Bon Iver: Music that is the soundtrack of treasured memories

By Stephanie Sharon, Guest Blogger

Ever since For Emma, Forever Ago was released in 2008, Bon Iver has been one of those bands… you know what I’m referring to.  One of those bands that prompts someone to come up to you and ask, “Have you listened to this band!?” and I nod and say, “Of course,” because I know they are trending, but just haven’t had the chance to listen to them yet, and I don’t want to be the un-cool librarian (hold the stereotypical librarian jokes please, I really do have a cool job). So yes, Bon Iver was one of those bands, that is, until their self-titled album was released in June of last year, and thanks to a road trip I was able to finally hear the greatness of this band everyone has been raving about. Letting my road rage subside, and giving in to lead singer and guitarist Justin Vernon’s voice, I was sent into an instant state of contentment.

After I returned from my trip, I remembered how calming and beautiful the music was, and I thought it would be perfect for a playlist I always put together for my Mom’s chemo treatments.

Photo by Stephanie Sharon

The treatments could be up to four hours long, and thanks to the effects of Benadryl she was only half awake and in need of good relaxing music. She had been on chemo for over three years straight and with treatments every three weeks, that equals a lot of iPod playlists. So you can only image how grateful I was to current artists who put out quality music.

After her long fought 22 year battle with breast cancer ended up taking her life in July, I will never forget–among our many wonderful memories–the music we shared and bonded over. I owe such a debt of gratitude to those artists, and one day I would personally like to thank each and every one of them (without being arrested).

On September 16, 2012, Bon Iver returned to Philadelphia to perform at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, and it was definitely a concert I did not wanted to miss. Thanks to one of the best friends a girl could have, I was able to see the show from a box seat.

Photo by Derek Brad

The opening act, Anais Mitchell, started the show on a high note. It is so refreshing hearing an opening act you would actually want to listen to again after the show, and she definitely had my attention with songs like “Wilderland” and “Coming Down.” One of my favorite aspects of her performance was the slow addition of members from the Bon Iver band to help play with her throughout the set. The extra musicians added a unique spin to her classic folk sound.

Photo by Stephanie Sharon

Now to the main event.After three glasses of wine, a quick trip backstage (be jealous), and a nice walk around the venue, I got to see Bon Iver finally take the stage. At first I was surprised with how many musicians were on the stage (nine !), then realized they really need every member, from the trumpet player to the saxophonist, to get their unique sound. I blame my initial musical ignorance of this fact on the wine.

They opened with “Woods,” and I quickly grew emotional with every following song. When the opening notes for “Holecene” were played, I kind of lost it. Tears streaming down my face, I couldn’t help but think about how my mother must have felt when listening to this same song while getting poison pumped through her veins. Did our emotions match? Did she feel the same tranquil humbling wave pass over her that I also feel when I listen to the lyric, “… and at once I knew I was not magnificent?” I’ll never know but I can hope it gave her the same peace it gives me.

After what felt like the shortest 70 minutes in the history of time, Bon Iver left the stage, but shortly returned for their encore of “The Wolves (Act I & II),” where Justin asked the audience to sing along, and closing with “For Emma.”

Photo by Derek Brad

This was by far one of my favorite concerts this year, and after seeing over 30 mostly amazing shows this year, that is quite a feat for this band and their chill music. My only complaint (and it is minimal) is that they didn’t play longer to finish off the few remaining songs on their albums that didn’t make it into the setlist.

Overall, bravo, Bon Iver. One day I hope I get the chance to say thanks.

Photo by Stephanie Sharon

An unlikely duet leads to an unforgettable experience

 

By Laura Kate

“Ok, I need a female to sing with me.  Come on, don’t be shy!  Who’s going to join me?”

Photo by Derek Brad Photography

Most people who attend concerts never dare dream that they will join their musical idols for a performance on stage.  However, when Kristi Reeves, 30, of Havertown, Pa., heard this invitation from Idina Menzel go out to the packed crowd, she knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity and she enthusiastically threw her hand up in the air in the hopes that she would be chosen.

