9 years ago today

Having recently been to New York for the first time since the mid-1990’s, and all the furor over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, this 9th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center has been on my mind. We went to the Tribute WTC: Visitor Centre while there, and it was hard to walk through for me. I really look forward to returning when the memorial has been built.

9/11 was on a Tuesday. We were living in a loft on Seymour st. Leah came in & woke me up really early – she’d been at the local coffee shop when the first plane hit, and came running back to wake me up & turn on the tv. We watched for several hours, until I went in to work. I remember that not everyone at the office knew about what had happened, so we all huddled around  my computer to pull up the news. I had started the current incarnation of this site just a few days prior, and that day, and for a long time afterward I wrote on and around the topic.

Curiously, what sticks out most for me is not the event, but that evening. I went to SHinDiG, UBC’s annual battle of the bands that is held every Tuesday night in the fall (reminder: it starts again this Tuesday!). Like every week, there was a section in the middle called “Jokes for Beer”, where people tell jokes to win beer. That night (actually, it may have been the following week now that I think about it. But in my memory they’ve become confounded together), someone told perhaps the most tasteless joke ever. Rarely is someone booed at Jokes for Beer, but it happened.

Here is the joke (I warn you now – if you are sensitive about 9/11, this might be upsetting. 9 years on, I find it darkly funny. Back then, I don’t think I even knew how to react – & I have no personal connection to the attacks):

Q: Why do more people like to fly American Airlines?
A: Because they fly right to your office.

I can no longer think about 9/11 without hearing that joke in my head. I think, somewhat curiously, that what made walking through the Tribute center extra difficult for me was that I couldn’t help but hear that over and over in my head. & then when I saw piece of debris from one of the planes alongside the ripped & melted gear of a firefighter who died trying to rescue people in the buildings, I had to leave.

There’s been a number of compelling pieces about 9/11 written today. These three are my favourites:

SHiNDiG 2004: Semi-Finals, night 3

So Tuesday marked the third and final semi-final night for this year’s SHiNDiG and featured Cadeaux, Vancougar and Foster Kare. I’ve seen all these bands before (although I missed Vancouger’s earlier show at SHiNDiG), and so had a fair idea of what to expect.

I just don’t like Cadeaux. They’re fine instrumentalists, and but the vocals I have issues with. They’ve two female singers, who I’ll dub Ms. Tall and Ms. Punk. And see, Ms. Punk’s vocals totally drown out Ms. Tall, but I think Ms. Tall has a much better voice. Both of them need a far sight more ferocity to pull off what they’re doing also. Combine that with a bass first lost in the mix, and then breaking, it made for a not-so-stellar set.

Vancouger is a lot of fun – punk-colored pop with, well, sass would be a good word, although I’m sure the band would and will hold it against me. They’re everything I liked about Cub when I was a kid, and so make natural successors to them (although, sadly, with less interesting hair)

Foster Kare, who started slowly when I saw them last, started slowly again tonight, but gradually won me over as they went. I didn’t like their set nearly as much as I did last time, despite their continued wizardry. It’s perhaps when compared to really good bands, versus the mediocre bands they played with before that their songs, while technically proficient, sound flat, familiar and a little uninspired. Why go to all that trouble of being so damed talented, only to take the easy way out?

In the end, Vancouger deservedly walked away with the win , and will face off against Dandi Wind & Mohawk Lodge in the finals. Which, in case you didn’t know, is next Tuesday, and given the quality of all three bands this year, is a must-see. I haven’t been this psyched by any of the finals of the previous 3 years of SHiNDiG.

SHiNDiG 2004: Semi-Finals, night 1

And so the weak have been culled, and now the various greybacks of the local music scene are left to duke it out to become the SHiNDiG 2004 champion, to go on to a long and successful career as local music darlings (or at least, intend to do such. Actual post-SHiNDiG success seems much more ephemeral that it perhaps should)

Lining up this night were the winners from the first 3 weeks of SHiNDiG, Dandi Wind, The Little Death and Evol Hearted. A small quibble here: I think it would be more interesting if the 9 semi-finalists were all ‘re-seeded’, so that it could be say Week1, Week 5 & Week 9 in the first semi-final, rather than just dividing up the opening rounds into 3 groups.

