Sleeping at Last had a slot in the “Make Music Festival” today, which featured about 100 bands all playing different venues in my hometown of Pasadena, California. I had heard of about 1% of those bands, so SAL was the only one we stuck around to see. It was nice to hear them in an outdoor venue, with a full band arrangement including a string trio. That made a lot of the Yearbook songs sound truer to their album versions, plus the one older song played, “Umbrellas”. I’ve heard SAL play that one every time I’ve seen them live since Keep No Score was brand new, and this was definitely the best arrangement of it so far. I wish more new material from Atlas had been played – only “Uneven Odds” made an appearance – but it was a rather short set, only seven songs, so presumably they had to stick with stuff that passersby might have stood a chance of recognizing. Free show in a city park and all that.
I really wasn’t sure last night whether we were going to a Fiction Family show with Sara Watkins opening, or a Sara Watkins show with Fiction Family opening. I get the idea that they’ve been switching up lead roles on this tour, likely to the chagrin of venues who want to be able to tell their patrons exactly when each act will be performing. I got tickets just knowing Fiction Family would be there, and considered Sara Watkins to be a bonus. She ended up performing first, though Sean pulled double duty in both bands, as well as Fiction Family’s bass/keyboard guy, Tyler Chester, and Sara hopped up on stage several times during Fiction Family’s set to contribute fiddle and vocals. All in all, it felt like a family atmosphere, and I’ve rarely seen two siblings with such musical chemistry as the two Watkins – they’re nigh-inseparable. Sean’s fictional bro Jon Foreman seems like the odd man out in that scenario, but the enthusiasm he brings even to small club shows is infectious. He can play a goofy country song to a small crowd with the same level of excitement he brings to Switchfoot playing one of their biggest hits in a large amphitheater. That, and an overall band chemistry that makes the live shows easily supersede the recordings, is what makes both FF and Sara Watkins great acts to see live if you ever get the chance.
Muse’s first of three shows at the Staples Center tonight was amazing. Not that I expected any less – they gave the exact kind of visually dazzling and sonically delightful show that I’ve been told to expect from them. “U2 in the 90s on crack” might help to explain some of the visuals, though minus the shock tactics and soliloquies. I suppose some visuals hinted at political meanings to their songs (which aren’t difficult to unearth in their lyrics anyway), but mostly it was a spectacular laser-light show to suit the mood of each song. This band is one of the best when it comes to knowing how to just shut up and play.
Paper Route was excellent last night. It was their first show in LA in three years or so, and a unique headlining spot during a break in their tour with Switchfoot. Having never seen the band live before, I’d have to say they’re a lot like MuteMath on stage – perhaps not to the extent of breaking down and rebuilding their set mid-song or anything… but their music is heavy on percussion and electronics, their drummer’s a bit of an animal, their frontman’s rather hyperactive, and they had a second drum kit set up on a riser so that various members could climb up there when a song called for additional percussion. At one point, with the bass player banging on electronic drum pads, there were three people playing percussion at once. All in all, a very loud and very fun set.
Gungor’s show last night was a triumph of both musicianship and narrative. I expected the musicianship part, having been blown away by their brief opening set for the David Crowder Band last fall. With a full band, they really come alive, as evidenced early in the show by the intense burst of sound that marked the midway point of the opening song, “Let There Be”, and carrying through to several album tracks from Ghosts Upon the Earth that I had assumed would be difficult to pull off live, as well as a few older tracks from Beautiful Things that I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to hear. Even songs that were fairly compact on the album versions led to generous jam sessions in a live setting (if you’ve heard the album version of “You Are the Beauty”, imagine that sort of noodling across the many different genres that some of their other songs touch, and you’ll get the idea). Maybe at one or two points it dragged on for a little longer than needed (mostly “Heaven”, which is a weak waspel song to begin with, though it does sound better live), but generally this was a feast for the ears. There were no fewer than seven people on stage at most times – a few string players, a bassist and drummer, and an extra guy on guitar/banjo/whatever was needed. This, in addition to Michael Gungor’s usual jack-of-all-trade tendencies on various instruments and Lisa Gungor handling piano, glockenspiel, and melodica, meant that there was a lot of switching instruments happening on stage between or during songs. Being a Gungor roadie must be a stressful job.
