Freelance Whales released their sweet and honest debut album in September of 2009, but audiences are still getting acquainted with this tenderhearted quintet from Brooklyn.
Frontman Judah Dadone (lead vocals, banjo, acoustic and electric guitar, synthesizer, bass) drew on inspiration for the band’s name from a near drowning incident in the Sea of Galilee when growing up in Jerusalem. He was seeking to grasp a rock to prove that he reached the bottom, but found it difficult to regain the surface. The Israeli fisherman who pulled him out called him in Hebrew a “freedom whale”, which then metamorphosed into the increasingly familiar name. The reference to the musical mammal and the gesture to a do-it-yourself attitude ties Dadone together with bandmates Doris Cellar (bass, harmonium, glockenspiel, synthesizer, vocals) (lead vocals, banjo, acoustic and electric guitar, synthesizer, bass), Chuck Criss (banjo, bass, synthesizer, glockenspiel, harmonium, acoustic and electric guitar, vocals), Jacob Hymn (drums, percussion, vocals), and Kevin Read (acoustic and electric guitar, glockenspiel, mandolin, synthesizer, vocals).
The members of Freelance Whales found each other through friends of friends and through Craigslist in 2008 as a result of Judah Dadone’s posts aimed at musicians who might fill his imagined sounds on unusual instruments. The band further bonded at a remote, eerie, abandoned farm colony on Staten Island where a friend suggested they videotape a performance. This late 2008 evening marked the first time the 5 brought their acoustic instruments together and performances throughout the mazes of NYC subway system evolved from the experience.
The collective honed their sound almost exclusively on the stages and subway platforms of New York City. At 2009’s end, the band journeyed on their first tour supporting the highly-orchestrated, swelling indie pop of London’s Fanfarlo. Several crowded performances at SXSW brought the band’s buzz to new heights after Spin named them one of 50 “Must Hear Bands at SXSW” and NPR simultaneously referred to them as “a band to watch this year” after a live appearance on All Songs Considered. 2010 saw an April re-release of Weathervanes on both Frenchkiss and Mom + Pop, the later which houses hot indie sensations Sleigh Bells, Metric, Tokyo Police Club, and Ingrid Michaelson. “Generator ^ First Floor” and “Broken Horse” were heard on NBC’s Chuck and the CW’s One Tree Hill. Soon audiences found Freelance Whales on tour with Bear in Heaven, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Shout Out Louds, and Tokyo Police Club.
Weathervanes is beautifully poetic and full of pastel imagery that somehow make stories of ghosts and nightmares enchanting. “Generator ^ First Floor” begins the bundle of storied tales which wrap the listener tightly for the album’s 46 minute duration. Dadone softly sings, “We’re finding every day several ways that we could be friends, And in our native language we are chanting ancient songs, And when we quiet down the house chants on without us.” This youthful optimism reveals the core of Weathervanes. “Hannah’s” chorus tempts the artful dreamer by calling “if you’re attracted to the night sky, if you’re vaguely attracted to rooftops”. “Location” follows Dadone searching for his ghostly sweetheart with mood filled lyrics contrasted with honeyed harmonies and hopeful banjo strums within the interludes. “Starring” is reminiscent of Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service with its infusion of electronics and synths mixed with Dadone’s soft vocals creating an electro pop gem with rolling choruses and a banjo solo to briefly interrupt the electric flow.
The poetic story within “Broken Horse” follows the animal’s wintertime journey away from confinement with haunting, intertwining, and overlapping vocals. “Danse Flat” is strangely sparse and slightly spooky as it lures the listener into the depths of a deserted house with the sweet tune of a music box turning. “We Could Be Friends”‘s powerful ascending guitar lines, keyboard meanderings, and rock beats lift the song’s luscious lyrics, “I am convinced that we should be friends, We compare our hearts to things that fly, But cannot land.”
Throughout Weathervanes, Freelance Whales make the most of each moment where vocals are absent to imbue the sound with numerous effects, xylophone tinklings, and atmospheric murmurings. The songs rest among similar tones, which create a sweet whole while deeper listens allow the distinctions to settle in. Most of these differences lie within lyrics crafted from Dadone’s childhood memories and dream journals.
Freelance Whales is currently on their 3rd U.S. tour following summer performances at Sasquatch! and Lollapalooza. Try not to miss them before they rise to another level and the intimacy now to be gained is gone.