Menzel appeared at the MannCenter for the Performing Arts on June 30 in her Barefoot at the Mann show.  Menzel is best known for her roles in the Broadway musicals Wicked and Rent as well as Rachel’s mother on the hit TV series Glee.  Reeves is a long-time Menzel fan.  “She is my idol! I generally try and never miss a performance when she is in town because I know it will be amazing,” said Reeves.

“I was first introduced to her as Maureen in Rent, and she was awesome, but when she played Elphaba in Wicked it was like watching something really special. She truly has a gift with that voice of hers.  So definitely Elphaba is my favorite role that she has played, I even named my dog Elphaba after her character,” said Reeves.

Photo by Derek Brad Photography

When Reeves was selected by Menzel from the crowd of hopefuls, she couldn’t believe her luck.  “Honestly at the time I didn’t really have the chance to think, it was all so shocking and overwhelming. You can always dream about how it would feel or what it would be like when you sing with your idol, but when it actually happens to you…there are really just no words. It was by far the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.”

This was Reeves’ second time to see Menzel at the Mann.  While Reeves was shocked to find herself performing with Menzel this time, the crowd was also surprised at the caliber of Reeves’ vocal talent.  Reeves previously trained with Harry Dietzler and Christopher Sapienza at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center with Summer Stage and Shooting Stars. All of that training paid off as Reeves’ strong voice soared with Menzel’s and they wove together for an enjoyable performance.

Reeves says that participating in arts education programs has greatly influenced her life. “I think being a part of any arts program is important because they truly teach you how to express yourself for who you really are.”

When asked about how she felt during the duet, Reeves’ eyes lit up as she responded.

Photo by Derek Brad Photography

“(This experience) shows just how amazing Idina is, that she puts her own trust in her fans to perform songs with her that she is so known for,” said Reeves.  Although she has no specific show in mind, Reeves has no doubt that she will be back at the Mann for another concert.

“Being on stage at the Mann was awesome, I could get used to that! Being on stage with Idina? That was an honor and I can only hope and pray that one day she would want to add back-up singers to her show!” gushed Reeves.

 

No venom in this venue! Scorpions rock the Mann Center

Reviewed by Laura Kate

 

Tesla; Photo by Derek Brad Photography

When you mention the band Scorpions, certain images immediately come to mind.  Leather.  The color black.  Long poodle-permed hair.  Insanely tight pants.  And that was just the men that attended the band’s “Final Sting Tour” show. All of that and more were on hand during the Scorpions concert on July 11 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.  The Scorpions and opening act Tesla brought the ‘80’s hair metal fans out of the Philadelphia woodworks for a night of flashy, gritty, hard rocking fun.

There seems to be a certain degree of shame that goes with liking ‘80’s hair metal, usually inflicted by closet hair metal fans that haven’t come to terms with their tendencies to appreciate men with long poofy hair and pre-pubescent voices.  Despite this, proud hair band fans braved the weather and the warm venue beer to show their support.  This show had a setup fit for a stadium concert, with more speakers and lights than ever seen before at the venue that is most popularly known as the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Scorpions; Photo by Derek Brad Photography

Scorpions; Photo by Derek Brad Photography

Just because Tchaikovsky and Chopin were not on the set list doesn’t mean that the crowd didn’t get to hear the classics.  Tesla stirred the crowd up into a scream-singing rendition of “Signs” and the Scorpions ended their set with the best known songs of their 30-year catalog, including crowd favorites “Zoo,” “Still Loving You,” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”

The Scorpions have been quoted several times on this tour as saying this is the last tour they will do in the U.S.  Happy—or what passes for happy in this subculture–Philadelphia fans crowded the front of the Mann Center orchestra seating section to catch a glimpse of their rock gods, and perhaps a bit of their hazy youths.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Wayne’s World, just picture the scene where they go to the Alice Cooper concert.  This show was like that, except slightly less crowded.  It felt a little silly, but was totally fun.  And just like any good mullet, the band was a great blend of business and party.  Next time I’ll be sure to pull up in my own Mirth Mobile to show my support.