Saw Sleeping at Last at the Hotel Cafe tonight. Can a concert be good but also a bit of a letdown? That’s sort of how I feel about this one. SAL made the transition to a one-piece this year, and the show was billed as “An intimate evening of music with Ryan O’Neal”, so I wasn’t expecting full band splendor, but I guess I still thought there’d be fuller arrangements since he had hired a cellist, an electric guitarist, opening act David Hodges to play piano, and a few female vocalists he met on the recent mini-tour for the Breaking Dawn soundtrack. Most of these people were only on stage for a handful of songs, not all of them in a row, so there was a lot of shuffling around, awkward segues, and general inefficiency. A setlist that flows well has honestly never been SAL’s strong suit. They hit a lot of my favorites from Yearbook, plus a few oldies (though nothing from Ghosts), plus the inevitable Twilight song, “Turning Page” (which I was hearing for the first time, and I’ll admit, it’s pretty good).
Jars of Clay played an acoustic set as part of their Sing & Tell tour at a church in my hometown of Pasadena, CA tonight. As much as I love Jars and I keep going to their shows year after year, there’s been this growing dissatisfaction with their setlists over the years, as the expected radio hits and crowd-pleasers often show up but some of their deepest, most heartfelt songs (and even full albums) tend to get lost in the shuffle. This tour seems like it was explicitly designed for oddball fans like me who persisted in asking them annoying questions about why they never played certain long-lost album tracks. They managed to build a set that, at times, sounded what you might get if you told my iPod to play Jars of Clay songs on shuffle, though it did contain a few of their hits and was pretty well thought-out in general. Oh, and it was all acoustic, save for the occasional electric guitar ambiance from Steve or one song where Dan used a synthesizer. They had a cellist on stage and Dan sometimes played percussion, but aside from that it was just the gorgeousness of acoustic guitars, ukulele, keyboards, accordion, cello, and stronger harmony vocals than most of Jars’ rock-oriented shows really have the time to showcase.
David Crowder Band was phenomenal tonight on what is, sadly, their final tour. Though they opened with one new song, previewed another new one later in the set, and even rearranged into “bluegrass band form” for a rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” from their new Christmas CD (as well as covers of “Because He Lives”, “I Saw the Light”, and “I’ll Fly Away”), most of the set played like Crowder’s greatest hits. That’s to be expected given that their final album isn’t in our hands yet (and sadly, most of it will be played live). “The Veil” was the first recognizable number, an interesting medley of “Shadows” (complete with a rap break from one of the guitarists) and “What a Miracle” came later in the set, and my absolute favorite Crowder song, “God Almighty, None Compares” appeared in its full seven-minute splendor about midway through. So I feel somewhat vindicated for missing out on the Church Music tour. The set was otherwise heavy on selections from A Collision and Illuminate (they brought “Intoxicating” back out to play, which was great fun except Crowder kept mixing up the words – embarrassing when you have them there on screen for everyone to sing!), while Remedy got the short shrift with only one song representing it (“The Glory of It All”), and Can You Hear Us?may as well have not existed. (OK by me – those are my two least favorite Crowder albums, and I caught the Remedy tour four years ago anyway.) I think it was a good balance of expected live show standards and interesting surprises. They mostly stick to the album arrangements, but they play them with gusto and since it’s worship music it’s easy for everyone to get into. Crowder always draws great crowds – one of the few times I can be in a very “churchy” concert atmosphere and not be at all bothered by it.
Fleet Foxes put on a solid show at the Greek Theater tonight. It was my first time seeing them live, and an outdoor venue was the perfect place for it – moon shining overhead, crickets chirping in the background, those pristine vocal harmonies echoing off into the clear night. Full setlist is in my main concert journal entry. I could go into a lot of detail, but just to summarize, I’ll say that FF is capable of a wall of sound that packs a real punch, so it’s not always the chill “acoustic sensitive” experience you’d expect, even though the live arrangements are mostly faithful to the album versions (with some variance in tempo for dramatic effects, usually during the harmony-heavy vocal breaks). The only thing I’d knock off points for – and only meager points at that – would be their awkward stage presence – little bits of funny between-song banter here and there, but it’s a bit disruptive to the mood of their songs and you can tell they’re trying to fill time while retuning (which they have to do a lot – they even opened with awkward silence and stage banter before getting tuned right for their first song). No biggie. When they’re playing, they’re awesome, and they hit pretty much every highlight from their past and present records that I could think of, with maybe “Drops in the River” being the one exception I would have liked to hear but didn’t.