The regional Wickerman Burn took place at Four Quarters, a rural Middle Earth-esque wonderland in Artemas, Pa. near the Pennsylvania/Maryland border, and happened this month from June 13th to the 20th. Over the course of seven days, the campground was transformed from an area speckled with semi-permanent campsites to a fleshed-out town full of art and music. All of the labor – planning, organizing, building – was done out of love, and while that sounds like a pie-in-they-sky hippie conceit, it actually worked.
The provisional town included a free clothing store, free coffee shop, and a bar where the homebrews cost nothing more than an exchange of words with the barkeep. There were crafts for kids, a sweat lodge for cleansing, and non-stop music.
Wickerman kept sonic strokes of the traditional with hand drum circles at the top of Four Quarters but wander down the hill to Sound Town and you entered a 24-hour party-zone. Three camps had sophisticated sound systems and no shortage of both amateur and professional DJs who spun freewheeling sets brimming with track choices that ranged from lazy daytime jazz to heady dubstep to psy-trance.
Poi fire spinners roamed the campgrounds with their arsenal of flaming toys. Led by one of the Wickerman organizers, Aerial Alexander, a team of poi performers flanked the Wickerman structure during the ceremonial burn that happened on Saturday night. Their acrobatics were impressive enough in the daylight as they spun hula-hoops and balls on chains, when the sun went down and fire was incorporated into their dance, their act become Cirque de Soleil stunts turned tribal. They ate fire and beat matched their spinning to the hand drummers and the DJ's, painting the air around them with curvilinear flame designs.
Luminescent art took a pixilated form as the Levitation Theory multimedia production and performance crew set up a large dome and had some six odd projectors to incorporate live visuals with the DJ sets. On the last night the crew moved their visual equipment to project onto the trees turning the forest into a magical boundless club-space, dance floor slightly muddy from the incessant rainfall but still peppered with die-hard Wickerman attendees who held on 'til the concluding hours.
The final day of the fest required the last gasp of teamwork for a tired crew of festival-goers and true to their ideals they left nothing behind. Muddy, exhausted and bug bitten everyone packed up the miraculously unscathed sound equipment, deconstructed tents and gathered any and all garbage. Every aspect of the festival, whether it was turning a vehicle into a work of art, cooking a meal, building shelter or throwing a dance party, was done by sheer teamwork. Ultimately, Wickerman was a celebration of the collective's ability to turn any creative idea into a reality and it was a beautiful experience.
A brisk evening in the middle of summer is refreshing -- especially when escaping the stuffy heat of a packed rock concert. 222 Ormsby, the DIY performance space in Mt. Oliver, hosted over one hundred and fifty folks for a fine show last Friday. It was the tour kickoff and album release for White Wives --a local supergroup of sorts featuring members of Dandelion Snow, American Armada, and Anti-Flag, but thanks to the City Paper cover article, you already knew that.
Arriving at the inconspicuous venue around 7 p.m., I spotted some clean-cut kids donning t-shirts, tight shorts, and nice haircuts. Predicting a more punk-like vibe (as opposed to the cast of "Skins" outside texting on their iPhones), I shuddered at the possibility of being the oldest person in attendance. Luckily for my sake that was far from true, as there wasn't one specific "scene" present at this show, or one specific age group. Anchors End was up first, and they started the night with a fist-pumping half hour of old-fashioned Lionshead-chugging punk. The crowd cheered.
Allies' energetic, sweat-soaked set was next. The double SG guitar-attack tactically piled overtop moving bass lines and unbroken drumming to achieve this mountain of random rhythms. They burst through eight songs--many of which resembled a marriage between the sounds of older Q and Not U and Mission of Burma. The vocals on "Planet of Sums" and "Grey Capital" were better than ever, and the brand-new songs (expect a new album later this summer--their first since 2008) sounded equally great. They were the evening's definite highlight.
Balance and Composure … it sounds more akin to a self-help seminar than a young, five-piece alternative punk band. Picture a darker Jimmy Eat World or mewithoutyou with more intensity…intensity that sparked the only little mosh pit of the night (this was more of a 'watch and nod your head' sort of crowd). The lead singer's occasional pop-punky scream unbalanced my own mind's composure a bit, but within a song or two I was hooked. A few devotees traveled specifically to catch this eastern-PA band…I don't blame them.
After slamming a cold beer outside I returned to a surprise: a music video set! Blinding lights and professional cameras scattered about the Ormsby space, because graffitied walls and a packed crowd scream "music video opportunity" for most bands--including White Wives. Adding additional instrumentation (everything from keyboards to trumpets to marching percussion), White Wives ended the evening by highlighting material from their new album. The cadence-like intro to "Spinning Wheels" or the joyful "Sky Started Crying" kept the temporary Ormsby residents singing. Soon enough my exit from the 222 Ormsby's sauna was greeted by pouring rain and a sea of wet, smiling faces. How could anyone not smile after all that?
I left Mt. Oliver with three things circulating through my mind: the Balance and Composure song "Kaleidoscope" (my brain has it on repeat as I write); the urge to catch another Allies set much sooner than later; and the reminder that the best shows often take place in the least conspicuous places.
