Power Convergence – EMA, The Blow, Ah Mer Ah Su

All the performers on this tour, billed boldly as The Power Convergence, are pushing the boundaries. Electronic noise rock artist EMA was co-headlining with The Blow, a political feminist electronic pop duo from Brooklyn. At each date on the tour, local artists charting new territory were invited (by EMA, it seems) to fill out the bill.

EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop

At the Rickshaw Stop last Monday, Ah Mer Ah Su (Star Amerasu) opened the festivities. Star had great energy. As a black trans woman, she clearly knows what it means to be an outsider. Her energy was bubbly and cute, but at the same time challenged us to confront issues like white privilege in songs like Meg Ryan. Accompanying herself with a small electronic toolkit, recorded beats and loops generated on the spot, Ah Mer Ah Su delivered a moving, uplifting, and bittersweet performance.

I had been looking forward to seeing EMA perform for a long time. I heard about EMA in 2014, and bought The Future’s Void, her brilliant second album. I think I just missed that tour, and this was her first proper Bay Area performance in several years. It was a very gritty, intimate and visceral set. Joining EMA for this tour were Susan Lucia on drums, and Leif Shackelford on violin, synthesizer and bass. Leif’s middle finger on his left hand was in a splint, the result of an accident right before start of the tour. He did just fine with the remaining fingers.

EMA is a combination of many contradictory things. Raised in middle America, yet she has the instincts of a futurist. Her songs about the surveillance state in The Future’s Void were released months before Ed Snowden became a public figure. The song Aryan Nation on this year’s Exile in the Outer Ring (written about 2 years ago) seems all too relevant in our current American dystopia. As a performer, EMA is iconic and shamanic, but at the same time down-to-earth and self-effacing.

For a very small club, they managed to do some dramatic lighting for EMA. Smoke poured out from behind the stage, the drummer and bass player took their places, and then EMA took the stage, wearing a dark jacket, hood pulled up, over what turned out to be baggy white gym shorts. She opened with Where the Darkness Began, which is really a spoken word piece where she breaks down her theory of “The Outer Ring”, the ring of low-cost housing, strip malls, and generic apartments that exists in between the cities, now too expensive for creatives, and the suburbs, which are sterile and lack diversity. The Outer Ring is an in-between place, where freedom and creativity are possible precisely because they are random, decaying, yet diverse and full of potential…

Here is the set list I captured which should be complete. I was not familiar with the one Gowns song that she closed with.

Set List
Where the Darkness Began
I Wanna Destroy
Butterfly Knife
Receive Love
Blood and Chalk
33 Nihilistic and Female
Fire Water LSD
[unknown gowns song]

After their set, EMA met fans at the merch table. I bought the new album Exile in the Outer Ring on vinyl, and also the zine, both of which she signed. I blabbered something about what a big fan I am. And she consented to take a picture with me, so I felt like I experienced my encounter with this luminary performer to the fullest.

Alex and I were feeling a bit noncommittal about the Blow, an electronic feminist pop art duo from Brooklyn. I didn’t know much about them, besides watching a few videos on Youtube. We hung out in the balcony for a while, and watched the first few songs from there. But before long I was drawn to get close to the performers, so we went down to the floor.

The Blow at the Rickshaw Stop
The Blow at the Rickshaw Stop

The Blow is Khaela Maricich on vocals and Melissa Dyne on synthesizers. In hindsight – and I have been thinking about this show a lot – The Blow were (probably) performing their latest album, Brand New Abyss. But seeing this performance from the initiate’s perspective, it felt like one integrated piece. Khaela would be introducing a song, or telling a story, while Melissa was generating beats and drones on her rig, but then it became clear that this was now a “number”, which would then merge as seamlessly into the next number until their performance came to an end.

Here are some of the themes I picked out of the performance. The Abyss – that void that opens up when the performer stops singing, and an audience member is compelled to yell out “we love you!” or some other inanity. Beauty and power. Capitalism (monetize this). Making art in a condo in Georgia. In general, the struggle to make unique, and let’s be honest not very commercial music, in this time of homogenized media and economic and moral free-fall.

