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Saturday, February 3, 2007

David Byrne, day two: this ain't no Mudd Club or CBGB

Last night was day two of David Byrne's four-night takeover of Carnegie Hall, and he was not even billed to perform. He was instead due to introduce an evening of, for lack of a more knowledgeable word choice, weird folk. The lineup: CocoRosie, Adem, Cibelle, Vetiver, Vashti Bunyan, and Devendra Banhart.

Why, you may wonder, would a David Byrne fan attend a David Byrne concert without David Byrne? For the answer to that, we have to go back to 1989 and the founding of Luaka Bop, Byrne's own record label until recently. I know many of my readers will recall the label's first release, the tropicália anthology known as Brazil Classics, Vol. 1: Beleza Tropical. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben—that album was many Americans' introduction to Brazilian music, myself included. And many more great albums followed on the Luaka Bop label. The man has impeccable taste.

Despite all the music I listen to, I don't think I had heard a single song by any 'weird funk' act other than Joanna Newsom, even though I had some mp3's sitting unlistened to on my hard drive. Would Byrne's curatorial magic strike again?

Reader, after Friday night's concert, I may go broke trying to catch up on all the great albums I've missed by the artists he gathered at Carnegie Hall. Every one of them was a surprise. The biggest surprise had to be CocoRosie's trippy combination of straight-up opera singing, high-pitched Newsom-esque vocals, and rapping. It sounds too cool for school, but there was nothing cheeky about it. I don't understand how or why it worked, but I do intend to get their recordings and get back to you about them. The other acts were less bizarre in varying degrees but no less revelatory.

But what about the host of the evening? He did join all the acts for a final number, a song I was unable to identify, but he hung back behind the young 'uns and was barely audible. I attribute this to his modesty and his earnest desire to showcase these exciting young musicians. (Only Vashti Bunyan was not young. Let us say instead that she is young again.)

In the program notes, Byrne invoked the From Spirituals to Swing concerts of the late 1930's, an influential series that brought together Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Big Bill Broonzy, and others in order to expose their work to a bigger public and to explore the common roots of their various musics. But sitting there watching all these bright, young, irrepressible fonts of enthusiasm and experimentation, I thought of a more apt comparison: New York from 1977 to 1981, for my money the most exciting music and art scene of the twentieth century.

Think about it. We had David Byrne and Talking Heads, Brian Eno and everybody, Debby Harry and Blondie, the Ramones, Basquiat, Keith Haring, plus Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and the entire first generation of hip hop all in one city at the same time. Throw in the UK influence of the Clash, the Gang of Four, the Fall (thanks, Dan), and others, and the result is a scene of incomparable experimentation, excitement, and achievement. A lot of those people passed through CBGB and Glenn O'Brien's TV Party but never all at once. (There are a lot of reasons I'm glad I was born in the 70's, but to have been that geographically close, yet too young to have seen any of it in person, remains endlessly tantalizing, even in retrospect.)

Now, I'm not saying the weird folk folk are that great, but they are pretty special. A lot of them asked David Byrne why he chose them to play Carnegie Hall. Apparently, they were genuinely surprised, and unabashedly wide-eyed and amazed to be playing Carnegie Hall. But Byrne knows why it was important to get them all together on one of music's great stages for at least one musical snapshot of the scene as a whole in 2007. I don't know if he watches Six Feet Under, but Nate Fisher tells us the answer in the final episode: 'You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone.'


Blogger Doug said...

Glad you caught up with the new folkies. I personally think that Devendra Banhart is a fantastically fun genius. Listen to the Dirty Projectors! Trust me on this one.

11:25 AM, February 08, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Doug is the second person to recommend the Dirty Projectors to me but the first cinema scholar to do so. Hmm. I wonder what role their name plays in his admiration.

What if our favourite bands had crummy names? Would we ever have found them and identified with their work? I love Franz Ferdinand and Dizzee Rascal, but I knew and liked both their names before I ever heard their songs. Sometimes great names draw us to new work. I went to Dizzee's U.S. debut performance in February 2004 without having heard his music. All I knew was that he was supposedly a good British rapper and that he had the dopest name in the biz.