Raves are typically lauded as an underground never-neverland. Teenagers, twentysomethings, and the thirysomething set of lost boys and girls come together in the name of electronic dance music. The sounds have changed since the birth of the word 'rave,' but the core concept has remained the same – dancing to rhythms around a proverbial fire.
At its core, a rave is a primal celebration. The minutiae of what exactly goes on when so many young people get together could be argued or fraught over, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a bunch of people dancing, what’s the harm?
The Summer of Love party that happened on June 11 at the Irish Center attracted a mass of hundreds, a vibrant crowd of candy kids, shirtless bros, ravers of yore and scantily clad girls. The fashions of shredded neon-tees over hip-hugging short shorts, bikini tops, and boys who sported nothing more than tattooed pecs would be debauched anywhere else but inside the balmy makeshift club space wearing little to nothing was an act of comfort if not survival.
The rooms for Summer of Love showcased two wildly different sounds. The large main room, complete with lasers, a proper stage, a wide-open dance floor and a place to purchase overpriced water bottles had constant hardstyle and heavy dubstep. The main act, Austin Texas natives Run DMT brought more of the hard with their signature dark, dangerous throb of heavy bass, and swirls of screeching progressions. The producing duo Lemiwinks & Parson have had a pretty stellar year, having played a showcase at SXSW alongside festival successes like Deadelus, Tokimonsta and Two Fresh, and with an upcoming slot at the increasingly hyped festival Camp Bisco.
The smaller room offered a wide range of sounds from acid house to the tribal techno-dubstep fusion of Ramadanman. The Humanaut crew comprised of Paul Alexander Fleetwood, Jason Cuban, Aaron Clark, Revy and Black is Black DJ Jose Bec rocked the party ‘til the wee hours of the morning, each DJ spinning sets ripe with original taste and adventurous track choices. The standout member had to be Revy (Kevin Lind) who live mixed a techno set that rarely sat stylistically still. His sounds built upon themselves with glitch-prone bravado, a driving beat fest of originality.
The underground rave scene, at first glance, looks like a sea of adolescent insouciance, but brave the heat of the Irish Center and spend some time listening and looking around, you’ll find that this world’s got potential. The younger DJ’s who pepper the bill hone their skills while the veterans have the freedom to play to their strengths and take dance floor risks. Raves, in so many ways, are building blocks to a healthy electronic dance scene.
This past weekend was one fraught with Big Show Decisions here in Pittsburgh. As is our tradition, we got about 25 huge shows packed into one weekend, despite the fact that next month we'll probably go weeks with out anything particularly worthwhile.
While my personal propensity is generally to go to the smaller shows, the weirder acts, the locals, I instead went to a couple of big shows this weekend. And, somewhat to my surprise, I had pretty great music experiences.
Friday night was Devo at Stage AE; there were a lot of giveaways for this show, so it would seem that tickets weren't selling well, but the place was pretty well filled with a crowd of devotees, old heads and folks who seemed to have no idea who Devo was, but were having a good time anyway. As it turned out, it was probably better that the show had been moved inside for fear of bad weather; the indoor venue fit the show well.
I'll admit I had my worries going into the show: Folks who were doing cool, weird stuff thirty-plus years ago don't always hold up, and there's nothing sadder than seeing someone who was way cool in 1976 just being a goofy dad now. No worries; Devo's still got it.
After a preliminary sound issue, Mothersbaugh, Casale and company jammed three mini-sets with multiple costume changes. There were new songs ("Don't Shoot, I'm a Man") and classics ("Jocko Homo," "Mongoloid"), and they placed the requisite hit, "Whip It" in the middle of the first segment, so as to get people excited, and not have it hanging over their heads all night. Good move. (I did hear two disappointed fellows behind me at the end of the show lamenting that they'd shown up late and missed it; sorry, guys.)
The energy was still there, the banter was filled with Anthony Weiner jokes, and Booji Boy came out to sing "Beautiful World." Mark Mothersbaugh stuffed a bag of potato chips down his pants then opened it and threw it into the crowd. He tossed out energy domes. As the grand finale, he took handfuls of SuperBalls out of a fanny pack and bounced them into the audience. It was weird, it was fun, it was participatory; Devo delivered.
Saturday night I went in a different direction: Yes, I know you're going to give me shit for being an alt-weekly music writer and going to see the least "alt" thing happening all weekend. I can take it. Yes, Taylor Swift is the biggest country-pop crossover artist of the past decade, and possibly ever. She sold 50,000-plus tickets in Heinz Field Saturday night, and a great many of them were teenagers (whose sartorial tastes were generally questionable, but hey – I won't push it, lest you dredge up pictures of me when I was 15).
But there's a lot to like about Taylor Swift if you care about pop music at all. She's 21 and is wildly successful at writing and performing her own songs, and they're not vapid. (They're often quite literal, but that's not always a bad thing, and it's definitely not in this case.) She's a multi-instrumentalist and plays her own songs live. She's a mainstream popular country artist who appeals to mainstream country fans, but she doesn't extol the know-nothing ideological principles of a lot of mainstream country artists. (She's not political, pretty much ever, that I know of, and I'm sure that's intentional, although she has supposedly cited the Dixie Chicks as an influence to her as artists, and you don't do that if you're trying to stay on the good side of Nashville.)
