leave, sung from the side of the stage with no microphone — spine-chillingly intense. It was a night that deserves, unlike so many others, the description “magic.”

* This is the description that gets me funny looks all the time.  It’s a production thing. Trevor Horn is a genius.  Listen to it a lot.

Chris O’Brien @ Red Cat, Birmingham, AL, 15 May 2010 (review)

The best thing about dating someone who is as passionate about music as I am — and who has a lot of tastes that vary differently from mine — is discovering new music, often defying expectations (my own, I should note).

I had heard some of Chris O’Brien’s tracks from my girlfriend, and was non-plussed.  The tracks aren’t bad, not at all — but it’s folk-ish, singer/songwriter type stuff, not really in my wheelhouse. The lyrics are good, but it took me a while to get into those (I’m much more music oriented than lyrical).  But he’s been to Birmingham twice before, and he’s got a hometown connection with my girlfriend, so we decided to go.

It was a great choice. We got there a little early (there were various times listed for the show start, from 8 to 9 PM, and we erred on the side of early), so we caught Hannah Miller and Emily Lynch, two songwriters that played a dual set, alternating every two songs or so. Not bad — Emily was less enjoyable for me, leaning a bit more country, but Hannah has a really nice smoky voice and a good feel for chord voicings.

They finished up, and Chris took the stage… and then got off the stage. Since there were only ten or so of us in the audience, Chris took his guitar and sat on a table in the middle of the coffee shop.  I’m not sure if it was the more intimate feel, or the stripped-down versions of his songs, but the night was really engaging and provocative in a way that I never would have expected. It was a good mix of material from both his discs — he put a lot of life into his old material (hard to do when you play it all the time) and seemed really excited and familiar with his newer stuff.

Chris is on tour right now — make sure if you have a chance you check him out, whether you are a fan of the genre or not.  His songs are moving and meaningful, and he’s got a really good stage presence as well that keeps you there during the breaks. It’s a show well worth your while.

Porcupine Tree @ The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA, 27 April 2010 (review)

Not to knock Bigelf, who did a great job transporting the crowd cleanly back to the early 1970s for a little while last night — but there’s not a band in the world that could have memorably shared a stage with Porcupine Tree last night.

After a short set from Bigelf, Porcupine Tree hit the stage in dim light, and the video screen exploded in rhythm with the opening beats of Occam’s Razor.  For the next hour, the band played their latest release (or, as front man Steven Wilson refers to it, a song-cycle), The Incident. Some songs had related video that played on the screen behind the band (notably, Time Flies and The Blind House), while others were presented straight-forward, five musicians playing great music.

Following The Incident, the band took a ten minute intermission (helpfully broadcast on monitors through the venue, for those of us that hit that bar) and then came back for another hour of music, with a nice selection of music from their last five or six albums.   Even after the intensity of the first hour, the band’s energy levels were on high, all the way through the two-song encore of  The Sound of Muzak and Trains.

Porcupine Tree started out as a looser, more experimental psychedelic sort of band, and has gradually coalesced into a progressive hard rock act who are not afraid to dip into epic songs from time to time.  Their live playing has become as focused as their songwriting over time as well.  The rhythm section (Colin Edwin on bass and drummer Gavin Harrison) is locked tight, even during the songs featuring odd time changes and flailing near-dissonance.  Keyboardist Richard Barbieri provides the ambience and atmosphere that underpins even the heaviest PT songs.  Up front, touring guitarist John Wesley provides a calm balance for Wilson’s energetic, bouncing frontman performance.  Both swap lead guitar roles, and both provide the sole vocals on the stage. Somehow, these five manage to sound equally stripped down and massive, as though there were twenty people onstage instead.