Remaining Fall Tour dates…
Mon, Nov 27th – Hi-Dive / Denver, CO
Wed, Dec 1st – 7th Street Entry / Minneapolis, MN
Thu, Dec 2nd – Lincoln Hall / Chicago, IL
Fri, Dec 3rd – The Basement / Columbus, OH
Sat, Dec 4th – Brillobox / Pittsburgh, PA
Sun, Dec 5th – Mohawk Place / Buffalo, NY
Tue, Dec 7th – El Mocambo Club / Toronto, ONT
Wed, Dec 8th – La Sala Rossa / Montreal, QC
Thu, Dec 9th – Middle East / Boston, MA
Fri, Dec 10th – Iron Horse / Northampton, MA
Sat, Dec 11th – Lily’s Pad / New Haven, CT
Tue, Dec 14th – Johnny Brenda’s / Philadelphia, PA
Wed, Dec 15th – Webster Hall / New York, NY
Rather in love with this track. Ironic in that at the core it feels quite heavy-hearted. As another writer aptly put it, “If you’ve ever stared broken-hearted from a train window as frowning forests fly by then you already know what it sounds like.” (Pinglewood)
Phoenix’s buoyant, soaring track turns into something rather bittersweet. The resounding melancholy mood is soft and subtle. The elegant remix lingers in the bridge, poignantly resting on few lyrics to bring out the essence of the song. And that is what Banhart has accomplished. He struck the emotional spirit of the song making this rendering arguably better that the first.
This summer I was whisked away on the festival circuit leaving little time to share what’s been exciting my ears. That likely hurt me more than it hurt you. But I’m back to reflect on what is coming out now and to make sure that you are hearing it as well.
As I get the gears revolving, here are a few tunes which caught me this summer…
The Westword Music Showcase is Denver’s very own version of SXSW, albeit a smaller one. The yearly event, hosted by the free alternative weekly across 8 blocks of the Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood lasts just one day. But don’t let this take away from the fact that it is one of the best events in the area to take in the burgeoning Denver music scene and catch some amazing national acts as well. And it’s cheap. Just $15 in advance and $30 day of.
This year’s event has one of the best lineups to date for indie fans with headliners including Ghostland Observatory (Austin), Dirty Projectors, and Neon Indian. Other stand-out local acts include The Still City, Eleanor, Hello Kavita, Taun Taun, and Kill Paradise. See below for Lux’s picks for this year’s Westword Music Showcase.
At the end of a weekend of award-winning sets, blue skies, and hipper-than-hip crowds, an esteemed analyst of mine pronounced that Gorillaz had won Coachella. After falling for the title, I’m compelled to share who made the grade, offered stand-out sets, and made Coachella what it is: the picking ground for some of the best artists performing now.
Several acts were immediately taken out of the contest due to their inability to get to the festival. The Cribs, Gary Numan, Bad Lieutenant, and Delphic fell pray to flight cancellations as a result of the plume of volcanic ash from Iceland that descended on the UK and parts of Scandinavia during the week prior to the festival. Sly Stone has been disqualified as well due to the last minute postponement of his Sunday set until later that evening and the difficulty he had making it through his own songs.
While the remaining 130+ artists competed enthusiastically, the Lux votes are in and it’s a tie between Gorillaz and Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace. The remaining titles have been awarded respectively to Dirty Projectors, The Whitest Boy Alive, Grizzly Bear, Passion Pit, Phoenix, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, LCD Soundsystem, Jónsi, Pretty Lights, Vampire Weekend, La Roux, Jay-Z, Hot Chip, Pavement, MGMT, Gossip, The Avett Brothers and Little Dragon.
Owen Pallett’s geeky laugh, the longest bout of insanely loud distortion from Girls, and Mutemath’s Paul Meany performing flips on and over his keyboard made for other memorable Coachella moments.
Special thanks to Ra Ra Riot, Local Natives, Little Boots, Beach House, Sia, Miike Snow, Flying Lotus, Sleigh Bells, and Imogen Heap for playing. You have each been awarded an honorable mention.
Last place goes to Tiësto. You can’t win when you insist on being louder than every other artist to perform and drown out your competitors.
Congratulations to Coachella for their first sell out in the festival’s 12 years. Your decision to hold the fest on the meticulously manicured and palm-tree lined grounds of the Empire Polo Fields in California where the weather might be the finest in the nation might warrants you the prize of best indie festival around.
