Austin, Texas, the live music capital of the country (if not the world), brings us another music festival this year. The annual Solstice Festival brings in acts like JJ Grey & Mofro, Built to Spill, Golden Dawn Arkestra, and Bayonne this year.
General admission tickets are only $35.00, but for a limited time you can pre-order tickets for 15% off with the code SOSFEST.
Don’t wait too long to get your tickets. It’s sure to be a fun time.
Keep your mind open.
I was delighted to discover Japanese pop-punk legends Shonen Knife were playing in Tucson (at the nice little club / art space 191 Toole) while I was recently there. I’d never seen them, and their “Ramen Adventure Tour” included original bassist Atsuko, original guitarist Naoko, and new drummer Risa. Tickets were only $15.00, so this was a must-see.
Opening for them were local new wave / post-punk outfit Shooda Shook It. They showed up in matching black and white outfits and checkerboard masks that made them look like either luchadors or obscure Bronze Age comic book villains.
They were funky, groovy, and good. They played a set that started like early Devo, then ventured into early Talking Heads-like stuff, and then a neat blend of surf-punk and P-funk. I need to track down their stuff.
Shonen Knife came out to a rousing chorus of cheers.
They ripped out a set of stuff from their newest record, Adventure, including “Jump into the New World” and “Green Tangerine” – which was sung by their outstanding (and adorable) drummer, Risa.
They then played a big “food” set of songs related to food, including “Banana Chips,” “Ramen Rock,” “Sushi Bar,” “Wasabi,” “Fruits and Vegetables,” and “Barbecue Party.” I was bouncing like a delighted schoolgirl during “Banana Chips” and the crowd chants during “Sushi Bar” were great.
Other highlights were “Twist Barbie,” “Capybara,” and “Bear Up Bison,” which I thought was a fun addition to a set in the southwest. Their encore included their cover of “Daydream Believer” and the heavy classic “Bakka Guy,” which proves Shonen Knife could’ve been a doom metal band if they’d wanted.
It was a solid set that lasted just under an hour. They promised their set in Tempe the next day would be entirely different and they’d have different costumes (all of which are designed by Atsuko, by the way).
My wife said I was “crushing on them,” and she was right. I geeked out for them hard. I didn’t realize how much I needed a fun pop-punk show until then, let alone how much Shonen Knife material is out there I still don’t have. I hope I can catch them again sooner rather than later.
Keep your mind open.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Black Angels named their newest record Death Song, considering the name of their band comes from the Velvet Underground tune “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” The surprise might be that it took them so long, especially when you consider how many of their songs are about death. I think they were waiting for the right time, and the right time came after the 2016 election.
Death Song opens with the hard-hitting “Currency,” in which lead singer Alex Maas sings lyrics like “You print and print the money that you spend, you spend and spend the money that you print. One day it will all be over.” It’s a scathing takedown of corporate greed and the way it crushes the working class (“You’ll pay with your life, a slave nine to five.”). Meanwhile Christian Bland’s guitar sounds like an alarm klaxon and Stephanie Bailey crushes her kit.
“I’d Kill for Her” continues the theme of death and has the band firmly in dark psychedelia thanks to Kyle Hunt’s soaring synths and plenty of reverb on the guitars. The length of “Half Believing” is 4:20. Coincidence? Perhaps, but perhaps not when you hear its guitars simmering like a brew you might drink in a sweat lodge ceremony. On its face, the song is about Maas being wary of falling in love with a woman who might be treacherous. However, it’s easy to consider the song is subtly about concerns over civil rights and support for the arts over the next couple years (i.e., “I will die for things that mean so much to me. If you take them, you’d better watch out.”)
The guitars on “Comanche Moon” swirl around you like ghosts. Maas sings about the plight of the Comanche nation, and I can’t help but wonder if the Black Angels were inspired to write it when they saw coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. The near-funk bass of “Hunt Me Down” sets the tone for one of the grooviest tunes the Black Angels have released in a long while. Maas can’t escape another potentially dangerous woman (or is it the Grim Reaper?) who dogs him no matter the time of day or the place.