The Tabernacle is a fantastic venue to see live bands of all types, and it never fails to sound absolutely fantastic — everything from stripped down solo acoustic performances (Jim James’ “Bermuda Highway” on the Monsters of Folk tour) to crushingly heavy metal (Opeth during 2008’s Progressive Nation show) is crystal clear but loud and immersive.  There’s no better venue, I think, than the Tabernacle for Porcupine Tree, whose sound spans from quiet and plaintively tender to brutal and chaotic. It’s also designed beautifully, from both an intimate-music-experience and architecturally, so the entire experience is wonderful all around.

It’s entirely possible that this will be the best show I see all year — and that’s leaving plenty of allowance for any number of great concerts to come.


  1. Occam’s Razor
  2. The Blind House
  3. Great Expectations
  4. Kneel and Disconnect
  5. Drawing the Line
  6. The Incident
  7. Your Unpleasant Family
  8. The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train
  9. Time Flies
  10. Degree Zero of Liberty
  11. Octane Twisted
  12. The Séance
  13. Circle of Manias
  14. I Drive the Hearse


  1. The Start of Something Beautiful
  2. Russia on Ice
  3. Anesthetize (Part 2: “The Pills I’m Taking”)
  4. Lazarus
  5. Way Out of Here
  6. Normal
  7. Bonnie the Cat


  1. The Sound of Muzak
  2. Trains

My Morning Jacket @ The Alabama Theater, Birmingham, AL, 4/20/10 (review)

(This review originally appeared in edited form on, Monday, 4/22/10)

My Morning Jacket have a reputation as one of the best live bands around, and their tour-opening performance at the Alabama Theater in Birmingham was another notch in their belt of great, high-energy concerts.

Preservation Hall Jazz BandThe Preservation Hall Jazz Band kicked off the evening in Big Eazsy style. While the pairing of the legendary New Orleans-based group with My Morning Jacket seems odd at first glance, they were an excellent warm-up act, well-received by the audience.  Their New Orleans-inflected jazz felt great, and the surprise appearance by Jim James for Louisiana Fairytale and St. James Infirmary (from the recent Preservation Hall Benefit album) got the crowd on their feet.

The Alabama Theater is an historic site in the heart of Birmingham, and a wonderfully intimate venue for live music – for Preservation Hall Jazz Band, perhaps second only to their eponymous home. Given My Morning Jacket’s popularity, it was a surprise to see that they hadn’t chosen a larger venue (the Alabama only seats 2,200). However, seeing both acts in an intimate and glitzy venue was a pleasant bonus, giving the evening a feeling of event status instead of just another rock-and-roll show.

And what a show it was. From the opening notes of One Big Holiday, the lights pulsing to the opening riff, the band radiated energy and intensity.  For over two hours, they played a representative selection from their catalog. Every song seemed to be what the crowd was ready to hear, from the rocking Off the Record and Touch Me I’m Going To Scream to the more laid-back Thank You Too.

Frontman Jim James led the five-piece frenetically through the night.  His vocals ranged from sweet to soaring (an impressive performance especially from a man who once cited Kermit the Frog as an influence), and his stage presence was mesmerizing.  After joining Preservation Hall in a respectful coat and tie, he changed to something a bit more old-west, complete with gun belt. He definitely brought an outlaw feel to the stage, even punctuating a few songs with toy guns and a Dracula-esque cape.

James’ visual performance was matched (if not exceeded) by Patrick Hallahan’s mad-scientist-meets-John-Bonham drumming.  Resembling the Muppet Animal at times, his crazy hair and flailing arms belied a solid unbroken rhythm performance.  He and bassist “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship laid down a foundational groove and made it look both interesting and frighteningly easy.

And then there was the music –the intricately tight rhythm section provided a brilliant contrast to the lead guitar work of both James and guitarist Carl Broemel. Where the drums and bass were in the pocket and anchored, the guitars were all over the place, equal parts anxious riffing and accurate, intricate melody. Bo Koster was slightly buried in the mix, but when audible, his keyboard work tied everything together with a nice thread of atmosphere.