Like probably everyone else who’d been through the first round, there was little doubt as to who would win this night: Dandi Wind is just so much more than either of these other two bands. Not only is the performance amazing, but musically it stands out too: I forced myself to just listen with my eyes shut this time, to see if the music would stand up without the performance, and it really did.

The Little Death, who are interesting with their varied time signatures, odd little drum lines (I’m sure there’s a technical, or musical term for what I mean – fills, is it?), and other little musicianly tips-of-the-hat. Unfortunately, they are not the virtuoso musicians that this sort of wizardry requires in order to pull off. Also unfortunately, the singer’s voice is almost painfully bad. Which all leads to them just not doing well last night.

Evol Hearted, whom I missed in the first round, were, in my opinion, rather dull. Melodic, clean, talented, but, well, bland. Nothing about them (apart from having a female drummer, which is more common than you might think in Vancouver, but still uncommon) really stands out in my mind as being worthy of moving on. They aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination – they’re in fact quite tight and together and decent. But, like so many bands, they fail the critical test of having something that sets them apart. Which doesn’t mean that they won’t find that spark someday, or won’t enjoy some success – it just means they’re not going any further this year in SHiNDiG.

And so our first finalist is proclaimed, and deservedly so: Dandi Wind. All that remains now is to see whether any band can stand up to their fantastic, manic performances.

SHiNDiG 2004: Night 9

So I’d like to take you on a trip down memory lane…

Do you remember, back in the day, when metal was hard & raucous? Before it was sullied by pop-influences, power-ballads & nü-metal. When 3 guys could stand on stage, scream ferociously into the mike while engaging in fast guitar- & bass-wizardry, backed only by a drummer who you swear, will pound a hole into his kit at any second? Ahh, those were the days, my friend, and that was Foster Kare

Sadly, not all memories are so good. Let’s take a sideways step. Still back in the day, but remember when Gowan & Glass Tiger ruled the radio? When the boys were pretty & the pop was shitty? This, my fellow travellers, was the magic of The Cassanova Playboys, who were far too sexy for their shirts, who brought a gaggle of hotties for fans, and who will likely one day feature prominently on pop radio, much to the horror of us all.

We’ve spent time coursing backwards through the 80’s: the good & the bad, but remember – there was rock before the 80’s. In the 70’s, rock was over-the-top, orchestral, grandiose, all those lovely things. And thus we see the influences of The Rub, a 5 piece that harkens back to the glory days of Fleetwood Mac and their ilk. Featuring a flautist amongst the mix, they played sweet, melancholy songs that never quite lifted off the ground. They’d perhaps be more comfortable with a full orchestra backing them, or at least an over-wrought stage-show at a stadium to play in (I jest). They were certainly virtuoso musicians each, and mirroring the various solos on the flute was a daring move, but I think they need to find their Robert Hunter, to create better songs for their talents.

I’m hopeful that Foster Kare carried the night. I certainly can’t imagine either of the other two acts did, particularly given the character of those judging last night, but, I’ve been surprised before, and will likely be again. But now SHiNDiG 2004’s opening round is done, and next week, the semi-finals begin. If you’ve not been out yet, start now, because the chaffe has fallen by the wayside, and it’s time to see which of the remaining wheat is, umm, umm, the wheatiest?

SHiNDiG 2004: Night 7

Much like last week (which, for various reasons, I haven’t written about here. My apologies to those whose lives are bereft without these reviews ;), week 7 of SHiNDiG was better than virtually every other night. Not the least of which reason was that the Railway Club was packed, as each band brought out some fans.