“Grab as Much (as You Can)” is lovely psychedelia, and the additional skewering of corporate greed is inescapable even as Maas sings about an amorous encounter with that mysterious, dangerous lady. The instruments on “Estimate” sound far away (as Bailey taps out a military procession march and Bland strums a simple, yet haunting riff), yet Maas’ vocals are immediate and almost pleading as he pledges to not get caught up in a They Live type of world but admits it’s difficult to avoid (“It’s kind of seductive.”).
“I Dreamt” is appropriately trippy and a bit frightening. The keyboards and guitars come at you from all sorts of angles, and Bailey practically lays down a house music beat. Maas takes on the role of a dreamweaver / wizard / shaman who offers to help us manage reality and the dream world (but which is which?).
“Medicine” has electro-beats behind Bailey’s rock ones, and spaghetti western guitars mixing with Hunt’s groovy keyboards. “Death March” is easily the trippiest song on the record. Maas’ vocals bounce all over the place, and the reverb on the guitars is enough to drop your mind down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. The album ends with “Life Song,” which seems to be from the perspective of a ghost who longs to be reunited with his love in the next world. It’s a lovely, soaring track that’s a fine send-off for an album (with a great, fuzzy solo from Bland) about death and dark times.
Death Song is another strong release from the Black Angels and further establishes them as one of the powerhouses of modern psychedelic rock.
Keep your mind open.
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Oliver Ackermann, lead singer and guitarist of A Place to Bury Strangers, was kind enough to chat with me before the band’s performance at Chicago’s Thalia Hall on May 11th opening for the Black Angels. We talked about the tour, the New York music scene, bassist Dion Lunadon’s upcoming album, shoegaze bands, and where to get good tamales.
7th Level Music: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I’m really looking forward to the show.
Oliver Ackermann: Cool, man. Thanks so much. We’re psyched to be coming there. We’ve been doing some crazy things at some of these shows. Definitely with the energy of Chicago, I’m sure it’ll be crazy.
7LM: Have you ever played Thalia Hall?
OA: No, is that place cool?
7LM: It is very cool. It’s a converted opera house, so the acoustics in there are great.
OA: That sounds so rad.
7LM: It is a very cool venue. I’ve been told the restaurant there is amazing, but I’ve never eaten there.
OA: Oh, cool. Hopefully they give us a discount or something like that.
7LM: If not, I can recommend a place. A short walk east is this really good tamale restaurant (Dia De Los Tamales – 939 West 18th Street).
OA: Really good tamales? That sounds delicious.
7LM: If you get there early enough, I highly recommend that.
OA: Awesome. Maybe we’ll hit that up.
7LM: The other day I was describing your music to somebody, and I said it’s kind of like a Zen master whacking you with a stick on the head.
OA (chuckling, as he’s clearly never heard that before): Okay.
7LM: The reason I came up with that analogy was because the last time I saw you guys was in Detroit when you played with Grooms and Sisters of Your Sunshine Vapor. Rick from the Sisters and I were at the back of the venue chatting, and you guys come on and as soon as your set started it literally knocked the sound out of our mouths.
OA (laughing): Awesome.
7LM: I got to thinking about it, and your music has that effect on people where it shakes people out of things.
OA: Sure. That kind of makes some sense. There are those shows that you go to and have your mind blown and we’re always trying to hark back upon those moments.
7LM: I remember the first time my wife and I saw you was at one of the Levitation shows. You played at the Mohawk. You completely floored us, and I had a similar experience. By the end of it, I was standing there thinking, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” It was great.
OA: That’s awesome. Right on.
7LM: How influenced is your sound from living in New York and being from that area, if at all?
OA: I don’t know. I wonder that, too. Sometimes I feel like we have no influence from that. I’m so busy in New York and we don’t always get to do things, and there’s so much crazy stuff going on, but I guess that must be an influence as well. There are a lot of great creative people that can definitely drive you, but I feel so disconnected from the scene.
