Monday, September 6, 2010

Concert review: The Books, Lohio

The Books, Lohio
Thursday August 26, 2010 at CMU UC Rangos
with Leigh, Paul, Lisa, Deepak

I really can't decide whether to call this a concert or show review. Local opener Lohio put on a solid set of music which certainly falls into the realm of "concert", but The Books blew my mind in a way that makes "show" or "spectacle" seem far more appropriate. The way that audio and visual phenomena intermingle and feed off each other in their performance makes so much sense at the time but seems so unpredictable and surprising in retrospect. Who knew that fast-bowed cello set to scattered videos of 90s golf instruction videos could seem so right?

I had picked up a few tickets ahead of time at the UC Info Desk since I figured this show would be crowded, but I was still amazed at how many people showed up. When I arrived, the line to get in was all the way around into the dining area of the UC upstairs; eventually, every seat in the hall was taken and it was SRO in the back of the room. My friend Deepak worked the door for a while and said they were very close to having to turn people away. (Despite all this, the following Tuesday I asked one of the math classes I teach whether anybody had gone to the show, and nobody even knew what I was talking about!?) It was an interesting environment for Lohio to play in, with a large boxy room and hundreds of people seated in chairs, separated from the large and practically empty stage, plus some "professional lighting" (as the singer pointed out, noting it may have been their first time in such fancy conditions). I wouldn't have guessed that to be the optimal set up for their sound, but it actually worked rather well, in the end. They played a seven or eight song set, the majority of them loud, guitar-laden rockers with a couple of softer, quieter, acoustic-style numbers. I expected a chatty, studenty crowd but they were rather courteous and receptive, applauding heartily and responding to banter. I remembered seeing a different drummer the previous time or two I'd seen them, and I definitely don't recall the drummer doubling as trumpeteer during two songs, as he did here; that was pretty cool. I remain continually awed by the non-singing guitarist's technical skills; he impressed me with his versatility at their acoustic set @ Howler's a while back, and here he showed a slightly more unrestrained stage demeanor, throwing in some leg kicks and head bobbing during the solos. Also, the larger, emptier room lent itself far better to the pretty vocal duets between the lead guitarist and female bassist than previous venues have. Some of the best moments of their set occurred when a guitar/drum rock interlude would melt into a single guitar strum and their two voices singing softly over the fading din. I liked that. Towards the end of their set, the singer took the opportunity of a captive student-laden audience to vouch for some local bands that deserve recognition (including Meeting of Important People, Donora, etc.), encouraging everyone to get out and appreciate the music in their town. I thought this was a nice touch, especially since a big portion of the crowd may have been new to town (it being the start of the semester and all) and even those who have been around could use a reminder every now and then that there's plenty of good music out there if you're willing to look for it. Final anecdote: the singer said they would play "two or three more songs" and then pointed out that he'd always thought it would be funny if a disappreciative concertgoer would reply to such a remark with "one more song!"

The Books took a little time to set up their array of equipment, including a huge video screen behind the stage and three chairs, one for each member, plus their keyboard, cello, table with laptop, and collection of a few guitars. I enjoyed listening to their recent album on NPR when they were streaming it a few weeks ago, and I had no idea how they were going to convert those "songs" into a live performance. To be honest, I wasn't even sure what instruments/equipment they used to make the songs in the studio. As it turns out, they weren't really sure what they were doing either, since this was one of the first few times they had performed these newer songs live. They introduced a third member (whose name I've forgotten, alas) who played either keyboard or guitar or both on every song, in addition to Nick Zammuto on guitar and laptop samples and vocals, and Paul de Jong on cello. Each song they played (a whopping 17, if I remember correctly) featured a corresponding video played on the screen behind them, with a carefully pieced-together montage of sampled/found videos that managed to fit the rhythm and mood of the music perfectly. For instance, the song "I Didn't Know That" was introduced by Nick claiming that they put this song together and then realized it was really about golf, since the movements and fashion of golfers are so strange, apparently. The video featured lots of oldish golf videos (I recognized Peter Jacobsen, at least, who's known for being a humorous, irrevent guy in general) with freeze-frames of people in odd positions, then played on loop at various speeds to match the fast-talking "lyrics" of the song. It was really funny, and I wish I could find that video online. The song they opened with was "Group Autogenics I", which is also the opening track on the most recent album and a perfect intro to any album/show, really. The vocals are sampled from various motivational cassettes/videos, and the corresponding video features some talking-head style footage of Nick's friends lip-synching to the voice while swirling through space. The absolute funniest/weirdest video may be the one for "A Cold Freezin' Night", embedded below:

The sampled vocals are from old Talkboys that were obviously given to some child, for his birthday or whatever, who then went crazy in his bedroom and recorded the whole thing. Well, not exactly, but it gives you an idea of just how weird kids can be when they feel unrestrained by parental supervision. They also played a handful of songs from older albums, including the pretty and uplifting "Take Time", the visually wordy "Smells Like Content", and the introspective and naturalistic "An Owl With Knees". They also do interesting things to create their songs, like on "Free Translator" where they took a "popular folk song" (that they can't name due to copyrights) and fed the lyrics through a free online translator into a series of random languages then back into English. They closed the show with "Classy Penguin", pointing out that it features home video of Paul, and Nick and his brother Mikey. The audience was really into this show the whole way through, and for good reason; it was hilarious, it was impressive, it was inspiring, it was fun. It was everything a concert could be, and more: it was truly a show.

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