Rocking like a hurricane; Photo by Derek Brad Photography

Scorpions Setlist

  1. Sting in the Tail 
  2. Make It Real 
  3. Is There Anybody There? 
  4. The Zoo 
  5. Coast to Coast 
  6. Loving You Sunday Morning 
  7. Rhythm of Love 
  8. Wind of Change 
  9. Holiday 
  10. Raised on Rock 
  11. Tease Me Please Me 
  12. Hit Between the Eyes 
  13. Kottak Attack 
  14. Blackout 
  15. Six String Sting 
  16. Big City Nights 
  17. Still Loving You
  18. No One Like You
  19. Rock You Like a Hurricane

Idina Menzel: Bare feet and big talent

Reviewed by Laura Kate

 

Our favorite!

My mother, much to her credit, raised me with a deep appreciation for classic movies.  We spent many lazy Sunday afternoons watching old cinema classics, including many musicals.  There is something about a good musical that just reels you in.  The campy but heartfelt, over-the-top song and dance numbers that somehow all of the characters know, the usual boy meets girl (or in the case of Rent, girl meets girl) but something gets in the way of their romance plot, and the colorful sets, costumes and characters make an evening with a  musical just fun.  This is the world that Idina Menzel comes from and the world that she brought to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

Menzel is widely known and loved for her portrayal of Elphaba in the Broadway musical Wicked as well as her debut role in the insanely popular Rent and her role as Rachel’s mother on the Fox hit series, Glee.  She has legions of devoted fans and she is known for her playful grace when interacting with them.  More on that later.

Idina Menzel as Elphaba in Wicked

The Mann Center is an outdoor venue with a covered pavilion that faces a huge cedar stage and overlooks the city of Philadelphia.  It really is a great place to see a show when the temperature isn’t overbearing.  This grand place was the setting for Menzel’s adaptation of her Barefoot at the Symphony show, which was fittingly called Barefoot at the Mann.  Menzel was in fact barefoot throughout her performance, laughingly telling the audience that she thought about wearing heels and then decided, “F—k it!” which immediately created a camaraderie with the crowd.  Looking absolutely stunning in a Grecian-style white belted dress, Menzel exuded Broadway confidence as she proceeded to own the stage.

Now, as much as my mother prepared me as a child to appreciate musicals and show tunes, this wasn’t a “must see” concert on my list and thus I had somewhat low expectations.  However, from her opening rendition of “Over the Rainbow” through some of her personal favorite songs all the way to the songs that made her famous on Broadway, Menzel hit almost every note flawlessly with the powerhouse voice that propelled her to stardom.  She was backed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the evening’s performance was reminiscent of an old Rosemary Clooney stage show.

The most entertaining part of the show was during her performance of “Take Me or Leave Me” from Rent.  During this number, she went out into the crowd and chose two random females to sing the duet with her.  The both girls were talented, but the first girl really knocked it out of the park.  Menzel then invited both up on stage for a grand finish and the crowd was on its feet for several minutes afterward.

The performance was almost impeccable.  The orchestra wasn’t overpowering to the single voice, the lights were warm and inviting and Menzel was personable with the audience, adding anecdotes and reflections about the songs she chose for her show.  There were a couple of missed notes toward the end, but even that is forgivable given the powerhouse performance she gave.  The few minor warbles were completely overlooked by fans, all of whom left with big smiles.  Many didn’t leave right away, and instead waited outside the press gate for an autograph, a hug or even just a glimpse of Menzel.  This may not sound like much, but it took her quite a while to make her way back to the tour bus because she was tied up in a meet and greet immediately after the show.  Fans at the barricade outside the press gate were told that she was very tired and would just be moving to the bus with no autographs or pictures taken, and everyone—to a man—was perfectly fine with that.

The Barefoot at the Mann show was like a little bit of old Broadway was back, for just a single evening in Philadelphia.