The night was mostly filled with a harder, rocking feel, though the band exhibited an impressive ability to put together a cohesive, well-timed and arranged setlist.  The ebb and flow of the song sequence was near-perfect; it never felt as though the evening was dragging or getting too tiring. Of particular note were the dusty blues of Golden, the high-energy encore opener Wordless Chorus (and the rest of the encore, in which the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined MMJ onstage for five songs), and the fifteen-minute-long space-groove roller coaster of Dondante, complete with an extended saxophone break from Broemel that took the song to an entirely unexpected level.

This tour offers a unique blend of sounds and atmospheres, all falling under the umbrella of excellent, infectious music.  If you can attend one of the upcoming dates on this tour and not find yourself dancing raucously at least once (if not more), then there’s something wrong with your heart and soul.


  1. One Big Holiday
  2. Gideon
  3. The Way That He Sings
  4. Off the Record
  5. It Beats 4 U
  6. Mahgeetah
  7. Lay Low
  8. Losin’ Yo Head (Monsters of Folk)
  9. I’m Amazed
  10. Golden
  11. Friends Again
  12. Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. I
  13. Thank You Too!
  14. Dondante
  15. Smokin’ from Shootin’
  16. Run Thru
  17. Anytime
  18. Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt II


  1. Wordless Chorus
  2. Evil Urges (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
  3. Highly Suspicious (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
  4. Move On Up (Curtis Mayfield) (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
  5. Mother-in-Law (Herman’s Hermits) (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
  6. Carnival Time (Al Johnson) (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)

Concert Review: Muse @ Sommet Center, Nashville, 15.March.2010

Melisa and I have been hitting concerts like there’s no tomorrow lately — on average, we’ve probably been seeing two-three a month,  and I’m pretty sure that if one of us had access to the Fountain of Neverending Wealth (I think I read about that in a Terry Pratchett novel, once), that number would increase greatly.

A good percentage of the shows are in Melisa’s ballpark, not mine, and so I’m going in blind to a lot of the material.  Not so with Muse, though — while I was late to discover them (not surprising, given the state of the Birmingham music scene, but surprising given the similarity to so much of what else I listen to and have discovered online, etc.), I’m a huge fan of their stuff.  Their music makes me think of the perfect cross between Queen, Radiohead, and a Broadway musical about laser guns and robots and over-the-top villains bent on destroying the universe.

This was the first show I’ve seen at the Sommet Center in Nashville — nothing too much to say about the place, good or bad. It’s a very typical arena/stadium with decent acoustics, miles upon miles of overpriced concessions and horribly cramped and uncomfortable seating.

The Silversun Pickups opened — another band with whose material I’m not terribly familiar.  There were a few things they did live that piqued my interest, although the sound mix was abysmal – I’ll even go so far as to say unforgivable.  I’m not sure if there were technical difficulties, or if the engineers were simply unemployably incompetent, but it wasn’t until the last half of the last song that it was even listenable, and even then I think only compared to the previous thirty minutes.  It was bad enough that I was genuinely concerned for the rest of the night’s outlook.

Fortuantely, whatever went wrong for the openers was corrected — from the prelude instrumental theme to the last note, it was everything you could expect or hope from a stadium show of hard rock.  The volume was loud but not overwhelming, and each instrument was audible in the mix (at least, considering the volume).

There was a really nice mix of material over the two hour set — leaning most heavily on the last disc, but with quite a good variety of old and newer material.  The visuals were impressive — not just reliant on lights and pyrotechnics, but also utilizing a series of three elevating platforms and video columns, showing both closeups of the band and abstract visualizations.  It was different and unique, reminiscent of U2’s ACHTUNG, BABY tour — and definitely provided a sensory feast for the evening.

Like every fan of a band with a decently-sized batch of material, there were songs I was disappointed not to hear — FALLING AWAY WITH YOU, ENDLESSLY, MAP OF THE PROBLEMATIQUE.  Worst of all was the brief tease of TAKE A BOW — a song I was incredibly excited to hear, but alas the intro (on piano, no less) was all we got.  Nonetheless, a phenomenal concert and show — anyone getting the chance to see Muse live is depriving themselves if they skip out on the opportunity.