The first band of the night, Hejira is possibly one of the very best bands that I’ve ever seen in 3-odd years of going to SHiNDiG. Certainly, they were, shall we say, heavily influenced by Radiohead, but they were good in their own right. The cynic in me also wants to say “given the amount of money they must have spent on gear, they’d better damn well be good”. And fortunately they were. Their first song was really derivative, but after that they found their own sound within the techno-rock that Radiohead (and few others) do so well. The singer, with his high, plaintive, somewhat nasal voice, was very evocotive, if a little incoherent. The guitarist, who is the recipient of my major complaint for fiddling with switches as much as playing, thrashed out admirably, while the bassist/keyboardist/mixer held steady, not being too flashy, but certainly holding his own. Their sound is almost certainly unique in the Vancouver music scene, and well-worth seeing (although be wary if they play anywhere with notoriously bad sound).

The Skatomatics, as the name implies, were a Ska band. Like the name also implies, they brought nothing new at all to the genre, seemingly content to rock lightly through the night. It would have been ok had they any edge, or played a little looser, but rather, they kept it safe & staid, and the result was disapointingly boring. Ska should always be fun, at the very least, and I didn’t find theirs much fun at all. It was pleasant, sure, that’s damning praise.

Closing out the night was Cadeaux a really interesting pop-band. Featuring 2 female lead-vocalists, who battled & traded lead throughout the set, they were really good. Sadly for them, their voices were simply too high-pitched for me, and I’d wince whenever they’d hit a high note. There was also a strange tinny buzzing, like a dime shaking on a vibrating plate, or something, that was really irritating. I’m not sure if that was part of their sound, playing the higher ranges on the guitars, or some fuck-up in the sound, but it drove me out of the club early. Despite this, their songs, their sound, their musicianship was all interesting, and worth another look.

Because I left early, I don’t actually know who won last night. I certainly voted for Hejira, but I suspect that Cadeaux might have carried the night, because their sound is closer to what I would call the “CiTR sound” – slightly messy, cute, endearing pop-rock, little pretense and lots of scenester cred.

SHiNDiG 2004: Night 5

Upon receiving a SHiNDiG judging sheet from Ben, you’ll note that that he has boldfaced and underlined the message “constructive criticism only”. On a night like last night’s SHiNDiG, that reminder comes in handy. To stay constructive, I’ll find myself suddenly vastly interested in the showmanship, the set, the dress or even the posturing of the act on stage. Last night, I believe I wrote something to those effects for each of the three acts. Still, someone had to win.

Man meets Bear, another one-man, laptop & guitar act opened. Now carry the normal end-result of a man meeting a bear over to a musical sound, and you’ll get the idea. His songs were actually quite nice, simple little songs, fairly folky. He had a nice, emotive voice. But then he mixed in these discordant, jarring, sometimes even off-tempo (from his own guitar-playing) loops from his laptop, mauling his own songs. Worse (and this is my standard complaint for DIY’ers), he kept breaking the flow to fiddle with his laptop. Still, in the end, he got my vote because I liked his voice, and he could potentially be really interesting.

Ponderosa could have been the house band for Dazed & Confused, or any other late 70’s stoner-rock high-school movie. Right down to the hair. I will say it was really great to hear some old-school blues-rooted rock music, and also, fun to hear a well-played bass featured so prominently. They could well have a great career ahead of themselves as a cover band. If this was one of their first shows, and they gain some confidence, they could actually become fairly listenable. Sadly, I’m not sure they’ll ever be terribly interesting without modernizing, or personalizing their sound beyond what they currently produce.

I really don’t know what to say about Basement. He should never had left it, perhaps? Another one-man act (but with mannequins ‘playing’ fake keyboards for backup), and a pre-programmed track for his set (at least he didn’t have to toy with it), he produced a really tame industrial sound. Clearly heavily influenced by the likes of Trent Reznor, he was sadly simply no good – the sound was week and pop-like. It made Depeche Mode sound hard, the lyrics were inane and his voice rather weak – missing power and emotion.

Ben promises that next week will be better. I certainly hope so, particularly if I’m judging. It’s really hard to rank three acts when not a single one wins you over.