Set list (Mann Center for the Performing Arts, June 30, 2012)

  1. Somewhere Over The Rainbow 
  1. The Wizard and I 
  1. Love For Sale / Roxanne 
  1. Both Sides Now 
  1. Don’t Rain on My Parade 
  1. God Save My Soul 
  1. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For / In Your Eyes 
  1. Take Me or Leave Me 
  1. No Day But Today 
  1. For Good 
  1. Defying Gravity  

 

Encore:

  1. Somewhere 
  1. You Learn To Live Without 

The mood control devices of Norah Jones

Reviewed by Laura Kate

I feel that sometimes we listen to a particular song, band or genre of music because we are in the mood—or want to set the mood—for it.  You know the old stereotypes–some smooth Al Green, ethereal Mazzy Star, or (if you are my like my mother), crooning Barry Manilow for when you are planning a romantic night; some Rage Against the Machine or N.W.A. for when you are feeling feisty; or some Chipmunks Christmas album or the Dreidel song for the holidays.

But then there are times when you randomly select something to listen to—maybe your iPod is on shuffle or you just reach for the nearest cd—that puts you in a particular mood.  This happened to me when I went to the Norah Jones concert on June 28 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty familiar with Jones’ music and I felt I knew what to expect, but when I came across the tickets for this show, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into…which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Jones rose to stardom after her 2002 debut album, Come Away with Me earned five Grammy awards.   She just released her fifth studio album, Little Broken Hearts, in April and it has been quite successful so far.  Her style is smooth and mellow, combining elements of pop, jazz, soul and blues to create a sound all her own.  She is not shy about telling people that her musical idol was Billie Holliday, and you can hear Holliday’s subtle influence while listening to Jones’ original songs.  I’m simply in love with her music.

The opening act was Sasha Dobson, and it is no wonder that she perfectly set the tone for the evening.  She performed several solo jazzy acoustic songs before taking her place in Jones’ band.  Dobson’s performance as the opening act sounded easy and eloquent and made me want to listen to more that this musician has to offer.

Little Broken Hearts album cover

Jones started her performance with several tracks from Little Broken Hearts, opening with “Take It Back,” which has a really cool fuzz bass undertone.  The set design was beautiful, with blue, purple and pink hues highlighting large origami peace cranes that were suspended from the ceiling. Other songs in the first half included “Say Goodbye” and “Chasing Pirates.”

I enjoyed the first part thoroughly, but then she deftly changed the pace by sliding into “Travelin’ On” and “She’s 22.”  These songs are so full of longing and sadness, and (for me, at least) it induces a kind of empathy for Jones and the place she must have been in when she wrote it.  My mood shifted from relaxed and content to sad and moody just from listening to a piece of music I related to.  She then took me to a sense of determination with “Little Broken Hearts,” which is driving and edgy with lyrics that cut; Jones performed it with confident abandon.

The second half of the concert included covers of Elvis Presley, Danger Mouse, and Hank Williams, which made for very interesting interpretations of familiar songs. Jones gave each of these songs her own touch, which made them fit perfectly with her own compositions.  The standout sons from the second half would be “What am I to You?”  I looked around and noticed a young couple standing at the top of the steps under the pavilion who were dancing in the darkness.  He had his arm around her waist, drawing her close to him, and she was looking into his eyes and it was just a perfectly sweet scene to a beautiful love song.  This once again proves my point. I doubt that they came to the concert planning to dance, but this gorgeous music put them in the mood to share a tender moment with each other.  My mood shifted once again as well and I left the concert with a fuzzy warm feeling from having seen a wonderful show, but the feeling was just barely tinged with sadness from my own reflections on Jones’ very personal lyrics.

Ok, so if you read my introduction on the Music page, you know that I will go to any lengths to weave in a Beatles reference.  I don’t have to go too far on this one.  You score extra points if you know who Norah Jones’ father is.

Nora Jones’ daddy

Set list (Norah Jones, June 28, Mann Center for the Performing Arts)

  1. Take It Back 
  2. Say Goodbye 
  3. After the Fall 
  4. Travelin’ On 
  5. Chasing Pirates 
  6. She’s 22 
  7. All a Dream 
  8. It’s Gonna Be 
  9. Little Broken Hearts 
  10. Love Me 
  11. Black 
  12. Stuck 
  13. Miriam 
  14. What Am I To You? 
  15. Don’t Know Why 
  16. Cold Cold Heart
  17. Lonestar

Encore 

  1. Creepin’ In 
  2. Sunrise 

Nada Surf fans leave Lancaster on a wave of musical ecstasy

Reviewed by Laura Kate

Sometimes my musical travels take me to the strangest places–both literally and figuratively speaking.  My trip to Lancaster, PA on Tuesday, June 19 was no exception.  First of all, the Chameleon Club is a tiny venue on the back side of a long row of mom and pop shops in downtown Lancaster.  The first time we saw a show there, we drove past it twice before finally spotting its sign.  The club’s size should not put people off from coming there to hear great bands, though.  After all, the 90’s alterna rock band Live got its big break in this hole in the wall of a club.

