Heartbreaking Bravery

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Johanna Warren – Live at The Grove – 8/9/15 (Pictorial Review, Live Video)

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Johanna Warren is an incredibly important person to me who has been a central figure in two of the larger undertakings I’ve completed in the past year. The first was her beautiful contribution to the A Year’s Worth of Memories series (one where she detailed the first effort of what was originally going to be the video for “Black Moss” before it became “True Colors“) and the second being a multimedia artist profile for Consequence of Sound that included a photoshoot, a live video shoot, and an extensive interview. After being fortunate enough to take in Waren’s unforgettable, all-acoustic rooftop performance only a few weeks ago, I was more than willing to accept her invite to come to her quasi-release show (one specific to NYC) for this year’s outstanding nūmūn.

Held at a basement venue, the menu for the evening was far more eclectic than is usually covered here and perfectly suited to Warren’s sensibilities. An abbreviated meditation session was given, poetry was read, a mothering station was set up (and very briefly caught fire), tarot readings were available, and there was a bold, intense performance art piece from Gretchen Heinel (one of the directors of the “True Colors” video) involving nudity, white flowers, foreboding music, and a blood bag (which was partially consumed by Heinel herself). All the while, a few other vendors were offering their goods or services and a looped projection from visual artist Elisa Ghs. While it was officially titled a healing fair, the two main draws came in the form of its performing artists.

After Heinel’s incredibly intense performance art piece, Mikaela Davis (a new name to this site) immediately set about bringing some tranquility back to the proceedings. Davis is the kind of performer that exudes a natural grace that can frequently easily lend itself to an inherent magnetism, so I was very close to completely positive I’d enjoy her performance before a single note was played. After she’d set up her harp and made sure that Warren was seated at her harmonium (a recent addition to her live oeuvre), the duo had me frozen with a half-minute soundcheck of a beautifully arranged Elliott Smith cover. In less than a minute, Davis went from a promising prospect to an artist with my undivided attention. By the time her first song’s last notes were ringing out (the only she’d play with Warren and/or a harmonium accompaniment), an audience member succinctly summarized everyone’s reactions with a soft, awed expletive.

That sentiment crept in again and again as Davis’ set progressed, looping through my head with each new movement and figure of her songs. Positioned in front of the projection screen, still looping visuals, the effect was so transfixing that it almost became unnerving. Undeniably beautiful and occasionally deeply mysterious, Davis’ slow-burning songs melted over a hushed audience, all of which knew they were witnessing a rarity and providing it with the according levels of attention. It was a mesmerizing set of songs that has less in common with Joanna Newsom’s work (a frequent comparison that holds some waters but mostly comes up somewhat flat) and falls more along the lines of the likes of Elliott Smith and Priscialla Ahn. As much as I wanted to see Warren perform again, it was impossible to want Davis’ set to end. It did, though, as all good things must, and watching/hearing the closing song was an unforgettable experience- one that ensured that this won’t be the last time Davis’ name is mentioned on this site. Mouth agape, it took me several moments to collect myself, process what I’d just witnessed, and prepare myself for whatever magic Warren had conjured up for the evening.

Before long, Warren was seated in front of the microphone, guitar in lap, ready to launch into a set that drew on nūmūn and new material at a fairly equal rate. “Figure 8”, “The Wheel”, and a handful of others all evoked the same stunned reactions that keep me coming back to Warren’s music and, surrounded by friends, family, and fans, she looked even more at peace than usual. When it came time for “True Colors”, Warren made sure to dedicate it to Heinel and the clip’s other director, Damon Stang, who were seated next to each other, all smiles. Warren’s set marked the third time I’d seen the songwriter perform this year and the performances have all occupied the same space of unshakable quiet intensity but, for whatever reason, “True Colors” came off as particularly alive in the basemen (officially titled The Grove).

As familiar as I’ve come to be with Warren’s work, I’d been keeping an eye on the untouched harmonium throughout Warren’s set, hoping she’d return for at least a song. Finally, at the very end of a characteristically arresting performance, Warren took a seat and began the repetitive motions required to breathe life into the instrument (one of my personal favorites). Titled “There Is A Light”, the song ranks among the best in her discography. Gentle, gorgeous, and reaffirming, it almost comes across as a once-silent prayer pulled out into the world. Instead of feeling voyeuristic, there’s a very welcoming sense found in the song’s radiant warmth- one that likely had more than a few people (myself included) on the verge of tears. As the final lines of the song hit (“Well, we could lie down and collectively seal our fate. You know it’s now or never but it’s never too late.”) and the chords drift off into silence, that silence is sustained. In that moment and the several moments that followed, no one made a sound, collectively drawing out the impact of a perfect ending.