#1 – Gorillaz
The Gorillaz set was all over the map in terms of music diversity. Quality beats and grooves drove audience members to produce their best dance moves yet. Who needs holographic bandmates when you’ve got a live band made up of the Hypnotic Brash Ensemble and a long list of guests including former Clash members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, Little Dragon, De La Soul, Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack. MySpace|Website
#1 – Atoms For Peace
Thom Yorke’s music is meant for large scale productions like Coachella. The incredible presence of Yorke live with Flea adding his electrifying bass lines truly brought The Eraser to life. Thick beats, resounding piano lines, psychedelic interludes and Yorke’s haunting vocals created an entirely cathartic experience built on inspired song-writing. MySpace|Website
#3 – Dirty Projectors
With chanteurs that sound like birds, Dirty Projectors dazzled listeners with their experimental sonic alchemy. The beauty of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Deckle’s voices shone radiantly alongside the intricate and unique musical stylings of their compatriots. The power of this group live is something to behold. MySpace|Website
#4 – The Whitest Boy Alive
Some of the best music I heard all weekend came from this band out of Berlin. I’ve had a lasting affection for Kings of Convenience, which made it even more exciting when I heard KoC lead singer Erlend Øye’s new project. Øye has dove headfirst into an entirely original form of electro-dance music. His unique vocals fraternize perfectly with the band’s funk guitar lines, smooth keyboard melodies and dance-heavy bass and drums grooves. After the set ended, Øye came out to slap hands with the remaining fans, sing a few lines with them, and proudly wave the German flag that was tossed to him. MySpace|Website
#5 – Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear put other artists to shame with their voluptuous 4-part harmonies. The sounds created a thick atmosphere drenched in their deeply textured psychedelic pop. The audience was moved and accepted the invitation into their sonicly rich world. MySpace|Website
#6 – Passion Pit
One of the best synth-pop band out there electrified their audience as the sun dropped over the mountains in Indio on Friday. Offering their realm of highly danceable pop grooves, Passion Pit glimmered and soared. The blissed out crowd reciprocated with elation-filled singing and tumbling exuberance. MySpace|Website
#7 – Phoenix
Phoenix’s sparkling indie-pop has clearly taken the U.S. by storm. Their infectious set on Sunday was packed as Coachella-goers drank in the energetic performance by France’s new sensation. Crowds sang along, danced hard, and demonstrated unabashed love for Phoenix. The band’s lighting designer got caught up in flight delays in Europe but no need when you have an engaging Thomas Mars writhing on stage and getting down into the audience to sing the set’s closer. MySpace|Website
#8 – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros’ hippy, communal vibe and jubilant feel-good tunes created the perfect soundtrack for Coachella on Saturday. The band took their audience on a magical trip into their realm of love, hope, and happiness and for the trippers I saw, it couldn’t get any better. The female vocalists surfed the crowd in short dresses and the tangible intimacy between Alex and Jane could be felt no matter how far back one might have been. MySpace|Website
#9 – LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy’s disco-tinged, dance-punk, David Byrne-recalling set on the main stage of Coachella Friday night magnified the impact of his imaginative musical world. Murphy was egoless, at points even apologetic, inspiring the audience to equally let down their hair and let go of self-consciousness. The band consistently wowed those ready to dance with heavy synth and explosive drum fills, ridden by Murphy’s smart, lyrical meanderings. MySpace|Website
#10 – Jónsi
Jónsi’s uplifting sounds created the perfect daytime set at Coachella. The exclusion of the fantastical theatre set and projections that accompany the rest of his spring tour enabled fans to focus on Jónsi’s pure musical gift. Flawless falsetto, glistening crescendos, and orchestral embellishments washed over the crowd as the sun warmed them. MySpace|Website
#11 – Pretty Lights
Colorado sent their best and brightest to Coachella to incite audiences with cutting-edge dance beats, heavy funk grooves, diverse hip-hop samples, and eletro psychedlia. It went off. Who cares if it’s daytime when you’re in the Sahara tent dancing to Derek Vincent Smith’s sonic intuition coming to life coupled with the venue’s over-the-top lights, lasers, projections, LED screens and surround sound speakers. MySpace|Website
#12 – Vampire Weekend
The band’s energetic, youthful enthusiasm and deft musicianship infused their performance, which drew on favorites from both of the group’s records. The highlight of the set came when Ezra Koenig shared his love of screaming by encouraging the audience to just let it all go and join in as he shrieked the chorus of “Blakes Got A New Face.” MySpace|Website
#13 – La Roux
La Roux’s set in the Gobi tent might have been the most packed performance of the weekend next to Florence And The Machine. The young crowd went wild for Eleanor Jackson’s synth-driven dance-pop and sugar-sweet vocals. MySpace|Website
#14 – Jay-Z
Classic beats, Jay-Z’s smooth stylings, his evident love for his fans, an unannounced cameo from Beyoncé, and spectacular visual backdrops made for stellar entertainment Friday eve. Just the kind of set you’d expect from the first hip-hop headliner ever at Coachella. MySpace|Website
#15 – Hot Chip
