Concert Review Round-Up : Sufjan Stevens, The Mountain Goats and Two Gallants
Hello music lovers! As 2013 has already brought us many great new releases, I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at two of my favorite Holiday season concerts, and one from 2013, before Spring is already upon us. The Great American Music Hall, San Francisco’s own baroque music hall with the most beautiful and elaborate interior designs of almost any venue in the Bay Area, was host to prolific songwriter Sufjan Stevens this December. Stevens released Silver & Gold this November and promoted the release with a “Sufjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-a-long”. As always with a Stephens release, the songs on this new seasonal album are at times fantastical, at other times poignant, and sometimes all out ridiculously silly. For example, visit the album’s website and enjoy a free download of the song “Christmas Unicorn”.
Upon arriving at the Great American, I was amazed to see a huge wheel taking up the entire back of the stage, complete with glitter and bright colors. This “Wheel of Christmas” allowed fans to come up on stage and help choose the holiday favorite we would hear next. Sheila Saputo opened for Sufjan, with her completely eccentric character telling bizarre-rambling stand up comedic stories. She joined Sufjan on stage during his set and as his close friend she even made him crack up a bit during more serious moments of his songs. This performance was certainly one of the more touching holiday shows I have ever been to, and simply one of the most epic concert experiences I’ve had overall. The show ended in a spectacular display of unicorn power- Stevens and his band decked out in unicorn balloon decadence, and paper snowflakes raining from the ceiling as blow-up unicorn dolls were thrown into the audience.
The display of holiday cheer (as Will Ferrell’s Elf would say) was quite impressive– from huge light-up necklaces to an amazing medley of ugly sweaters throughout the audience–this group of fans was satisfyingly eccentric for such a quirky and charmed performer. For those who have never heard Stevens’ music, one second you will think you are listening to the Polyphonic Spree (a huge contemporary choir in crazy colorful outfits) and the next second he goes electronic. Other songs, such as his biggest hit “Chicago”, showcase a delicate side of this multifaceted artist, with a beautiful lulling voice perfect for a lullaby. After all, this is the musician who after releasing “Michigan” (2003) and “(Come on, Feel the) Illinois!” (2005), set out to write an album for each state of the U.S.A. Despite that not coming to fruition (yet), Stevens has remainedone of the most relevant musicians of his generation, and certainly at the forefront of alternative/ indie rock in the States today.
If you are in the New York area this spring, be sure to check out the US premiere of the Planetarium show at the Howard Gilman Opera House in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Stevens will perform with Bryce Dessner of the National and composer Nico Muhly, in an evening of songs “inspired by our solar system”.
Another major indie star who made his San Francisco stop in December was Mr. John Darnielle, better known as his band name The Mountain Goats. While my favorite prolific singer-songwriter has always been Conor Oberst (better known as Bright Eyes), many of my music loving friends are obsessed with Darnielle. The idolization of Darnielle is on the same level for many alternative rock fans as Oberst was at the height of Bright Eyes’ fame in 2005. (I would argue that Oberst’s career has only become more acclaimed as he matures and branches into many different side projects, but that is beside the point here.) Essentially I went to see the Mountain Goats at the Fillmore this December ’12 to see what all the fuss was about. Like Oberst, Darnielle has a voice that takes some getting used to. It almost sounds like he has a Scottish or Irish accent going in his somewhat abrasive tone, but he is actually from Claremont, Southern California. It should be noted too that his band does consist of other members– since 2007 it has included Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster. From ’91-’95 it also included Rachel Ware. And like Bright Eyes, according to the band’s official website, it has also included a rotating cast of other musicians including “and a litany of drummers we stole from our opening bands”.
At the show I had a similar feeling to when I saw Green Day perform at the Shoreline Amphitheater over ten years ago, as part of a festival where I actually went to see the other bands playing. At the time I had not listened to Green Day much at all, and when I witnessed how passionate their fans were, I regretted that and swiftly went out to buy most of their albums the next day. It’s usually around thirteen that a lot of people remember as a turning point when they actually started listening to “good music” or music that stuck with them through their teen years and beyond, unlike many of the cheesy bands many of us listened to growing up. As my taste developed, Green Day did not stick with me.
But I admire the band for how many people’s lives they clearly affected for the better. After the Mountain Goats show, I decided the same about Darnielle and crew: I felt a deep appreciation for the energy of the crowd. This music obviously meant a great deal to everyone there, and watching them made me want to be on their level. I am always one of the most enthused in the crowd at shows– I know all the words to all the songs by heart, I dance and sing along like wild, and each show I go to becomes one of the best nights of my life. Although I haven’t caught that groupie bug for the sound of the Mountain Goats, just watching the people around me sing along and look so content, was worth it.
My third show in this roundup is also a Fillmore show– this weekend’s (Feb/ 2/13) Two Gallants concert. I have written on Tyson Vogel and Adam Stephens’ roaring two piece Americana, Blues and punk sound so often that I do not want to go on too long, but suffice to say that these “local boys who made good” deserve all the acclaim they are receiving. The Fillmore is one of the biggest venues they have ever played in their home city, and the show was sold out. This summer on the tour for their newest album The Bloom and the Blight, their home-city stop was the Rickshaw Stop, a humble move and a fantastic show. But if you can sell out the Fillmore, you damn well should. Last Spring ’11, they made an even more modest move and chose The Edinburgh Castle Pub for their Noise Pop slot, a set-up which proved somewhat awkward as audience members had to walk right past Vogel and Stephens up the stairs to the ‘stage’ to reach the bathroom. But even at the time, I was thrilled to see them in such an intimate setting, and knew that these San Francisco natives could not care less if people had to walk past them onstage, in fact that’s the whole idea of an intimate setting, you get close to the performers. Two Gallants are an amazing duo because they utilize every moment in their music. Bigger bands can have a crowded sound, but these two have perfected the tension between them for each moment to swing and drop. Their lyrics are superb- check out “My Love Won’t Wait” from their new album, and for the Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) fans out there, imagine their 2008 hit song “I Will Possess Your Heart” (Narrow Stairs), gone unhinged punk. It is stalker excellence– as Stephens and Vogel howl, “You can try, but it ain’t no use, I’ll lose it if you cut me lose…”, ending in a haunting piano trailing off into silence.
The two most memorable moments of this Two Gallants performance were the performance of a new song with Stephens on piano, and when Vogel jumped into the crowd. The only moment were Stephens and Vogel seemed to break their intense concentration was during the encore– Vogel approached Stephens and whispered something in his ear which broke Stephens’ poker face and resulted in a wide grin. Next thing we knew, after a few moments near the edge of the stage, Vogel jumped into the crowd for some smooth crowd surfing. It was a classic rock star moment to witness, and completely heart warming to watch the trust he had as he rode towards the back before safely ending up back onstage. Although the 49er’s did not win the next day, it was a huge weekend for Bay Area residents (and Bay Area natives especially).