Monday, August 22, 2011

Our Concert Could Be Your Life

Elvis Costello never said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", despite what you may have heard. I'm glad too, because although many of music's joys are ineffable, that's no reason not to try to put them into words. Michael Azerrad knows this better than most people, as the author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, the seminal history of the "post-punk" or "alternative" or "D.I.Y." or "whatever name you care to give it" movement of brash, independent and unfiltered music that bubbled up around the country during the 1980's before jumping the charts in 1992 (to very mixed results).

The subtitle of Azerrad's book is "Scenes From The American Indie Underground" and it's not unfair to say that the bands chronicled in this book functionally started the musical genre that is now ubiquitously and unhelpfully referred to as "indie rock." Of the 13 bands profiled only one, Sonic Youth is still going. A few such as Mission of Burma, Big Black, the Butthole Surfers and even the Replacements have reformed (although the latter was a two song, studio-only affair). But the influence they project onto the scene today is almost incalculable.

Azerrad's book chronicles a time when challenging, independent music didn't have a commercial home in America so fans had to create one themselves. Music obsessives and angry kids would find some guitars and cheap amps and decide they were gonna start making their own kind of noise. No media outlets? They created their own 'zines and pimped their records to college radio stations. Nowhere to play? They booked their own shows in bowling alleys and VFW halls. No one to put our their music? They started their own labels such as SST, Twin Tone, Sub Pop, Merge and Touch and Go. Most of the infrastructure that allows someone like me to easily enjoy the breadth, depth and quality of both live and recorded music that available today was created by the people and bands chronicled in this book or people like them.

It's nice to see that modern indie rock knows it's roots. Sonic Youth may have told people to "Kill Yr Idols" but musicians know better than anyone else where they came from. So it's no surprise that on May 22nd, a slew of the whose-who of modern indie rock came together to pay homage to their forbearers for a 10th anniversary celebration of Our Band Could Be Your Life and the musicians in it.

The concert was electric with every artist doing their best to not just to recreate, but to revive the bands they were covering. The Dirty Projectors were a case-in-point, having already released an album of altered versions of Black Flag songs, they took the stage this night with just as much anger and feedback as the original band. They also helped back Annie Clark, the angelic looking brains behind St. Vincent. Though I already knew she could shred, her demented takes on Big Black's "Bad Penny" and "Kerosene" almost blew me out of my seat. Her guitar played was obscene, which is the only way one can accompany Steve Albini lyrics such as "I think I fucked your girlfriend once... maybe twice, I don't remember. Then I fucked all your friends' girlfriends -- now they hate you." Wow.
Ted Leo is famous for rounding up bands for classic punk covers but on this night he stepped back in time a dozen years to his solo days. He recorded backing parts for a number of Minor Threat songs at home, then performed onstage by himself with just a reel-to-reel machine and his own righteous anger. Fellow New Jerysians Titus Andronicus embodied their drunken idols, the Replacements, focusing on their early years, with a fiddle-driven cover of the piss-take, "Treatment Bound" being a highlight.
Later Merril Garbus as tUnE-yArDs weaved looping vocals and drums into a strange and powerful cover of Sonic Youth's "Burning Spear" while Sonic Youth's own Lee Ranaldo joined Delicate Steve for a cover of the Minutemen's "History Lesson, Pt. II" from which the book took its name. The concert ended, logically enough, with a tribute to the band that always loved its indie rock and did its damndest to bring the music into the mainstream, Nirvana. tUnE-yArDs enlisted Wye Oak and Dirty Projectors to help cover "Lithium" as did Dan Deacon for self-hatred anthem, "Negative Creep." Your Narrator wasn't lucky enough to be in the Bowery Ballroom that night to witness it first-hand, but if these recordings are any indication, this was more than a tribute show. It was yet another coming out party for some amazing music, past and present.
I am but a poor blogger (and a fairly technologically incompetent one, at that), so I was only able to make mp3s of the files I could find on youtube. The sound quality isn't ideal and some are only partial recordings, but it's better than a kick in the ass, as my father would say. You can find a full stream of the concert at the NPR website (I told you radio kicks ass). 

Download The Concert As A .Zip

Bad Penny (with Dirty Projectors) [Big Black] - St. Vincent
Kerosene (with Dirty Projectors) [Big Black] - St. Vincent
Buy St. Vincent & Big Black

Police Story [Black Flag] (Partial) - Dirty Projectors
Gimme Gimme Gimme  [Black Flag] - Dirty Projectors
Spray Paint (The Walls) [Black Flag] - Dirty Projectors
Thirsty and Miserable [Black Flag] - Dirty Projectors
Rise Above [Black Flag] - Dirty Projectors
Buy Dirty Projectors & Black Flag

Filler [Minor Threat] - Ted Leo 
Look Back And Laugh [Minor Threat] - Ted Leo
Buy Ted Leo & Minor Threat

Kids Don't Follow (feat. Craig Finn) [The Replacements] - Titus Andronicus
Raised In The City [The Replacements] - Titus Andronicus
Treatment Bound [The Replacements] - Titus Andronicus
Buy Titus Andronicus & The Replacements

Burning Spear [Sonic Youth] - tUnE-yArDs
Lithium (with Dirty Projectors & Wye Oak) [Nirvana] - tUnE-yArDs
Buy tUnE-yArDs & Sonic Youth

Negative Creep (with Wye Oak & Dirty Projectors) [Nirvana] (Partial) - Dan Deacon
Buy Dan Deacon & Nirvana

History Lesson, Pt. II (with Lee Ranaldo) [Minutemen] - Delicate Steve
Buy Delicate Steve & Minutemen

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