SHiNDiG 2004: Night 4

So a week ago today was Night 4 of SHiNDiG. Tonight will be Night 5. If you haven’t come down to the Railway club to check it out, you should. Or don’t, but then me and all the other cool kids will snub you. And you don’t want to be snubbed, do you?

Night 4 was, I felt, somewhat weak. Opening was Mark of the Beats a one-man smorgasbord (sp?) of sound. I’m amazed that one person can produce such an inconsistent array of genres in such a short time, running from punk, to rap, to techno, etc. I’d like to say that I liked it, or that it was successful, but I’d be lying. The ideas are good, and might one day coalesce into something enjoyable, but it’s not there yet.

Philharmonic took up the middle set, and while, a week removed, I can’t remember why, I do remember really liking them. They seemed a collection of virtuoso musicians – the bassist in particular. I had a mental image, during their set, of the bassist as a Keith Richards, 15 years down the line – totally strung out, wasted, but still showing those occasional flashes of absolute brilliance that lead to albums like Exile on Main Street. Not that this band is the next Stones, but more that this one guy in particular is really, really good.

The Sore Throats closed the night, and well, is it better to say nothing than to be mean? Let’s try and couch this as constructive criticism: 1) Pop-punk is over. It was something of a travesty to begin with, and there’s no reason to keep it kicking. 2)Insulting your bandmates at all times, for everything, just makes you look like a jackass. 3)Loud is not the same as good. On the plus side, they all looked pretty good up there…

SHiNDiG 2004: Night 2

It being another Tuesday yesterday, it was time, once again, for SHiNDiG. Last night’s line-up included the likes of The Little Death, Salmon Arm and Mandown. More info on all these bands is likely to be found at the SHiNDiG site.

The Little Death opened, and sadly, weren’t cheeky post-new-wave intellectuals. Instead, they were more a…I’m not sure – indie prog-rock act, perhaps? With hints of Pavement, Rush and even a little Yes, they were hard to pin down. But give the boys credit for reaching for that rainbow. Only, in my mind, they’re still mired in the mud. It is true, they have potential, but they need to do some serious practising to get to where (it appears) they want to be, where muscianship can outshine the song.

Salmon Arm was really much more like I expected TLD to be like. Gorgeous instrumentals crossed with the occasional rocker, but all very atmospheric. The best thing I can probably say about them is that they both hinted at, and made me want to list to, ‘Houses of the Holy’. Featuring a cello (it’s amazing what a rich sound that instrument can produce), guitar, bass & drums, they kept things in a lower key that begged for a smoke-filled room. Vocals, when there were any, were throw-away, but I didn’t think the band the any weaker for it.

After an interminable & wretched jokes for beer, Mandown came on, sporting a drumkit with a skull-painted on, a classic hair-metal guitar (you know – the angular ‘star-shaped’ kind) and a look that would make Blink-182 look hardcore, I was really worried that we’d get some pop-punk pap from the trio. They were, instead. really quite respectable. Way too loud for me, and certainly not my style of music, but decent. Sadly, completely forgettable too.

I left before Mandown had left the stage, as I was getting a headache. Given my opinions, and having chatted some with the other judges during the course of the show, I was quite surprised to hear that The Little Death had won the night. A pity, in my opinion, but that’s the glory of SHiNDiG. And now, I’ll get to give them a second chance (which I’ll admit, they’re worthy of) in the next round.

SHiNDiG 2004: Night 1

Last night was the inaugural show for SHiNDiG 2004, UBC’s annual battle of the bands, running 13 consecutive Tuesdays every fall. Ben, as for the last few years, is the host.

It must be said that all 3 bands were decent last night, although all were a little rough in patches. Speaking of Devils opened the night with a pseudo-folk set. A trio, whose main selling point were the lyrics and phrasings, they suffered from muddied sound. The band was clearly the lead singer’s in every respect, with little to no input coming from his backing musicians. Indeed, when the guitarist goofed up, the singer shot him a mighty angry look. Were I the manager of this band, I’d get rid of the electric guitarist. The keyboards were good for atmosphere & sound-richness, but the surfy electric just seemed to take away from the sound. A simple, soft drum-kit might make a better addition to the band, to fill in the gaps, as it were. A radical suggestion might even be for the singer to take it solo for a while.