U.K’s electro-pop ambassadors created a massive dance party on Coachella’s Outdoor Stage on Saturday. “It’s our third time at Coachella,” Alexis Taylor told the crowd, “and this is the most fun we’ve ever had.” The high-energy set, based mostly on the group’s latest release, One Life Stand (2010), wove the band’s synth explorations within elegantly placed samples all topped by Taylor’s pastel-colored vocals. MySpace|Website
#16 – Pavement
The legendary indie rockers played one of their first sets in 11 years, proving both their legitimacy and renewed energy. The show was filled with self-effacing humor, dynamic favorites from their vast catalog, and plenty of moments that reminded the audience of what they’d been missing in the 00’s. The set was a redeeming one as many fans consider their performance at Coachella #1 in 1999 as one of the worst Pavement sets ever resulting from the band being burned out and annoyed with each. Plus Stephen Malkamus almost lost his voice from allegedly scorching his throat on a bad-bong hit. MySpace|Website
#17 – MGMT
MGMT have emerged in 2010 as one of the most eccentric band’s on the indie scene with their new release Congratulations (2010). While the audience wasn’t as familiar with the new material, the band didn’t care as they tore through a set of psychedelic wanderings, melodic detours, and Beach Boys-esque harmonies with unabashed ardor. While certainly bizarre, it was hard not to respect the band’s dedication to their evolving sound. MySpace|Website
#18 – Gossip
Beth Ditto might have been the ultimate diva at Coachella despite her stiff competition, namely from Little Boots’ Victoria Hesketh. Ditto controlled the crowd with her powerhouse vocals, enchanting self-assurance, and unabashed elation. The appropriate response? Grin ear-to-ear and dance along with her. MySpace|Website
#19 – The Avett Brothers
The Avett’s played a moving set of tunes to an enamored audience soon after the gates opened on Friday. Closing with “I and Love and You”, the band invited the crowd to sing along and sent the audience on their way wrapped in their heartfelt lyrics. MySpace|Website
#20 – Little Dragon
Sweden’s Little Dragon gave off their bizarre sounds topped by Yukimi Nagano’s sultry vocals to sweet response. Filled with synth, ambient noises, and multi-layered musical explorations all backed by a steady beat, the Gobi tent relented, entering their strange world and keeping in the groove. MySpace|Website
Pretty soon those of us in Indio will be submerged within some of the hottest sounds coming out now. Below are Lux’s picks for Coachella 2010. Sets of top priority include Thom Yorke, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Pretty Lights, Hot Chip, Fever Ray, Passion Pit, Ra Ra Riot, Beach House, Dirty Projectors, Delphic, Jonsi, Phoenix, MGMT and Rusko.
High Places exist within a realm of experimental sounds. Repetitive samples, home-crafted percussion, and minimalist vocals imbue their sparse electronica-pulsating world. The outcome feels both foreign and warm. Mary Pearson and Rob Barber have together created a unique sound steeped in soft, wispy female vocal melodies, brisk beats, and rhythmic lines produced on folk percussion and household objects. It is music inspired by beauty and nature, whose artistry leans towards organic resonances. The subtlety of their music whispers images, allowing the listener to fill the landscapes with their own contemplations. This association might bring to mind the amorphous, dream-inspiring work of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear.
Live, the two create layered recordings with Pearson manipulating her vocals with delay and reverb, playing hand percussion, and creating and controlling various loops. Barber triggers percussive sounds from his drum pads, adds ambient vocals, and plays an array of rhythmic instruments to create the certain tone that is High Places. The songwriting is expansive and fluid, while the musical ideas produced are concise. A state of meditation is encouraged by their creations and this seems apt as Barber has been on record saying that music is pretty much the only thing that calms him down and enables him to relax.
High Places’ self-titled debut was recorded in Pearson and Barber’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood apartment in Brooklyn in 2008. And the music has that true, artsy Brooklyn feel. The two met in 2006, when Pearson was living in Michigan and both were pursuing solo projects. Once she moved to New York, they began collaborating, exchanging ideas and giving each other little bits to work off of and respond to. Their unexpected first performance came in May of 2006, when Rob was offered a gig that he didn’t want to play alone. A demo and U.S. tour dates came soon after. In 2008, the group signed with Thrill Jockey Records to release their debut and, shortly thereafter, a collection of singles under the title 03/07-09/07.
The band’s most recent record, High Places vs. Mankind (March 2010), offers a new era of the band’s experimental pop. It takes their music to a more densely atmospheric place with slow dance-heavy grooves. The sound is more mature, more complex, with Pearson’s voice more prominently set against High Places’ thick psychedelic landscapes.
The recently transplanted from Brooklyn to Los Angeles where they frequent the mountain-filled parks that now surround them. The pair’s name actually refers to a place where one has a better vantage point and can gain broader perspectives, so this spot seems apt. Their music tends to speak of their love of mountains, rooftops, and other metaphorically high places. Yet the sounds of the city aren’t far away, which likely prompt the ever-present looping of industrial utterances within their music.
