Bear in Heaven
I had written a blog about how interesting Bear in Heaven, the first band I saw entirely was. (The first band I saw partially was the Very Best, Afro-pop from Malawi, which is indeed the very best music to listen to first thing in the morning.)Alas, I wrote said blog on my cell phone, all hail technology!, which then refused to publish it and then erased it completely. Anyway, I think my photographer friend Randy described them best when he said "they should have been the soundtrack to that movie The Lost Boys." Dark, brooding, and synthy rock already getting re-mixed by the likes of High Places and Studio.
I wasn't the biggest fan of Mayer Hawthorne (Andrew Cohen, Mayer Hawthorne is Cohen's porn name, e.g. middle name and the street he grew up on) and his almost farcical blue eyed soul crooning, but our art director said that she wanted to see him, and, well, she's taking the photos. I decided to see if his live show would sway me any more than last fall's surprisingly successful debut album, A Strange Arrangement.
Cohen came out to a traditional soul band set-up, with his excellent backing group, the County, providing a dramatic intro. The group doesn't have horns or strings, which is kind of odd for a collective dedicated to soul revival grooves, but then again, they're just the live hands to play what the multi-instrumentalist Cohen records himself. Whatever the reason they're onstage, they are all fantastic, and Cohen's arrangements allow each of them plenty of solo time for drums, keys, guitar and bass.
Cohen himself appeared a long way beyond his geeky press photos. Instead of oversized eyeglasses, he rocked super-tinted sunglasses, and ditched the vest and tie combo for a tailored suit. Personally, his smooth singing is a bit too polished for me, but I have to hand it to him, he never once broke a note or wavered in his comical falsetto. In place of the passion and intensity many soul and R&B performers bring to the stage, Cohen engaged with the audience. Throw your hands in the air for "It Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," do a little rain dance for "I Wish That It Would Rain."
Standing right by the photo pit, I noticed many, many other ACL Festival artists grooving to Mayer Hawthorne, and his sizable audience was only too happy to follow Cohen's ever move. I know Cohen's got it, I'm just pressed to say what exactly that 'it' is. If anyone else is as surprised as I am by his breakout success, it might by Cohen himself, who related a story about getting asked for an autograph earlier in the day. As he bashfully agreed, the autograph seeker leaned over and asked "Aren't you Michale Buble?"
A lengthy soundcheck (a millstone for several performing artists here) put a damper on excitement for the buzzy LA quintet Local Natives, sometimes called a "West coast Grizzly Bear" or a darker Vampire Weekend. After a couple of kinks with vocals, the group picked enthusiasm back up and delivered one of the festival's better sets.
The band's wide-eyed energy (displayed well on their aptly-titled song "Wide Eyes") drives their music, which blends vocal harmonies with tribal beats and angular guitars and keys. Everyone in the band shares vocal duties, singing in an almost straight line onstage, and they switch instruments when the need suits them, indicative of Local Natives' organic structure. The band essentially formed while still in high school, and later all moved into the same house in Los Angeles.
Without the energetic dual percussionists on most songs and the almost noise guitars on others, Local Natives vocals may fall into the folk category, but their instrumentation roots them fully in rock. They projected a dreamy energy out to the audience and sold one of the best recent covers, their very original take on the Talking Heads' "Warning Sign."
It's a wonder that British trio the xx saw fit to bring their spare, bedroom shoegaze to a mega-festival. Their self-titled debut album succeeded on singers Romy Madley Croft and Olver Sim's traded whispers and slow, carerful instrumentation. No wall of sound here. No lead singer bravado. Good god, how would they ever entertain the boozy masses?
Quite well, it turns out. In a complete feat of sound engineering, the vocals were loud as hell without turning fuzzy, and the bass and guitar boomed out over the attentive crowd. The band even managed to make a dramatic entrance, opening with one of their bigger hits, and parading out in their all black outfits. Occasionally, the moments of lingering notes and near-silence meant the xx's quiet, cozy world was punctuated by Latin rock group Kinky or the Temper Trap's atmospheric rock.
Not much for talking, Croft and Sim captivated by making love to the microphones, with Sim practically licking the mic during his sexy solos. They essentially played straight through their debut, already well-plumbed by the advertising world, with strong performances on "The Shelter" and "Crystalized."
Fresh off winning the U.K.'s Mercury Prize last month, the group announced this performance would be their last for quite some time.
Earlier in the day, I heard an older man explain James Murphy to his younger charge thusly: "He's like me, in his 40s, he doesn't take himself too seriously." Sure, I guess the founder of DFA records and frontman for LCD Soundsytem doesn't take himself too seriously, especially as he performed his ACL set in a plaid shirt and cargo pants, but also, I sort of doubt Murphy has too much in common with the guy wearing a safari hat and earplugs.
As LCD, Murphy now has three albums worth of material to pull from (and I guess his "45:33" song if he's performing at a marathon), so limiting his set to an hour seems cruel. Leading his gigantic six-piece live band, Murphy made the best of it, getting into his latest single "Drunk Girls" quickly, and noting how lucky they were to play right at sunset, the literal transition from sunny day music to dancey night music.
"We're gonna do our best with the sun up and then we're gonna do our best with the sun down," he told the audience before an unfortunately-timed false start. Playing live, Murphy is solely the frontman, singing, occasionally playing guitar and even getting down on the stage floor to mess with effects pedals by hand, or grabbing the drumsticks and playing along on "Tribulations." His band more than holds up their own end, with drummer Pat Mahoney especially deserving of some sort of award for playing uptempo, fast-paced techno beats over and over and over again.
With one of the least decorated sets of a headliner, there was no background designs or colored lights, LCD Soundsystem instead used flashing strobe lights and their own party-hearty audience to make their presence known