If I had to make a list of the most disappointing concerts I have ever attended, this one would rank near the top. I did not take any pictures, as was the case for the only previous concert review on Flying Houses (Fiery Furnaces at Spaceland in L.A. in May of 2008...) because my digital camera is pretty much shot.
Seriously though--what has been more disappointing than this? OK, I went to go see The Allman Brothers and Ratdog once, and I am not a fan of either, and I was bored out of my mind, but it was at Red Rocks, which is a nice venue, and the energy of the crowd, annoying as some of their habits might have been, was infectious, and at the end of the night I did not feel like I had wasted my time and would have had more fun doing pretty much anything else.
Go back further--years and years of concert-going, since 2000, ten years, and it's really tough for me to think of anything.
Let's start with the positives: Lincoln Hall is about a year old, and a very nice venue. You can almost tell it is owned by the same people as Schuba's because their beer is not overpriced and the space is clean. It does bear more than a passing resemblance to the Metro, but it is not as hectic. The only negative, I would say, were the doormen, who, at the end of the night, requested tips from everyone, which made me feel guilty for not giving anything. How fucking annoying. Now, if they had said, donate tips for the relief effort in Haiti, then I would have given 10 or something. (That I am reading The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, which details the bouncers demanding money at Christmastime to donate to charities, may have led me to believe that these times are just truly terrible.)
We watched some of the Bulls game, and they beat the Wizards in double overtime. It was a great game, and the beginning of what I hoped would be a fantastic evening. The Shapers played first, and they were sort of psychedelic, and unremarkable. I liked about two of their songs.
Icy Demons came next, and this was my first time seeing them. I did not realize they were from Chicago until their singer informed everyone. They had a much higher percentage of songs I liked. This was the highlight of the evening for me, but I don't think I'd go out of my way to see them.
Finally, around midnight, Bradford Cox took the stage--alone. He looked pensive, depressed. I was immediately upset that there was no drummer. No other musician onstage. My friend said, "Don't worry, it will be alright." No, it wouldn't be alright. 90 minutes later I would be traumatized, exhausted, nearly ill.
Someone shouted, "Who is your cardiologist?" at him. He said, "Okay, I guess it's going to be a short concert." If only it were, Bradford! Chicago is full of stupid assholes, even at indie rock shows. I recall Ian Mackaye being razzed by the crowd during an Evens set a couple years back, and he was like, "Dude, WTF?" and then someone was like, "Welcome to Chicago."
Bradford was like, "How is everyone?" And everyone was like, "Good." And someone shouted, "How are you doing?" And he said, "Oh, I'm not doing so well."
Before he played his first song, he said, "This is for Jay."
This was the elephant in the room. I was shocked to hear of Jay Reatard's death several days ago. I never got into him. I tried listening to him a few times. I bet he would have been fun to see open for the Pixies on their Doolittle tour in Chicago, just a month prior, if only because Bad Lieutenant couldn't play their slot, but that is just because of my obsession with New Order and Bernard Sumner (more on that to come, just wait a couple days). Bradford and Jay were friends--two of the most confrontational artists in the indie rock limelight--true originals, living up to the definition of "punk" par excellence. Reatard's death is not quite as monolithic as say, Kurt Cobain's, but along with Elliott Smith's, it is a tragic, unbelievable event that will continue to be felt for years and years.
So, imagine one of your closest musical compatriots trying to play a show just two days after such a thing. I did not recognize the first song, and maybe Bradford had written it in the day previous, as a true homage to Jay--if anyone is capable of that kind of output, it's Cox--and the song was wonderful. Sad, beautiful, moving, what one expects out of Atlas Sound.
NOW, what should have happened at this point, is that a backing band should have come out of the shadows, and accompanied him in a show that would have been energetic and fun, a celebration of life, something to inspire the crowd. Not a chance. That unbelievably happy-sounding song, "Walkabout" was played second--and it sounded about one hundred times more depressing than it does on record.
From there, things just got worse. At least on "Walkabout" there were flashes of a brilliant re-interpretation. There was one more inspired moment--Cox played "Flourescent Grey," a Deerhunter song that Jay Reatard once covered. At this point, when he sung about decaying bodies and flesh turning gray, and about someone else being his god in high school, the concert was transformed into an Artaud-esque exercise in cruelty. Everyone who knows and loves Deerhunter or Atlas Sound (this was my 4th time seeing Cox perform) knows that he is not the most emotionally-balanced individual, and deals with loads and loads of psychological, emotional, and physical pain on a daily basis--but this was the only time that I truly felt an artist wanted his audience to feel the way he felt--that is, horribly uncomfortable, pained, and heartbroken.
There was no "Sheila" or "Quick Canal" (the latter may have been played, in a haze of three or four long songs that I could not differentiate). "Criminals" was played, after a brief moment of Cox putting on some kind of persona--Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan--with a harmonica, and a pronounced southern drawl, and pretending to be so happy and "crowd-friendly" that it functioned as hyperbole. It seemed funny for about a second, and then just turned sad.
He told a weird story about Climax, GA, and Cumming, GA, and the Cumming Eye Clinic. Perhaps this was the only comforting part about the entire show--juvenile humor. Eventually he played an extremely long version of "Attic Lights," and I swore he said, "this song is about my death," as he started it.
The show went on until about 1:20 AM and when it ended, Bradford did genuinely thank everyone for coming out, but I think it was a great relief for all of us that we could leave. I tried playing my friend Logos in the car afterwards, and Rainwater Cassette Exchange in order to show how it should have sounded, how he was much better than this, but by then I was just annoyed.
He may have his reasons for playing onstage alone, but when I saw Atlas Sound at the Echo in L.A. in March of 2008, I had a great time! He was wearing a Wipers t-shirt, talking about how he had just bought it that day, he played an awesome version of "Ativan," and he was just so happy the entire time. Now, everyone knows that you can't really be happy 100% of the time ("I should know, I'm a doctor..."), BUT if you are a successful artist, charging $15 a pop for 500 people, with Lincoln Hall taking in $7,500 in ticket sales along, not counting convenience charges--maybe you are earning close to $1,000 for playing for 90 minutes. OK, I can see why you don't want backing musicians, but I really don't think Bradford is a greedy guy. He has his reasons, but at least one huge fan of his doesn't understand them. This was the most depressing musical experience of my life.
I still intend to see Deerhunter on April Fool's Day in Chicago. Obviously I forgive Bradford because he must be going through a really difficult time right now, but I really hope that show will come closer to meeting my expectations.