Ahh, SXSW. This 4-day conference and music festival has taken over as my favorite event of the year. Nowhere else can you experience the sheer quantity of quality artists, both high profile and emerging, back to back, all day and night long. Checking schedules for the day parties and evening showcases, running back and forth along the crowded streets between venues, wolfing down BBQ, and battling to see as much music humanly possible is the task. The reward is witnessing killer sets on intimate stages surrounded by audiences who care deeply about what is happening in music now.
Here are the 60 artists I caught this year: Band of Horses, Best Coast, Big Light, BRAHMS, Broken Bells, Broken Social Scene, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Dam-Funk, Dawes, Delorean, Dengue Fever, Diplo, Estelle, Fat Mike, First Aid Kit, Free Energy, Freelance Whales, Frightened Rabbit, Hey Champ, Hole, Holy Fuck, Japandroids, jj, Lissie, Lord T & Eloise, Macy Gray, Major Lazer, Maluca, Mayer Hawthorne & The Country, Memory Tapes, Miike Snow, Muse, Nas & Damian Marley, Neon Indian, Nick Catchdubs, Pase Rock, Phantogram, Real Estate, Rival Schools, Rogue Wave, Salem, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Sleigh Bells, Solid Gold, Stardeath & White Dwarves, Stars of Track and Field, Street Sweeper Social Club, Surfer Blood, The Antlers, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, The Black Keys, The Glitch Mob, The Low Anthem, The Walkmen, The xx, Titus Andronicus, Tobacco, and Uffie, and Yourself and The Air.
Now for the highlights…
Broken Bells Hometown: New York, NY
The band’s first performance at SXSW was in a parking garage across from Stubb’s as part of AOL Spinner’s pop-up show series. It was completely epic to see the band perform in such an obscure spot. Bizarrely enough, the sound was sonically blissful. James Mercer and Dangermouse along with their explicitly skilled band played some of the best music I’ll hear all year. Their woozy, psychedelic pop sounds even better live than on record. MySpace | Website
Nas & Damian Marley Hometown: New York, NY / Kingston, Jamaica
The smoky haze and resulting vibe in Emo’s Main Room was the perfect environment for skilled hip-hop lyricist Nas to ride atop the all-for-love energy of Damian Marley’s and his band. The gorgeous sounds of resounding djembe, female back up vocalists, and the Marley legacy contrasted with the Nas’ rhapsodic power felt legendary. Look out for their upcoming album, Distant Relatives. MySpace | MySpace
Band of Horses Hometown: Seattle, WA
The magic of Band of Horses dense musical glory was surely felt in Stubb’s on Thursday evening. The band seems to be at the height of their live performance and I recommend catching them now. MySpace | Website
Broken Social Scene Hometown: Toronto, Canada
I caught two sets by BSS, one at Stubb’s and the second at The Parish as part of the Arts & Crafts Showcase. The gorgeous complexity of their music was awing at Stubb’s and they played a large array of tracks off their forthcoming album Forgiveness Rock Record. The Parish proved to be an entirely intimate experience as I suspected. The energy inside the 425 cap room as the band announced their plan to play a 2.5-hour set was infinitely special. Kevin Drew asked the crowd to put down their cell phones and cameras and to exist with him and the band in the moment. “Just enjoy the music,” encouraged Drew. They played songs live for the first time, created suspense regarding “unknown” guests (The Beauties from Toronto), and strummed through an array of classic BSS songs in a wholly raw fashion. By the end of the night, there were only 150 left in the room, making it feel as though we were catching an early career performance. MySpace | Website
The Black Keys Hometown: Akron, OH
I had yet to be converted into a Black Keys fan until I ended up on Mohawk Patio for the band’s MOG party performance. Halfway through the 75 minute set, I was a true believer. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s impeccable musicianship and moving bluesy rock imbued with tangible metal influences produced one of the most exciting moments of my 2010 SXSW experience. MySpace | Website
Hometown: Devon, England
The British prog-pop stars played MySpace’s “Secret” SXSW Show at Stubb’s on Saturday night. Big energy from a big band that I never thought I’d see live, especially in a 3000 capacity outdoor setting. Epic. MySpace | Website
First Aid Kit Hometown: Stockholm, Sweden
This Swedish female folk duo was more special than I could have imagined live. Sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg accompanying their impassioned vocal harmonies with guitar and synth as they played through woodsy song from their recent album, The Big Black & The Blue (2010), was an epic treat. Sweden is currently producing incredibly innovative and relevant music. MySpace
Neon Indian Hometown: Austin, TX
I hadn’t yet joined the swarms exclaiming about Neon Indian, but after their psychedelic indoor set as part of the Pitchfork/Windish party at Emo’s JR, my opinion shifted. The band’s dance electro wanderings are more poignant than I had imagined. MySpace