A full photo gallery of the show’s musical acts can be seen below and a video containing some of the evenings performances can be found beneath the gallery.

Saintseneca – Live at Baby’s All Right – 8/8/15 (Pictorial Review, Live Video)

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Before I left Wisconsin for Brooklyn, I made sure to see one last show: Saintseneca and Murder By Death. The latter had been the band headlining the first major show I’d seen on my own accord and the former had been one of my favorite bands for years and I had yet to see them live. While Murder By Death were undoubtedly impressive, Saintseneca’s live show blew me away. As soon as I heard the band would be headlining a show at Baby’s All Right, I made sure my schedule for the evening was cleared. Once again, the band delivered an extraordinary performance- but not before two opening sets.

Jess Williamson was the first to take the stage and immediately grabbed the audience’s attention with a haunting solo song before inviting her band to join her onstage. While Williamson’s first song had been fairly atmospheric, the addition of the band quickly catapulted that dynamic of her music into territory that felt downright cinematic. Playing nothing but new songs, Williamson and her band made their way through a haunting set of bruised folk songs with a Southern Gothic influence. Impressive, intricate, understated, and incredibly dynamic, it was a spellbinding performance from an artist deserving of a great deal of attention.

Following Williamson’s set was the decidedly more straightforward swing-for-the-rafters anthemic pop of Multimagic. While the band did tend to feel fairly by-the-numbers, they offered enough moments of subversion to both keep things interesting and guarantee an explosion in popularity should they be fortunate enough to find their music placed in the right television (or film) environment. Multimagic played with a great deal of finesse and had some similar structural approaches to their songwriting as the night’s headliners so their spot felt like a perfect lede for Saintseneca.

Currently preparing the release of the follow-up to 2014’s rightfully adored Dark Arc, the band wasted no time in diving into their incredible new material. From the live previews alone, I’d be shocked if their forthcoming record didn’t wind up being one of my favorites of 2015, as the bulk of them managed to expand and refine some of the elements that rendered Dark Arc one of my favorites of last year. Baby’s All Right was the band’s last show of their current tour, so they came to the stage with a considerable amount of practice and it reflected in both the new songs and the old material, which continued to sound remarkable. “Fed Up With Hunger” is one of the only songs to have managed to strike me as spine-tingling on record and that feeling multiplied tenfold.

“Fed Up With Hunger” wasn’t the only song to elicit chills, either, they came in waves as the band progressed through a set that saw them navigating hairpin turns and striking dynamic shifts with ease. Whether they opted for the quiet, acoustic route or the raucous, fuzzed-out intensity that seems to be a welcome hallmark of their newest material, the band fell into a focus that practically disallowed any false moves. Crowd favorites like the excellent “Happy Alone” radiated with life and that vibrancy was reflected by an appreciative audience (one that, unfortunately, did contain a small faction of people that felt inclined to talk over some of the set’s more gentle moments). Saintseneca ended their main set with the same song they’d ended their opening set in Milwaukee with just a few months before- a blistering, feedback-happy number that’s far and away the most intense song in the band’s discography- before being cheered back for an encore.

After a few false starts and a surprising amount of conversation, the band decided to go out with “James”, the incredible closing song from their first album, Last. It felt like an appropriately communal moment to cap off a set that included some incredible banter, sparked more than a few spirited singalongs, and a generally positive atmosphere. Also, if there’s a better way to signify that you’re entering a new era than playing the last song on the first record (one titled Last, no less) as the last song of the last tour before your next record comes out, i’m not sure what it is- but “James” did feel like the perfect selection regardless of trivial extenuating circumstance. While the evening may have had its ups and downs, “James” made sure that it went out in perfect harmony.

Click over to the full photo gallery of the show here and watch some of the evening’s performances in the video below.

Sharkmuffin – Live at Shea Stadium – 8/7/15 (Pictorial Review, Live Video)

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Sharkmuffin’s release show party for Chartreuse at Shea Stadium was the kind of show that’s worth circling multiple times on a calendar. Easily my most anticipated of the month, it didn’t disappoint. A stacked five-band bill was kickstarted by a strong set from the emergent Fruit&Flowers, who delivered their wild-eyed basement pop with a lot of psych’ed out post-punk flourishes and an emphatic punch. Boytoy- who released one of last year’s finest debut EP’s– followed suit with a riff-happy, surf-heavy angle on a similar approach. Fuzzy, sunny, and surprisingly atmospheric, the trio managed to impress on their own terms and set site favorites Lost Boy ? up perfectly.