So as we drove past cow pastures and Amish furniture to get to the venue on the literal part of my road trip, I was super stoked to be on my way to the Nada Surf concert.  Nada Surf is one of those bands featured in the soundtrack of my early college years and exists in one of those golden hazy areas of my mind that houses nostalgia.  Hence, my figurative trip.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in a bad mood while listening to their music.  Happy, moody, reflective, fun, spirited, creative…yes…but never a bad mood.

I still don’t know why the show started so early (doors opened at 6 p.m. and I think the first band went on before 7), but it worked out well because, much to my chagrin, I am no longer a 20-year-old college student that can rock all night and make it to work on time the next day on only three hours of sleep.  As tradition dictates, a local (from Philly, this time) was the first opening band.  I never caught the name of this band, but then, I didn’t catch many of the lyrics either.  While they had some strong riffs every now and then, many of their songs featured the lead singer talk-singing into the mic like the Crash Test Dummies, which has been done before…by the Crash Test Dummies.

However, the second band was one that I will definitely be keeping tabs on.  Waters gave an energetic performance and they really engaged the audience.  This band hails from San Francisco and I could definitely hear some signature California alternative sounds in the same vein as 311 or Incubus trickling along in the stream of sound that included lots of loud guitars and high-pitched singing.  Ok, so not an entirely original sound (I even caught myself thinking, “You know, they could use some samples in this one”), but one done really well by Waters nonetheless.

Daniel Lorca, Matthew Caws, Doug Gillard…meet my crappy camera phone!

When Nada Surf finally took the stage, the crowd had been sufficiently warmed up and we were ready to sing along to our old favorites and learn some new ones too.  It’s really nice when your expectations are not only met, but are exceeded beyond anything you could have imagined, and that is exactly what happened from the first chord of “Clear Eye, Clouded Mind” all the way through the five-song encore (and yes, I am counting drummer Ira Elliott’s rendition of Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together–unexpected and awesome!) that ended with “Blankest Year.”

Matthew Caws during “When I Was Young”  

Lead singer and guitarist Matthew Caws kept things rolling without missing a note. Needless to say his vocals and lyrics provide the heart of the Nada Surf sound, which ranges from raucously loud to moments of tenderness, such as in my favorite of their songs, “When I Was Young” and “Always Love.”  Maybe in his next life Caws will try his hand at stand-up comedy because that guy certainly shared some funny quips between songs.  Bassist Daniel Lorca, who more than slightly resembled Kevin Spacey in dreads, performed finger acrobatics on the neck of that bass that reminded me of a Flea protege.  Apparent 70’s pop fan Ira Elliott provided a strong, driving beat that looked effortless but sounded anything but–his kicks and fills were complicated in the very best sense of the word.

And that brings me to new guitarist Doug Gillard.  Ho-ly crap!  That guy was amazing.  I stood right in front of him on the front row and it truly was awesome to see him in action.  He blended into the band just like he had been there from the very beginning.  He looked so into what he was doing, like he was just completely awash in the music and his fingers were his little musical oars rowing the band’s boat amid huge swells.  I can’t say enough about Gillard and I hope he stays with the band for the long haul.

We waited around after the show for the possibility of meeting the band and it paid off when Caws came out and made the rounds among us adoring fans.  I scored a set list from one of the stage hands and Caws signed it for me (insert whistful sigh here).  I gave perhaps the most awkward hug of my life when my arm got pinned between us.  Doesn’t it always happen that way?  I swear I am incapable of cool moments when they are most needed, but it didn’t seem to matter to him as he kissed me on the cheek, thus reducing me to a puddle of happiness.  What a nice guy!