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour Hometown: Copenhagen, Denmark
Potentially one of my favorite finds at SXSW, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour from Denmark, provided an entirely captivating experience on the Billboard outdoor stage. Not only is Mette Lindberg likely the hottest performer in her Nordic country, but her rich and boisterous voice triumphantly meets her alluring stage appeal. As my brother aptly stated, it’s Parliament Funkadelic in blonde waif form. MySpace
Hey Champ Hometown: Chicago, IL
Another lucky find came in the form of Hey Champ. I was immediately lifted by the electro-synth-dance-rock trio’s boundless energy. The set was filled with impeccable drumming and dramatic interplay onstage and with their aggressively exuberant audience. MySpace | Website
Free Energy Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
I only caught a couple songs from Free Energy, but I got it right away. Love their form of hook-laden rock that’s both glammy and classic. The explosiveness of the entire band yelling of “Bang Bang Pop Pop!” and lead singer Paul Sprangers shaping the curves of a female figure in the air while singing “cherry lips and long hair” is a lasting memory. I’m craving more. MySpace
Freelance Whales Hometown: Queens, NY
While I like the tracks I’ve heard from the band’s studio album, Weathervanes (April 2010), significantly more than what I experienced live inside the Paste party at the Galaxy Room, it was certainly a treat to catch a band that we’ll be hearing a lot from over the next year. Their pop-driven folk rock with its precarious arrangements has lasting appeal. Together the fivesome created interlocking rhythmic patterns beneath lush textural layering and group vocals. The band used whatever musical gadgets they could get their hands on during the set including harmonium, banjo, glockenspiel and water phone on top of synthesizers, guitars, bass and drums. Did anyone else hear the lead singer say that it’s not such a good idea to roll in Austin as sweat was pouring down his face? MySpace | Website
Big Light Hometown: San Francisco, CA
I managed to see around 45 bands by the time I caught Big Light’s set on the Galaxy Room’s patio. Their raging set of thoughtful indie-driven rock outshone many of the hyped artists performing over the weekend. It won’t be long before this incredible group gets its just due. MySpace | Website
Estelle Hometown: London, England
It was high on my list to see this Brit soul-rapper live and the set was worth the effort. Estelle was super high energy as she went off about cheating boyfriends and made sure the audience was enjoying themselves, including playfully threatening to come down into the crowd if it appeared anyone wasn’t having fun. She raged her hit song “American Boy” and deftly covered Coldplay’s “God Put A Smile On Your Face”. MySpace | Website
Hole Hometown: Los Angeles/London
Courtney Love is another artist I never thought I’d see live. I managed to catch Hole’s first live show in over a decade as part of the SPIN party at Stubb’s. Love’s girl garage rock unexpectedly seemed rather relevant despite the hiatus and he looked more attractive and alive that I could have imagined. Her stage banter was raucous as usual. She introduced her 2nd to last song as being the kind of song you write when you’re getting off dope and got righteously pissed off when she found out they only had time for one more. At the closing of the set she apologized to the audience for not stage-diving, saying she was too elderly!! Hilarious. MySpace | Website
Miike Snow Hometown: Stockholm, Sweden
Miike Snow’s performance on the Galaxy Room Patio was truly the most out of this world show I experienced at SXSW. It’s difficult to know what to make of the combination of potent, layered synth-heavy electro topped with highly emotive, hippy-folk vocals, but the experience is one to be had. MySpace | Website
Tobacco Hometown: Parts Unknown
I stumbled in on Black Moth Super Rainbow’s frontman Tom Fec (aka Tobacco) performing a gem performance at Emo’s Annex as part of IODA’s day party. Ironically, a highly talented girl on synth contributed more than half of what was so compelling about Tobacco’s set. The duo is a must see for those moved by glitchy, synth heavy electronica. MySpace
Stars of Track and Field Hometown: Portland, OR
This band has been one of my favorites since 2007 and I catch them as often as I can, which unfortunately is quite infrequent due to their spurts of inactivity. The band played their best version of highly layered indie rock within The Parish on Saturday night. I’m consistently amazing at the vastness of sound that comes from this trio. I get completely lost inside. MySpace
Frightened Rabbit Hometown: Selkirk, Scotland
I’m as taken as most by this folk rock band from Scotland and their urgent songs dealing with emotional turmoil. The effect of Scott Hutchinson’s plaintive and passionate vocals is devastating The quality of sound in the Galaxy Room during their appearance at the Paste party left much to be desired, but the band’s raw spirit came through. MySpace | Website
Titus Andronicus Hometown: Glen Rock, NJ