Lost Boy ?, as they always have, brought an outsize outsider charisma to the proceedings and kicked things into high gear almost as soon as they hit the stage. The band’s extraordinary Canned would have been at the absolute peak of last year’s special releases list had it been streaming anywhere ahead of its official vinyl release in 2015 but it was kept off the internet until that moment came. Even though about a year’s elapsed between the record’s original release, Canned still feels unbelievably vibrant thanks to the explosive energy that permeates throughout literally every song on the collection. That ragged ferocity is, unsurprisingly, amplified in the live setting and nearly every song the band played felt like a giddy exclamation mark. Celebratory and occasionally punishing, it was the adrenaline jolt that made sure things kept going strong after the midway point.

Even in the seemingly impossible scenario where Lost Boy ? had faltered, the evening would’ve been easily rescued by another site favorite- Charly BlissSoft Serve topped this site’s best-of EP list in 2014 (incidentally, Lost Boy ? secured the 11 slot) and whenever their LP finally secures its official release, it’s not a stretch to imagine it’ll wind up securing the Album of the Year distinction or something remarkably close. I’ve been desperately searching for something I don’t like about Charly Bliss for over a year and I still can’t find anything. The band’s a powerhouse in the studio, an absolute force on stage, and they’re penning some of the best music being released today. I’ve come to accept that they’re one of my absolute favorite bands and with every set I take in, that declaration’s getting closer to shedding the “one of” and simply becoming “my favorite band.” Unsurprisingly, their set here was monstrous and left a tall order for Sharkmuffin.

To their credit, Sharkmuffin kept the evening going even stronger with a deeply impassioned set that saw the band play every cut from their excellent Chartreuse, one of 2015’s finest releases. Playing as a quartet with Lost Boy ?’s Davey Jones giving an assist on guitar, the band’s set took on several different modes with a finessed aplomb. Coy, vicious, and carefree, the band shifted their focus at will and whipped an adoring audience into frenzy after frenzy with an incredible amount of ease. Alternating between poise and recklessness, then somehow managing to bridge the gap, Sharkmuffin tore up Shea Stadium and more than earned their encore. It was the final stage of a progression that started with foot-tapping (Fruit&Flowers), head-nodding (Boytoy), headbanging (Lost Boy ?), pogo-dancing (Charly Bliss), and- finally- moshing (Sharkmuffin themselves). Combining seemingly every single one of those stages with their last two songs, the band left the stage exhausted and smiling and the audience couldn’t help themselves from exiting the venue in the exact same fashion.

Click over to the full photo gallery of the show here and watch some of the evening’s performances in the video below.

Frankie Cosmos – Live at DBTS – 8/1/15 (Pictorial Review, Live Video)

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On the first day of August, a flock of people congregated at David Blaine’s The Steakhouse to see a show packed with impressive solo artists and two secret headliners. Six acts in total and margaritas by the bucketful, the night promised to be memorable and delivered on that promise in full. Brittany Costa (who also plays in the excellent admira) kicked the evening off with a set of delicate, haunting songs anchored by her stunning voice and reverbed-out electric ukulele. Adir L.C. sustained that setting (swapping out the uke for a guitar) and blended in a distinct brand of soulfulness that elevated his songs far past the standard coffeehouse fare.

The evening’s third act, Rebecca Ryskalczyk, recently earned a feature on this site for an excellent demo packet. Ryskalczyk, who also plays in Bethlehem Steel, offered up a gorgeous set (“Other Otters”, in particular, was breathtaking) and one of the night’s most unexpected moments. Mid-set, the songwriter broke from the music for a spirited stand up set that kept the audience entranced as they laughed. Her set was the last of the solo acts and set the stage for the first full band performance. Roz and the Rice Cakes took that slot and ran with it, offering up an eclectic, manic set of carnivalesque pop.

Before long the first of two secret headliners, site favorites Girlpool, were front and center. Having just delivered a mesmerizing set at Baby’s All Right only a handful of days prior, there was the looming possibility of diminishing returns. The setting, the performance, and the overwhelming quality of the duo’s music quickly put any concerns to rest and once again provided a masterclass in minimal pop. Eliciting more than a few chills, the band made their way through a varied set with verve and grace before finally putting a bow on another unforgettable set.

Frankie Cosmos took the last headliner slot and the audience’s adoration for the trio was as palpable as it had been for Girlpool. Playing their first show with the new lineup, the trio seemed eager to test the waters and wasted no time in settling into a groove. A handful of songs bled into each other seamlessly and the band seemed incredibly locked in to their performance, providing a strong showcase for material old and new. For how gentle Frankie Cosmos’ music seems, the band’s performance can be fiery to the point of contradiction, creating a fascinating dynamic that works heavily in the band’s favor. By the time the band wrapped things up with the painfully gorgeous “Embody”, they’d likely won over anyone that wasn’t already on board and- more importantly- ended a great show on the perfect note.

Click over to the full photo gallery of the show here and watch some of the evening’s performances in the video below.