So here is my overall assessment.  Unlike the Gotye show, where I didn’t know anything about the musician or what to expect, I arrived at the Nada Surf concert filled with expectations–none of which were disappointed.  Unlike the Smashing Pumpkins concert where Billy Corgan refused to play any of their previous hits and only played new stuff that no one could sing to, Nada Surf gave a perfect blend of the old and the new that was both exciting and satisfying.  Unlike Group Love, who I think are only mediocre at best and I still struggle to understand why they are so popular, Nada Surf’s band members are each a master of their own craft and they came together to give one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.  Please do yourself a favor and go see them!

Building a following Caesar himself would envy: Empires rocks Philadelphia once again

The Empires were back in Philly last night to play at the Kung Fu Necktie, and once again they did not disappoint!

I first saw Empires open for A Silent Film on April 6, 2012 at the Union Transfer (which is an awesome venue, by the way).  After a rather disappointing first act, Empires came on and worked the crowd into a frenzy from their first song, “Hello Lover,” all the way to the end.  I happened to look over to my friend halfway through “Hello Lover” and saw her looking back at me with what I imagine was a mirror image of the look on my own face: the look that says, “What am I hearing and how can I hear more?!”

We were hooked from then on and sought out ways to hear more of this band that hails from Chicago.  Fortunately, it isn’t that hard to indulge yourself with affordable listening opportunities where Empires is concerned.  This is a total DIY band–their incredible lead guitarist, Max Steger, has produced, engineered and mixed all Empires releases. Guitarist Tom Conrad designs the album artwork and many of the band’s concert flyers and prior to his departure, drummer Ryan Luciani often filmed their touring experiences.  In this spirit of “music for music’s sake,” the band made their first EP, Howl, available for free digital downloads.

Empires just released their second full-length album, Garage Hymns, and it is readily apparent from the first sounds of “Can’t Steal Your Heart Away” that the band has stayed true to itself while producing a more mature sound.  When I was asked what three bands I thought could describe the Empires’s sound, I was at a loss.  This is actually really important to me–the fact that I can’t pigeonhole or label this band as “the next so-and-so” tells me that they truly have a sound all their own that brought me back for a second performance in three months.  I think I would have to put it in broader terms; to me, the Empires cocktail has a definite indie rock motif, with a dose of hard rock, more than a splash of punk, and a refreshingly healthy serving of blues undertones.

Vocalist Sean Van Vleet’s vocals are intense, moody and immediately captivating.  I’m telling you, I’ve been to a ton of concerts and I’m not sure that I have ever had a front man draw me in so easily.  It would sound cheap to call it “casting a spell” over a crowd, but the man truly does work his ass off providing strong, sometimes rhaspy, intelligible lyric wails from beginning to end.  Guitarist Max Steger obviously has fun with his driving, catchy riffs and guitarist Tom Conrad (who appears to be the band’s spokesman in almost every interview I’ve come across) keeps the music layered and moving.  Even though they have changed drummers since I saw them in April, Empires has not missed a beat and the bassist provides a barefoot groove that helps create their signature sound.

So…to the concert.  They opened with the aforementioned “Hello Lover,” which happens to be the song that hooked me back in April and it was even better the second time live.  They performed songs from each of their albums and EP’s, including “Spit the Dark,” “Shame,” and fan request “Hitchhiker.”  The band rocked them all and the intimate setting was fantastic for enjoying them close up.  After the show, we got to speak with Van Vleet, who proved to be absolutely personable and genuinely happy to speak with people who truly appreciate their music.  And really, this is the essence of Empires.  They have a unique, driven sound with a magnetic hook that matches the personalities of these band members who have depended upon word-of-mouth and making their music easily accessible to anyone who wants to hear it.  They have even been known to play Words with Friends with happy fans!

I’m totally digging it.  Trust me, this band is going to blow up soon and you can’t help but be happy for them because they keep things so real.  If you see that they are coming to a venue near you–and they are very busy touring right now to support Garage Hymns–please don’t miss an opportunity to experience a great show.  Oh, and added bonus…The Lighthouse and the Whaler opened for them last night. Halfway through the first song, I turned and looked at my friend and saw that look…

“What is this I’m hearing and how can I hear more?”