A more raw, ruthless, energetic, and punk form of Bright Eyes is how I might best describe Titus Andronicus. Kept trying to leave their set to check out the next show, but Titus kept drawing me back in with their defiant vocals, heavily distorted guitars, and rambunctious, I don’t give a f**k attitude. MySpace | Website
Phantogram Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Within the gorgeous IFC studio with its vibe-inducing blue-lighted backdrop (designed by Niki Eways of Nikipedia), the girl/boy, synth/guitar duo created another reality with their downtempo trip-hop for the intimate 50-person crowd. MySpace
Street Sweeper Social Club Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
SSSC’s is Tom Morello’s best project to date since his days with Rage Against The Machine. The band had all the energy and attitude of Rage with Boots Riley from The Coup turning it hip-hop style. The crowd was rowdy, just as they should have been, and Morello’s guitar skills were jaw-dropping as always. MySpace | Website
Major Lazer Hometown: Jamaica (hmm…)
I knew Major Lazer was a nationwide sensation, but give it to SXSW to enable me on a whim to experience that up close and personal. Honestly it was the spectacle of hypeman Skerrit Bwoy jumping around and his hot bikini clad counterpart Mimi doing things such as bouncing her butt in a tri-pod headstand that took the set to its ultra-high level. Unfortunately, no Switch. MySpace | Website
Diplo Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
After the Major Lazer set, I caught Diplo at the Mad Decent/I HEART COMIX/Jelly NYC After Party. The affair was dying by the time I’d arrived, but Diplo had it going on. Packing his back to get on a 7am flight while intermittently joining the DJ on hand and shooting his finger in the air and at the crowd to pick the energy back up was insane. Yep, Diplo’s ultra cool. MySpace
And here are the artists I’m bummed to have missed, but you can’t see everything at SXSW, though you might try: Ra Ra Riot, Local Natives, Oh No Ono, Fanfarlo, Bachlorette, Wye Oak, Ortolan, Rafter, The Very Best, Javelin, Jookabox, Anais Mitchell, Joshua James, The Black Angels, Pretty Lights, Passion Pit DJs, Diamond Rings, Washed Out, Twin Sister, Matt Morris, Beats Antique, The Cool Kids, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Lights, Evan Dando, Chiddy Bang, Snoop Dogg, Stone Temple Pilots, Chamillionaire.
Like any great album should, Big Light’s full-length debut Animals in Bloom (2010) draws me in more completely with every listen. The songs endlessly unravel as one’s ears open to the nuances. I’ve been enamored with the band since they debuted in San Francisco near the end of 2007 and it’s all in the combination. Skillful songs, prodigious musicianship, and a certain sincerity. It’s the kind of music you want to sit back and take in and also the kind that you want to move to and lose yourself within. It’s the best of all genres, melding the weight of rock, the earnestness of folk, the edginess of indie, and the transcendental psychedelia of jam. The band’s sound is easy to love and hits with an immeasurably depth. As my friend Melissa and I would say to each other back then, “Big Light plays just the kind of music I want to hear.”
From the grittiness of “Triceratops”, to the tenderness of “Departed”, to the touching words, melodies, and guitar riffs of “Rainbow Eyes”, Animals in Bloom gets inside. “Good Time of the Year”‘s youth-filled intimacy is undeniable and “Monster” strikes with washes of sound. “Heavy” just tears it all apart. It’s not just the raging guitars that send you to oblivion but the band as a whole progressing, ripping, lying deep within the groove. Unabating until the raging finale moments of “Bonebreaker”, the album is a solid realization of Big Light’s limitless potential. The album’s lyrics are poetic, pensive, inspiring and filled with color. The songs catch inside your head and refuse to let go. It’s intimate and makes you feel included.
The San Francisco foursome features Fred Torphy (lead vocals, guitar, songwriting), Bradly Bifuclo (drums), Steve Adams (bass, vocals) and Jeremy Korpas (lead guitar, vocals). After several shifts in lineup, this band feels like the one Torphy needs to convey what’s inside his head. Torphy’s voice morphs from track to track all the while staying endearing and real. And his guitar solos soar. Bradly Bifulco contributes a strength of foundation and depth that stands out on every song. ALO’s Steve Adams exemplifies what this incredible player can do when offered an alternate existence. And the most recent addition of Jeremy Korpas seals the force of Big Light. Korpus’ ripping playing which has earned him the name “Swordfish”, raised the bar of Big Light’s musicianship, allowing the band to travel where it was ready. A nod to the benefit of timing and luck, Korpas’ inclusion came by chance after needing a place to crash when first moving to SF. By way of a friend he landed on Torphy’s couch and later joined the band. Together these four individuals gesture gratitude to the great bands that inspired them – Dr. Dog, The Slip, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket – yet seamlessly unite to create a sound that is undeniably Big Light.