This was certainly one of the most innovative and challenging performances I have seen in a long time. I felt that The Blow were in peak form. Khaela’s ability to improvise, to set the mood and take the audience somewhere unexpected. The subtle, fluid interactions with Melissa’s electronic accompaniment. I felt truly blessed to be in the audience that night.

EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA Plays the Synthesizer
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA with the author
EMA Took a Picture With Me

Slowdive and Cherry Glazerr at Fox Theatre

Slowdive at Fox Theatre
Slowdive at Fox Theatre

I will confess to being basically ignorant of Slowdive until this year, so I cribbed the following background details from Wikipedia: Slowdive formed in 1989, and became associated with the shoegaze genre. Having released several records over 20 years ago, including 1994’s revered Souvlaki, they went on hiatus in 1995 and the members worked on other projects. Then, in 2014, to everyone’s amazement and delight, they announced that they had reformed, and began touring. They released the first new Slowdive album in over 20 years in March, and have been touring in support of it.

My first impression of Slowdive when they took the stage last night at Oakland’s Fox Theatre was that time has been very kind to them. They looked great, and like they were really enjoying themselves. We were quite close to the stage, between singer and instrumentalist Rachel Goswell and bassist Nick Chaplin. Rachel Goswell has a beautiful smile, which she flashed us continuously as she sang, played and swayed to the music. Nick has the rugged good looks of a Dolce and Gabbana model, with his low-slung Gibson Thunderbird and cat-like moves. The other band members were not quite as demonstrative, but I felt that they were feeling it as well.

They played a long, satisfying set, larded with selections from their new self-titled album, their classic Souvlaki, and probably others besides. The new songs such as Slomo, Star Roving and Sugar for the Pill are all excellent. I recognized Alison from Souvlaki, which was a highlight, as well as Dagger. They ended the set with Syd Barrett’s Golden Hair, which begins with Rachel’s ethereal voice singing –

Lean out of the window,
I hear you singing
A merry air.

Following the evocative lyrics (from a poem by James Joyce), the band moves into a long, slowly building instrumental, which swells and crashes, with washes of distorted guitar sweeping against each other into the climax. Good stuff.

Cherry Glazerr at Fox Theatre

I’ve actually been a fan of openers Cherry Glazerr for about a year, and they’re the reason I splurged on the tickets for this show, since I hadn’t got a chance to see them before. My son and I were discussing the contrasting musical styles of Slowdive’s soaring sonic explorations with Cherry Glazerr’s more propulsive, punkish sound. We decided they complemented each quite well. I think it could have been tedious to sit through another, possibly lesser “shoegaze” set before Slowdive – much better to be rocked by Clem Creevy and company, and then settle in to Slowdive’s transcendental grooves.

Cherry Glazerr played a good selection of songs from both their records, Haxel Princess and Apocalipstick. I recall the following: Nuclear Bomb, Had Ten Dollaz, With the Guys, Only Kid on the Block, Apocalipstick, Teenage Girl, Trick or Treat Dancefloor. There were also a couple I didn’t recognize – possibly new ones. They sounded great and were very loose musically, and literally. Clem loped and bounced around the stage like a cartoon character and made funny faces. Sasami Ashworth rocked out with her synthesizers, and drummer Tabor Allen’s arms moved with octopus-like fluidity. The bassist mostly just played the bass, but he was cool, too. Of course I still want to see Cherry Glazerr headline, and play all their awesome songs. But it was a great set, and we were pretty close to the stage which was nice.

Alvvays Concert Review – October 24, 2017

This month I have three shows in one week, starting off with Alvvays at the Fillmore! Yeah, it seems excessive maybe, but in my mind they were all must-see. In some ways, Alvvays was the least “must see” of the three. I’m not like a super devoted fan, but I really like their music, and I thought they would be fun to see live. It turns out, I was right!