7LM: I was watching some of your videos, and I noticed this reoccurring theme in the videos, and some of the lyrics, about how technology separates us from each other. Maybe I’m overreaching here, but it seems like you touch on those themes a lot.
OA: Sure. Definitely. That’s pretty funny you bring that up. That’s definitely a theme of some of our music. Sometimes you want to go a little old school, and you kind of miss some of those days of just being able to wander and go meet your friends if they were there, or having to go knock on their window. I think it brings us together as well, so maybe that’s just part of it.
7LM: Is Lia (Braswell) still drumming with you guys?
OA: Lia is drumming with us, yeah. That has been awesome. That’s definitely been a big influence on where our sound is going.
7LM: How did you two meet Lia?
OA: (Bassist) Dion (Lunadon) had seen her play in a friend’s band, Baby Acid, and said she was a wicked drummer. We were looking for different people to play with, so we invited her over to play drums, and she was amazing.
7LM: I saw her play with Lindsey Troy of Deap Vally and she killed it.
OA: Yeah, she’s incredible.
7LM: Did you and Dion meet when he came on with Exploding Head?
OA: We actually first met in Los Angeles. I was out there doing some sort of job for a friend and I didn’t have a place to stay. He was staying at this house with some friends of his. I spent the night at the house because he offered a place to stay. We met again back in New York when he moved there in 2007 or so. He was in the D4 and a bunch of killer bands.
7LM: A friend of mine wanted me to ask you what your favorite shoegaze bands were, and I know the Jesus and Mary Chain is one.
OA: Yeah, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, of course all those bands. Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Heaven Piano Company, Alcian Blue was really good, the Cocteau Twins, the Emerald Down, Mallory. There’s a bunch of good shoegaze bands.
7LM: Have you heard the new Slowdive stuff?
OA: I’ve only heard a couple of the songs. It sounded awesome, though. I’m super-psyched to hear the whole thing. What do you think of that record?
7LM: I like it. I’ve heard the first two singles. In some ways it’s like they just stepped right out of a time machine and in other ways it sounds like they’re moving in this cool new direction.
OA: Yeah, for sure. I’m excited to hear the whole record and maybe if they make another record after this what comes out of it.
7LM: I have a few questions I always ask bands I interview. One of them is, do you have any influences that you think would surprise some of your fans?
OA: Oh, for sure. I like a lot of different music. What do you think people would be surprised by?
7LM: Well, the reason I always ask bands this is because I once heard an interview with Rob Halford of Judas Priest and he was asked this question. He said, “You’re never gonna believe this, but I’m a massive Hank Williams, Sr. fan.” Ever since then I’ve been intrigued with hearing about what influences people have that others might not realize they have.
OA: I love Hank Williams, Sr.
7LM: Yeah, me too.
OA: Yeah, totally. That stuff’s awesome. I don’t know, in this day and age is anyone going to be surprised by anything?
7LM: That’s a really good point. Another question I always ask is, do you have any favorite misheard versions of your lyrics?
OA: I wish I could remember, because there sure are some funny ones out there. It’s kind of cool because when you hear them a lot of times they kind of morph into what makes sense for the people. I really like that. It turns personal for them, which is kind of the point of our music.
7LM: That gets back to the thing I believe where your music changes people’s perceptions, especially live.
OA: Totally. That’s the goal for a lot of our music. It’s a state between life and fantasy and to be able to let go of some of your thoughts and troubles.
7LM: When I saw you in Detroit, you came out into the audience with your instruments and I loved how you made this cool moment where you brought this technology into the crowd, but instead of technology pushing people away it was this big communal thing.
OA: Yeah, that’s a great thing. I think that’s pretty awesome. Not everybody will do that to connect with the audience. We always welcome anybody and everybody to jump up on stage or pull us down or whatever to connect and make it a communal event.
