Saw Vienna Teng at The Largo tonight. Geographically, West Hollywood might as well be Timbuktu for folks living on the side of L.A. that we do, and there aren’t many artists for whom I’d brave the weekday rush hour traffic. But Vienna is one of them, especially due to the long gap between tours due to her attending grad school in Michigan.
You already know that I’m gonna say this was an amazing show, because I am a total Vienna fanboy. But she’s earned it by continually finding ways to challenge herself and top her previous live show configuration. Aims is a largely electronic and “poppy” record compared to her past stuff, but it was no less the result of painstaking artistry as any of her previous “chamber pop” or solo piano material. That translates incredibly well live, with a three member band all wearing multiple hats, particularly in the case of Alex Wong, who has an uncanny habit of putting the heart and soul back into something as seemingly lifeless as drum pads. This leads to inventive arrangements where songs will be looped from the ground up, with no sound prerecorded other than the individual notes programmed into the drum pads, and where Autotune is used in the best way possible, as Vienna uses it to create unnaturally low backing vocals that will play back during parts of a song (which she calls “the Barry White button”) or even split her voice into a chilling multi-part harmony in real time (which she calls “the Imogen Heap button”). This can lead to very loud arrangements like “Level Up” and especially “In the 99” (which had all three band members drumming at once at its climax), but it can also lead to very interesting uses of gentle ambiance, such as the entire first half of “The Breaking Light” being created from the amplified harmonic sound of a finger rubbing the edge of a wineglass, and other forms of feedback. hands down, the most surprising arrangement was “Copenhagen (Let Me Go)” being played with plastic cups as the rhythm section, which involved some rather complicated hand choreography between the three band members as each of them sang a different vocal part during the final chorus. Mind? BLOWN. There were innovative arrangements of a few older songs as well (solo piano on “Harbor”, a guitar-based take on “Antebellum”, and “Blue Caravan” with the piano playing the cello part, which really shouldn’t have worked, but still did), and some more stripped-down takes on a few of the newer songs compared to the album versions. All of this was a shining example of how technology can serve the needs of an artist without that artist becoming a slave to the technology – something which I’m pretty sure we already knew, but which is easy to forget whenever we accuse an artist of “selling out” because they start to introduce synths and programming and so forth into a previously “organic” sound.
Alex Wong did double duty as the opening act, and while he may not have Vienna’s vocal range, he has a real gift for rhythm and wry observation and syncing several different moving parts to create a compelling whole. At some points he was playing melody on the drum pads with one hand, keyboards on the other, and a kick drum with one foot (probably while using the other foot to mess with effects pedals). If his recent solo album is half as good as his live set, then I’ll have to get it. I was happy that he began the set with an older song, “Brooklyn Blurs”, that he’d recorded as half of the duo The Paper Raincoat. Aside from that, it was all new to me, but all amazing.
Oh yeah, and Vienna encored with a bizarre, heavily looped, solo mashup of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lose Yourself”. I was a bit skeptical until the two songs came together at the end. She also dropped a bit of “Single Ladies” into “Grandmother Song”, which worked better than I would have wanted to admit a few years ago when the song was getting played at EVERY. DAMN. WEDDING.
Here’s what I can remember of the setlist:
Close to Home
The Hymn of Axciom
The Breaking Light
Oh Mama No
In the 99
Copenhagen (Let Me Go)
Goodnight New York
Ain’t No Sunshine/Lose Yourself (Bill Withers/Eminem cover)
Grandmother Song/Single Ladies (Beyoncé cover)
Never Look Back
Always Something Better
Are You Listening
(plus one or two others whose titles I didn’t catch)