Stuck in the middle was Automatic Fancy, and all-girl rock act. In this band, the backing musicians were the highlight – stellar playing, very tight and a clean sound. The singer, who, it must be said, brought terrific energy to her act, was probably the weekest member, shouting the lyrics to a point that they were no longer comprehensible. She did, on the other hand, have a nice touch on the keyboards, which were used sparingly but to great effect.

Rounding out the night was the evening’s winner, Dandi Wind, an east-side/German Industrial/Performance Art act. Think Rammstein meets River Dance, only in a good way. This is an act that will sink or swim entirely on the presence of the singer/dancer, who, I’ll admit, was scary intense during the set, thrashing and dancing (small quibble: ‘the robot’ popped out too often), shouting and singing over a tight, harsh techno beat hammered out nicely by her backing keyboardist (who also provided some surprisingly delicate backing vocals, a nice counter-point).

Which brings me to the last point of this review: Is it time to identify a “Lower East-side/Drive” sound? Or not so much a sound, so much as a school of music? I’ve seen now at least a score of acts over the past 3 years that all claimed to live/work/exist in either the LES or the Drive, and they all have striking similarities. Not so much in the sound (although they do all tend to the hardcore/industrial/techno side), but rather in politics and presentation. Universally, they rail against shitty jobs, shitty politics, fight for gender rights, worker rights, etc. But what ties all of these acts together is the the meeting of the musician and the artist. All of these acts don’t just play for you, they perform. They get into character, they dress up, they have props, they make you believe in something more than just the music. Perhaps it’s time for someone to group some of these acts together, promote them together, get them the wider recognition they deserve, but importantly, identify whatever it is that seems to be happening here in Vancouver.

SHiNDiG (Night 7)

Last night was an eclectic a mixas I’ve ever heard at a _SHiNDiG, and I’ve been to a fair number at this point. Opening the night was the metal act Martial Law, from Abbotsford, or somewhere like that (the singer, clearly proud of this, shouted where they were from on several occasions, but I never once could understand where it was he was shouting they were from). They were tight, had high energy and a driving drummer, propelling them through their set. The singer, likewise, has excellent crowd-working skills, getting everyone up and excited for the night, despite their early 9:30 start. The only noticeable problem with these guys was the hatless guitarist (as they switched off roles) occasionally simply seemed to lose time to the others. The other helpful note I have is that wife-beaters may work out wherever your from, but they’re just not cool in the city, I don’t care who you are (wow — isn’t that petty of me?).

The second act of the night was The Front, ostensibly a hip-hop act, but that’s doing them some disservice. They were simply phenomenal. An interesting, original funky sound, subtle, elegent & complex basslines (from an actual bassist) and upbeat, intelligent lyrics, these guys were heads & shoulders above both the other bands. I’ve never seen a SHiNDiG crows so enamoured with an act, as they got lots of people right up front dancing for them (even if most of these people were their own friends — it’s an unusual occurance). Oddly, what ensured they would carry the night was what happened when they experienced some technical difficulties with their bassist’s amp. Rather than just standing around trying to fix it, the MCs freestyled around the topic of the bassist breaking his amp, with the keyboardist & drummer providing the beat for them. One of them even switched fluidly into another language (spanish?) mid-rap, keeping the rhyme, and then switched back. So he was what you might say decent.

Last act of the night was Gangbang, a lo-fi/DIY/po-mo ironic/detached punk act, somewhat like very early Blondie. They were fine and fun, and had interesting lyrics (when was the last time you heard pemmikin (sp?) or coureur de bois in a song?), but did suffer from perhaps being too into their own act, and failing as they’d fall into giggles at their own joke.

As expected, The Front carried the night. Actually, I now expect them to win the whole thing, although the finals should stack up to be good, with who I’m guessing will win each of the semi-final rounds. Needless to say, if you see these guys advertised around town, go check them out. You won’t be disapointed.