7LM: Do you write grooves first or lyrics first? Or does it depend on the song?
OA: It depends on the song. We always try to reinvent writing songs all the time we do it. It depends on what’s inspiring you. Sometimes it starts with an idea and some lyrics, or sometimes the music brings out a whole story or a mood. Even more recently, we’ve kind of been writing all of it at once. It’s kind of a weird, wild thing. I’ve always fantasized about having a band where you didn’t have any songs written before you played the shows, and you would play a whole bunch of songs at that moment. You start to do this thing where you unconsciously tap into a really pure experience and it draws you in a different direction. You’d dig deep and reveal some things maybe you wouldn’t be comfortable revealing in that moment.
7LM: If you ever do that, I hope I can get to one of those shows.
OA: Right on.
7LM: I’m one of those guys where if I go to a show and the band gets up and says, “We’re gonna play a bunch of stuff you’ve never heard before.” I’m the guy in the back saying, “Fantastic!”
OA: Awesome. I always like that, too. At least to hear some sort of challenge. It’s all about the excitement at that type of show. I’m sure there’s band where I’d be disappointed in that, too.
7LM: Well, the opposite of that is that after we see you guys tonight, we’re driving down to St. Louis to see Tom Petty and Joe Walsh.
OA: Oh, wow, that sounds awesome. That should be so cool. I’ve never seen them.
7LM: Speaking of new stuff, Dion’s new album (self-titled) is out next month?
OA: Dion’s new album is out next month. I’ve heard it. It’s fucking awesome.
7LM: I’ve heard the two tracks that he’s released so far, and I thought, “Holy crap! He’s gunning.”
OA: Oh yeah, it’s so powerful.
7LM: I’ve always thought that about him. When I saw you guys in Austin the first time, it was two songs into your set and he body slammed his bass on the stage so damn hard and I thought, “Holy crap, we’re really in for something.”
OA: Yeah, he’s hit himself in the head a couple times, bled all over the place, climbed up on some things that everybody else would be scared to climb on. I’ve seen him do some crazy things.
7LM: Are you your own guitar tech? I’ve seen the way you handle that thing.
OA: Totally. Yeah, we are all our own instrument techs.
7LM: That’s fantastic. It reminds of when I was in a garage band in college, and our guitarist would cut holes in his guitar and take it apart to get different sounds out of it. I see you getting the craziest sounds out of your guitar by mauling it.
OA: Yeah, you gotta play your instrument to the fullest.
7LM: Where are you off to after Chicago?
OA: We’re going to Minneapolis. We’re playing First Avenue. Purple Rain, Prince, it should be awesome.
7LM: Well thanks for all this. Break a leg tonight. Not literally, of course.
OA: For sure. See you tonight.
[Thanks again to Oliver Ackermann, Lia Braswell, Dion Lunadon, Burgers Rana, and Steven Matrick for being so groovy, arranging this interview and my press pass to the Thalia Hall show, and for the lighter.]
Keep your mind open.
“You know what the coolest thing is about this show?” Said a man next to me in the Vic Theatre where young Aussie rockers Boytoy and Aussie rock legends Midnight Oil were about to perform. “No one here is under thirty!”
It wasn’t true, but it was definitely an older crowd at the Vic. It had been over twenty years since my wife and I had seen Midnight Oil in concert, and you could tell the entire crowd in the hot, packed venue was ready to go nuts once Midnight Oil hit the stage.
Boytoy were first. They were three young ladies who were playing some good garage rock when we walked into the place, but they transformed into a stoner rock band by the end of their set, which elated me to no end. I need to track down their stuff.
Speaking, sort of, of stoner rock, the guy next to me tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at my rolled-up tour poster and said, “I thought that was a bong! I thought, ‘This guy’s the coolest guy in here!’” He even grabbed it at one point during Boytoy’s set and took an imaginary hit off it.
Midnight Oil came out to a roaring welcome and then got right down to business. They hadn’t lost a step in the time they’d been off working on other projects or, in the case of lead singer Peter Garrett, serving in the Australian Parliament.