What do you think? How much do names matter in music? And what's the worst-named band that you like?

1:34 AM, February 09, 2007

Anonymous Zinc Iodine said...

Now that's a good question!

While there always appears to be a reason why a band takes a certain name, and while there will always be some explanation a die-hard fan can give for a stupid moniker, it remains possible to dislike a name and like the band. I would offer this selection of bad band names - and note that this list includes one of my very favourite bands ever, some bands I love, some I like, and several I quite despise:
The Byrds
Take That
The Monkees
Toad the Wet Sprocket
Savage Garden
Faith No More

Two of my favourite groups have names that are a bit too aren't we clever?: The The and Antony and the Johnsons. In cases like these, I can try to justify their names, but part of me always wishes that they had come up with something as cool as The Killers, Razorlight, Air, Flaming Lips, Nada Surf, The Velvet Underground, or The Stone Roses.

For me, U2 will forever be condemned for their name, all because of one heart-breaking moment when I was a teenager, lying on my bed with my feet in the air, talking on the phone with a girl I had barely met but who I adored, and who suddenly said, "I love U2" (my heart gallops) "... the group." Disaster! At least I didn't say, "And I love you!" during what was for her obviously a very uncomfortable pause before she appended her sadly necessary clarification. Quite possibly she could hear my heart gallop, or some unwitting gurgle of adolescent delight.

12:32 AM, February 10, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

One of the best recent band names belongs to a group I've tried listening to but without finding much to sustain my attention yet: Architecture in Helsinki. I'm sure some will deem that one too cool for school, but I quite like it.

The best band with a lame name has to be the Arctic Monkeys. I try to see their name as deliberately bad in a punk spirit, like their un-mass-marketable EP 'Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?', but that my be wishful thinking on my part.

Birdy Nam Nam, the French DJ collective, has a pretty bad name, but my all-time least favourite band name has to be Coldplay. I refused to listen to them for quite a while because of their name. I'm still not particularly fond of them, but that has more to do with their music than their ill-chosen name, which invariably reminds me of cold cuts: I'll have a half-pound of salami, a quarter-pound of capocollo.

Other good recent names:
British Sea Power
Broken Social Scene
Dirty Pretty Things
*The Libertines
The Raconteurs

Bad recent names:
The Dears
Death Cab for Cutie
(another serious turnoff)
The Microphones
Of Montreal

The coolest name of the last fifteen years? Come on. It could only be Wu-Tang!

Incredibly, I have the same but opposite story of U2. On what turned out to be my first date ever, I said, while discussing music, 'I like U2.' And she looked at me and quite clearly said, 'I like you, too.' Verbs really do make the sentence.

Finally, since this started as a David Byrne thread, I must give mad props to another lame-named band, Mauro Refosco's Forro in the Dark. Mauro is David's longtime percussionist, and his band has put out a great album, 'Bonfires of São João', which is a mix of Brazilian forró with other contemporary flavours thrown into the mix. Guest vocalists include David Byrne, Bebel Gilberto, and Miho Hatori. This album is for everyone who digs music. But including the genre in the band name is not very imaginative.

2:40 AM, February 10, 2007

Anonymous Zinc Oxide said...

I quite agree with you on the Wu - I don't agree with you on Death Cab for Cutie or Arctic Monkeys. But arguing over this would not be productive; I do see why one may dislike those names.

As for Coldplay, I actually considered them for my list of bands with bad names - but if you imagine them performing while huddled in a winter haze, you have a Coldplay that doesn't involve pastrami and rye. But I would not go too far in defending their name; it's not great. I never really liked Oasis either - until I really liked it - and then stopped liking it again. Sometimes that happens too.

What happened with the girl who said "I like you too"?

1:37 PM, February 10, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

What happened? We were high school freshmen, so 'nothing happened', as the adults say. We dated for a few weeks. Then we stopped and I dated someone else.

3:51 AM, February 11, 2007


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