Monday, July 20, 2009

Everything Merge(s) at the Music Hall

After last night, I've now seen The Clientele five times in as many venues. This time, they were at the Music Hall of Williamsburg as part of a two-show US trip (can't call two shows a tour), the other being Merge's 20th anniversary festival in North Carolina. The Music Hall bill was an all-Merge affair with Richard Buckner and Clientele-buddies the Ladybug Transistor opening. And I'm pretty sure I spotted Merge artists Britt Daniel and Jon Wurster in the hall.

Before the show, there was a quickly abandoned attempt to check out a bit of the Dirty Projectors free show on the Williamsburg waterfront. One or two security people doing bag checks at a single, narrow entrance caused a several block long line down Kent Avenue (shoulda showed up earlier I guess). With the Music Hall show starting only a half hour after the Dirty Projectors were slated to finish, it wasn't surprising that the crowd was very sparse for the Ladybug Transistor's set (by the end of the night the room was full, but not packed). They managed some nice pop textures with the combination of Strat, trumpet, and the indie-ubiquitous Nord synth in B3 mode.

I like Gary Olson's voice and the melodies are strong, but I kept wondering what some of them would sound like pitched just a step or two higher. I don't know the extent of Olson's vocal range, but I can imagine that if he pushed the upper limits of it in a few places some of the songs would really soar. Elvis Costello said somewhere that one of the important things he learned early in his career was that by writing melodies and choosing keys to push the top of his range, he could better cut through the sound of a loud rock band and bring his vocals (and, critically for him, lyrics) to the fore. After 14 years, though, I'm sure the LT can carry on quite well without my suggestions.

In the middle slot was Richard Buckner, an artist I may have seen as many times as The Clientele, though spread out over more years and mostly as an opener. Playing solo with an old hollowbody electric and making extensive use of Ebow and loops, Buckner ran one song into the next, never acknowledged the crowd, and closed with a funny and entirely characteristic piece of anti-showmanship. Leaving the towering sequence of loops he'd built running, he stood up, unplugged his guitar, crossed the stage, and zipped it up in his gig bag before returning to stop the music. In a matter of seconds, he grabbed the rest of his gear and was gone, lumbering off the stage with what appeared to be a serious limp.

I found Buckner's typically dark and intensely focused set compelling, but apparently much of the rest of the room didn't, to judge from the level of chatter. The chatterers should be glad that Buckner chose not to engage them. Many years ago in a small club setting, I saw Buckner stop in the middle of one of his songs to quiet a loud drunk who was singing along (to a completely different song). He turned slightly to face the man and sang Merle Haggard's "I Can't Hold Myself in Line", staring directly at him the entire time. If it sounds funny in the retelling, I can only say that standing in that dead quiet crowd, it was more than a little frightening.

An impeccable studio band, The Clientele can suffer from a bit of sloppiness live, mostly on the part of lead singer/guitarist Alasdair MacLean (there were multiple references to backstage gin drinking throughout the night). I'm willing to forgive him a lot, though, because while the rhythm section of James Hornsey and Mark Keen is superbly tight and beautifully understated, and Mel Draisey adds some welcome ornamentation on keys (sometimes a little too loud in the mix, especially as she's no Ian McLagan) and violin (her strength), the uniqueness of The Clientele's sound is mostly down to Alasdair's voice, guitar style, and songwriting. When it all comes together, no one else can make the sound they make. And though it seems strongly redolent of the '60s, no one else ever really made that sound.

Alasdair made some jokes about the segment of their fans who prefer the early singles collection Suburban Light to any of their subsequent releases, but, in fact, a strong case could be made that each of their albums has both moved on from and improved upon the last. Though I'm not really convinced that their most recent, God Save The Clientele, was superior to its predecessor Strange Geometry, it was a strong record and continued the evolution of the group's studio sound. And on a less objective, more gut level, I still feel a strong connection to the first Clientele album I bought, The Violet Hour.

The chatter that plagued Buckner's set was still going strong for The Clientele. Apparently even the headliners didn't merit enough respect for people to postpone their urgent conversations, or least carry them on at less than full volume. Polite suggestion to concertgoers: when a drummer switches to brushes, it's time to PIPE THE F*** DOWN. I saw Alasdair call out a Chicago crowd on this, but last night's show and another I saw at the Knitting Factory were actually worse from where I was standing, and there was no comment from the stage. He did say that it's been New York audiences that have kept the band going over the years, so maybe the accumulated goodwill outweighs any annoyance.

The new songs (from the upcoming Bonfires on the Heath, due in October) sound like potential keepers, though the live renditions will surely benefit from a bit more touring. Of the old songs, the early "Saturday" hit me the hardest. With all the great songs they've released since, it still might be the quintessential Clientele song. Opening with Big Star's "Nighttime" was a nice surprise and an in-retrospect obvious and perfect choice for a Clientele cover. It also afforded Alasdair the opportunity for a very funny rock nerd joke - "We're going to start with a Big Star song...[crowd cheers]...from Big Star In Space". The by-now standard Television Personalities cover, "A Picture of Dorian Gray", appeared in the encores, sounding great despite a brief lyrical memory lapse.

The all-Merge bill proved to be filler-free, and interesting in that there were two very compatible bands separated by a solo artist who seems to have nothing other than a record label in common with them. I tend to prefer diversity on a bill, though, as long as the individual acts are strong, as these were. I've seen too many shows where the openers seem to have been chosen more for their superficial similarity to the headliner than for their own musical merit. Along with the Mercury Lounge, the Music Hall continues to be one of the best rock venues in town. If only there was a way to get the loud talkers to take advantage of the (quite roomy and comfortable) bar and lounge facilities away from the stage area.

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