Alvvays at The Fillmore
Alvvays at The Fillmore

If I go to a show with a friend, it’s almost always Alex. We met at SUNY Purchase in the 80s, and we’ve been hanging out ever since he moved to SF in the 90s. Just thought I’d do a little introduction, since Alex has appeared in previous posts, and will surely show up in many future concert reviews. We decided to meet at Japantown, which is basically across the street from the Fillmore. Alex wanted to go to a cool stationery store named Maidō, and we both wanted to eat noodles. Alex suggested Marufuku Ramen which was a few steps away from the stationers. I won’t go into detail, but the food was fantastic. We both had a pork based soup with lots of noodles, pork bellies, vegies, etc. It was to die for – so tasty. Definitely would recommend (if you are not vegetarian).

Then we bopped over to the Fillmore. I feel like the Fillmore is a special venue, and I was ready for the full dimensional experience of R&R history, nostalgia, and of course getting to see some live music in a relatively intimate setting. I exchanged pleasantries with a cute greeter in a top hat, and Alex grabbed a shiny red apple. We decided to check out the balcony, at least for the warm up band, so we could relax for a bit. We found a couple of chairs with a decent view, and waited for Nap Eyes to take the stage.

I had listened to a few cuts from this Canadian quartet on Spotify and was not too impressed. But they took the stage at the Fillmore and launched into a Lou Reed-esque number that frankly sounded pretty damn good. Singer Nigel Chapman’s voice sounded eerily like Lou. The next two songs were similarly pleasant, and I was kind of into them up to that point. But then the familiarity devolved into boredom, and I decided that they were derivative and not very interesting. I got up and took a walk around the venue, and checked out the floor area. I came back and informed Alex that we should move to the floor now – it was filling up, and now was the time to stake out good real estate before everybody crowded the floor for Alvvays. We listened to the last few Nap Eyes numbers from the floor. In their final song, their earnest strumming and crooning gave way to a discordant instrumental. The music got louder, faster, more chaotic, and the riffs clanged against each other. I actually felt that was the best, most unique part of the set, and thinking maybe they should just stick to that kind of sound, instead of a pleasant Lou Reed/Feelies sound-alike band. But obviously, Nap Eyes should play whatever makes them happy.

Nap Eyes said goodbye, and we stood there talking for what seemed like a long time, waiting for Alvvays to take the stage. This was a sold-out show, and the audience was pretty pumped when Molly and the band took the stage. Let me just get out of the way the fact that it feels very much like Molly’s band, and the other players are the side people. I’ll also be transparent and admit I don’t know the names of the other players. They’re all quite good, but since Molly does all that lead vocals, is standing in the center stage with the spotlight glittering off her sparkly gold blouse, it’s easy to assume that Alvvays is just a vehicle for Molly’s vision, but I don’t know that. They certainly play well together, and it may be that they’re content to let Molly be in the spotlight, while the rest of them focus on their music, who knows.

I have both the Alvvays albums, and they’re great – 100 percent filler-free indie pop music with killer hooks, gorgeous vocals, and tight musicianship. I’ve only had the new one, Antisocialites, for a few weeks so I’m not as familiar with the songs, but it’s equally as good as their self-titled debut. As far as I’m concerned, they played all my favorites from both albums, and I was totally satisfied. Marry Me, Archie was of course a big crowd-pleaser, and it came near the end of the set. Plimsoll Punks was a favorite, too. I was so glad they played Forget About Life, which is the last song on Antisocialites, and one of the most poignant. It starts off contemplating suicide “I thought of going in the lake and swallowing” and ends up asking “Do you want to forget about life with me tonight?” There is a dark vein in Molly’s songwriting that provides a counterweight to her crystalline voice and effervescent melodies.

The last song of the set before the encore was Party Police, with its fabulous chorus:

You don’t have to leave, you could just stay here with me
Forget all the party police, we can find comfort in debauchery

I didn’t find a whole lot of debauchery, but it was well worth making the trip to SF to see this talented band.