“Why hasn’t he aged?” My wife asked about Garrett. My best guess is that he’s either a vampire or the food is much better in Australia because she was right. He looked like he’d barely grown older since we saw them in the early 1990’s.
He was, of course, politically outspoken. You don’t go to a Midnight Oil show and not expect to hear some political commentary.
Garrett started fairly early in the set. “Fact one: Thanks for waiting for so long. Fact two: It’s nice to be back in Obama territory. Fact three: There will be no alternative facts here tonight. Fact four: We don’t have short memories.” They then tore into “Short Memory” and had everyone bouncing.
He would touch on compulsory voting (“I don’t think you-know-who would’ve gotten in.” (if we had it here in the U.S.)), the environment (“We have a Mother Earth who takes care of us.”), universal health care (“If you make tacos for a living, you pay a little bit. If you have fifty million in a hedge fund and support the governor, you pay a bit more. We don’t call this socialism. We call it common sense.”), and equal rights (“Everyone, no matter their race, sex, age, or religious beliefs deserves to be treated with respect.”) before the night was over, and he wore a shirt that read “To sin by silence when one should protest makes cowards of men.”
Among the many great spots in their set were an acoustic version of “My Country,” a funky rendition of “When the Generals Talk,” roaring versions of “Read About It” and “Kosciusko,” and a killer performance of “Dreamworld” to end the set that had everyone pumping their fists and chanting.
They played two encores. The first started with “Put Down that Weapon,” and I couldn’t help but think they chose to play that in Chicago as a message toward the high rate of gun violence there the last two years. “Truganini” and “Forgotten Years” rounded out the mini-set, and then they came out once more to dedicate “Sometimes” to people working hard to help others.
It was a trip back in time to songs that are still relevant today. Midnight Oil is globetrotting for this tour, so catch them if they come near you. This is one of the best and most welcome tours of the year.
Keep your mind open.
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My wife and I honeymooned in St. Louis twenty years ago, and we ended up back there for our twentieth anniversary. It was great timing because not only were we going to see the Cubs play the Cardinals (Cardinals win 5-3), but we also had tickets to see rock legends Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Joe Walsh. Tom Petty has been high on my wife’s bucket list for years. She’s also a big fan of the Eagles, so the addition of Joe Walsh was a win-win.
Mr. Walsh came out with nine people in his band behind him, including four back-up singers and two drummers. He quickly got to work with “Meadows” and then dialed up “Ordinary Average Guy.” You could tell he was having fun by then. He threw down “The Bomber” by the James Gang (“Was part of that from Bolero?” My wife asked. Answer: “Yes.”) and made my wife cry when he played “Take It to the Limit” and dedicated it to Glenn Frey. “In the City” hits harder live than you expect it will, and people went nuts for “Life’s Been Good.”
I was yelling “Golden throat!” by this point, and sure enough he ended with “Rocky Mountain Way.” It’s easy to forget how good a guitarist Walsh is. He can still shred and the golden throat effects on this track are still fun after all these years.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers started their set with the first song off their first album – “Rockin’ Around (with You).” They unleashed “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” next and played it so well and with such fervor that it could’ve been the encore. “I could go home right now,” my wife said as we sat there with our mouths hanging open in stunned appreciation.
They tore through many of their biggest hits, including “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Freefallin'” (a big crowd favorite). Two surprises were “It’s Good to Be King” and the lovely, acoustic “Wildflowers.”
“Refugee” slayed the place, and the band was firing on all cylinders by this point. “Runnin’ Down a Dream” was almost a full-on psychedelic mind trip with its accompanying visuals.
There was a nice salute to hometown hero Chuck Berry when they played “Carol,” and they ended, no surprise, with “American Girl,” which had everyone jumping. It was a great end to a wonderful set. It’s hard to believe Petty and his band are on a 40th anniversary tour, because many of his songs still sound so fresh.
Keep your mind open.
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