Yesterday, I got to chat with songwriter Fred Torphy about the album…
How does the current state of Big Light compare to what you imagined when you originally formed the band?
Torphy: Probably closer to what I imagined it being. More professional and cohesive and focused. That was something we had to work for, a permanent lineup. You saw a lot us in the formative days. It was sprawling then and you never knew who was actually going to play. That was always really hard to deal with as a bandleader. All the coming and going of the personal and getting the band staffed probably. You don’t want to push any of those things. It needs to happen on its own. Give it time. That happening was cool. I’m just stoked that it’s where it’s at right now. And that we are more lean and mean. More focused.
Are there any unseen insights into the album that you want to share?
Torphy: Mechanically we got really experimental and went deep. There are sounds you might not hear unless you’re listening on headphones. There are all of these undercurrents of noise that prevail from the beginning to the end. We capture sounds that aren’t musical in some senses. Detuning ukuleles or dropping an amplifier on the ground so that it makes a crazy thunderous sound. We put ghosts in the recording so that they could be heard later when someone is listening a little closer.
The one thing that probably nobody one knows is that there’s one guitar amp that we ended up using for 90% of the record that we got from this dude who lives in an apartment that’s next to the studio where we recorded. He’s this guy Kidd Candelario, Jerry Garcia’s right hand man for like 30 years, his guitar tech and all this stuff, and he has a bunch Jerry Garcia’s old gear. He gave us this Fender Twin that had belonged to Jerry and that Jerry used on stage for a really long time. We went back and looked at pictures and saw this thing. We had this modified Fender Twin that was Jerry Garcia’s primary guitar amp and we used it in every situation imaginable because it was cool… it sounded so different from everything else because it was modified for him. It was really loud and you could do crazy shit with it. It was fun playing with that thing. The history, recording the album in San Francisco… We’re not a Grateful Dead leaning band at all in any respect. I mean we like improvisation, we love that band, but they aren’t a model for Big Light in any way. But we did love using that guitar amplifier to make all the cool guitar sounds.
Who’s singing the words before the chorus on “Rainbow Eyes”?
Torphy: We call that the “gang vocal”. Our friend Ty Roberts and his family, Sabrina & Ted, Chris Joseph, Ray (Bradly’s wife)… There are probably 40 voices. We threw a whiskey and pizza party one night in the studio and invited our supporters and friends and asked them all to yell “rainbow eyes”.
Below is a teaser for Animals in Bloom featuring studio and tour footage and clips from their December ’09 performance at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, all set to an excerpt of the new track “Triceratops”.
For Big Light, club dates have translated into high profile gigs, including appearances at Outside Lands, Noise Pop, Wanderlust, and High Sierra and at renowned California venues such as the Troubadour and The Roxy in Los Angeles and The Fillmore in San Francisco. They’ve also been placed on bills with Spoon, Broken Social Scene, The Mother Hips, Dead Confederate, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Everest and Howlin Rain. As a fan from the beginning, it’s truly exciting to stand back and watch Big Light constantly progress and evolve at such an electrifying rate and receive due recognition for their musical journeys. Big Light’s CD Release tour for Animals in Bloom kicks off with a performance at San Francisco’s Independent on March 4th (TODAY!).
Mar 4 – The Independent, San Francisco, CA – Animals In Bloom Release Party w/ Guns for San Sebastian and Everest
Mar 5 – 50/50 Brewery, Truckee, CA
Mar 11 – The Saint, Asbury Park, NJ
Mar 13 – Sullivan Hall, New York, NY
Mar 17,18,19,20 – SXSW, Austin, TX
Apr 8 – Crystal Bay Casino, Crystal Bay, NV
Apr 16 – Cooper’s, Nevada City, CA
Apr 17 – South Lake Tahoe Earth Day Festival, South Lake Tahoe, CA
July 1,2,3,4 – High Sierra Music Festival, Quincy, CA
Animals in Bloom is for sale on the Big Light’s website, at Amazon, and on iTunes where you can download the added bonus track of “Piece Together Wings”, co-written with Nathan Moore and featuring Dan Lebowitz (ALO) on pedal steel. Jeremiah Kille of Conspiracy Surfboards created the memorable album artwork for Animals in Bloom. Check out more of Jeremiah’s work.
For those of you already enamored by The Avett Brothers and especially those who aren’t yet, check out this view of “Murder in the City”. It captures the brothers candidly sharing their song about family. The video is frank and touching, sweet and intimate. The song is off of The Second Gleam EP (2008).
Their upcoming tour begins at the end of the month and takes the Avetts across the states and beyond to both Europe and Australia.