  1. Uprising
  2. Resistance
  3. New Born
  4. Supermassive Black Hole
  5. MK Ultra
  6. Interlude
  7. Hysteria w/ “Back In Black” outro
  8. Nishe
  9. United States Of Eurasia
  10. Feeling Good (Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley cover)
  11. Helsinki Jam
  12. Undisclosed Desires
  13. Starlight
  14. Unnatural Selection
  15. Time Is Running Out
  16. Plug In Baby


  1. Exogenesis: Symphony, Part 1: Overture
  2. Stockholm Syndrome
  3. Knights of Cydonia

Concert Review: Wilco @ The Fabulous Fox Theatre, Atlanta 26.March.2010

Ever since I started dating Melisa,  I’ve been opening my head up to trying a lot of new things.  I’m not normally considered very adventurous, as I understand it — and fair enough.  I like what I like, and no need to try new things if what I like is available.  New foods, new hobbies– it’s really a new way of looking at life.

And so when we went to see Wilco, a band with which I’m not terribly familiar, I broke my usual habit of familiarizing myself with the music pre-show.  Normally, I’ll spend some time on YouTube or with a borrowed CD, at least preparing myself for what I’ll be hearing if not trying to find a few songs that  I can anticipate.  Not this time — I went in with the sparse bit of knowledge I’ve picked up from Melisa’s iPod and covering two of their songs with the Exhibit(s).

From what I could tell from Wilco fans, it was an awesome show.  The performance was impressive — each member is very talented, and they all had an amazing amount of energy, especially given that they played a 3 hours set with no break (excluding the now-mandatory pre-encore five minutes).  One hour can be a long time on stage — three is amazing.  There was a nice mixture of uptempo tunes with slower, mellower numbers, which kept the pacing nice and moved the show along.

The mix was terrible, I’ve heard from some folks who were on the floor level (we were on the front part of the balcony, just right of center — excellent seats except for the two teeny-boppers in front of us who insisted on dancing for 2/3 of the show, thus forcing us to stand or sit with an obstructed view).  I thought, mix-wise, it was fine — everything was clear and distinct. Except, of course, when it was a wall of sound…

Maybe I’m old; maybe I wasn’t prepared, as Melisa tells me that Wilco often break into sections of clamorous noise in the middle of songs, before returning to a more structured arrangement.  That’s fine — next time, I know to bring earphones.  But honest-to-god: I’ve been to over a thousand shows in my life, played hundreds, and I have only one other time ever been in a situation that was physically painful to my ears.  Melisa didn’t seem to notice, so perhaps it was just me and my ears, but there were moments when the physical volume and the cacophony of timbres and pitches was overwhelming.  Perhaps the sound guy is to blame; perhaps it was a by-product of being in a theater, as opposed to outdoors or a deeper, less-confined room; maybe I’m just a pussy.  Fine.

I would definitely like to have another chance to see Wilco, but with more preparation on my part. I need to have more connection to the music I’m seeing, at least when its outside of my usual fare. I definitely need some way to bring the decibel count down about 15-20db…

UPDATE: via Scents and Subtle Sounds, the setlist from the evening:

Set: Wilco (The Song), I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Bull Black Nova, You Are My Face, One Wing, A Shot in the Arm, Side with the Seeds, Deeper Down, Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again), Wishful Thinking, Impossible Germany, California Stars, Poor Place, Spiders (Kidsmoke)*, Far, Far Away*, You and I*, Laminated Cat*, War on War, Hesitating Beauty*&, Casino Queen*, Passenger Side*, Airline to Heaven, Via Chicago, Handshake Drugs, You Never Know, Heavy Metal Drummer, Can’t Stand It, Jesus, Etc., Theologians, Hate It Here, Walken, I’m the Man Who Loves You, I’m a Wheel

Encore: Thank You, Friends^

* Acoustic, *& John on stand up bass, ^ Big Star Cover