She's enigmatic, writing song lyrics (not her own) on her arms and plastering herself with her lucky number 13; she knows how to work a crowd, at once both endearingly grateful and slightly aloof. When she came out Saturday night at Heinz Field, she performed three songs before talking at all; between songs early on, she'd simply look around, wide-eyed and smiling, taking it all in like a princess.
There was more to the show than I expected. (I'm not sure exactly what I expected.) There were more set changes, more costume changes, more ballet dancers during the costume changes, more walking-through-the-crowd-to-get-to-the-"in the round"-stage, more fireworks, more fight choreography than I'd imagined. There were more instruments – Swift herself played guitar, piano, banjo and ukulele, and she had an entire strings section at one point.
It was over the top, for sure. But in a genuine way: It didn't feel like a performer just trying to do everything they thought they should do (like opener Needtobreathe did). It felt like a performer knowing what her audience wanted and giving it to them. Straight down to the explosions of glitter at the end.
Taylor Swift's character fascinates me: Her personality is all sugar, but isn't saccharine. She's deceptively aggressive (hence the fight choreography). She's very traditionally "girly," but also "girl-power-y," and not in an overstated, artificial way. Her girl power is about saying what she feels, not talking about saying what she feels.
You probably expect me, being who I am, to approve of the weird performance art of Devo but disapprove of the theatrics of T. Swift – to tear down the (admittedly ridiculous) Cover Girl sponsorship, to trash the huge stage show, to ask why a musician can't cut the crap and just play songs well without the pomp. But, to be honest, there were a lot of people – a lot of them quite young, but plenty of them adults – having the best night of their summer at Heinz Field on Saturday night. Probably more than a handful having the best night of their young lives. And really, it was enchanting, in the same way Devo was. Well written, well performed music with the support of a creative stage show that made for a special night for the audience. Some social probing and questions, some personal probing and questioning. Isn't that what we want from our pop stars?
I heard a rumor about you. You’re expecting?
Yes, it’s very true! I’m due October 18th. I just found out that I’m having a girl; I’m pretty excited.
So you’ll be playing shows around then, right? Tour van delivery?
Oh, God, no. I’m gonna cut off doing shows in September; I think then I’ll be at a point where I don’t want to be on a stage performing.
Will you be taking time off after that? Will we not see you back here for a while?
I’m sure I’m not gonna take too much time off. I’ll probably be [home in Minneapolis] over the winter, but because this record just came out, and touring in the summer is fun but not the most ideal, I think I’ll probably try to get back on the road in the spring if possible.
What’s with the new album’s title? Golder than what?
I dunno, I’m not sure — I kept being drawn to gold, and thinking about that color. I’ve never really been a big fan of gold. When I talked to my sister about doing the artwork for the record, I thought, “You should paint my face, and make me have a gold grill!” And she was like, “Why?” I forgot about that for a while, but I wanted something that wasn’t so straightforward, like a song title. It’s about constantly moving forward and challenging yourself, with your writing and with your creative process. I thought it was kind of a cool word. I like to make up my own words.
I read that the process of recording this album was a little bit off-the-cuff – a lot of live full-band recording instead of laying down individual tracks?
Yeah. We went into the studio, pretty much knowing most of the songs, then just sort of tried to do everything as live as possible. That’s basically 85% of the record, done in a single take. Then I went into the studio after the band left and did a few overdubs, some harmonies and stuff like that. That was the goal of it – the people I play with on this record are so great, and I love what they add to every song, it’s so colorful. I just thought, “What’s the point in using this beautiful studio and these beautiful musicians if you’re just gonna cut and overdub things?” I love playing with them; I wanted to capture that energy as much as possible.
And there’s some stuff on there that we didn’t know at all. I dragged up some corpses of songs in the studio. Like “Money,” I had been working on that song for several years off and on and never really liked it, and I just kinda came up with a version of that and they learned it; I think it was the second take of that that we used on the record.
But you maintain a really polished sound – it’s a live, one-take recording that doesn’t sound lo-fi at all.
Yeah. Well, we’re all pretty pro. [Laughs.] I guess we all knew the songs so well, those guys are so quick at learning the songs, that it was easy. I’m sure it’s not it’s not always that easy to do that, but luckily we could.
A lot of this record was written when you were living in Portland, right?
A lot of it was, yeah. Some of it was written before, when I decided to leave, then during that transition I was packing up and saying goodbye and moving to the West Coast. Then when I was there, I was lucky enough to have a lot of time to sort of hibernate and write. And I wanted to record it here with my Minnesota musicians in a Minnesota studio, and after we’d done that, I felt like it was time to come back!
Do you feel like having that sense of removal from what you were used to had an affect on the songwriting on this album?
Absolutely. I think your environment is everything, honestly. If you’re comfortable and that’s how you like to write and you have your routine and your places you go and people you see, that always is gonna affect how you write or whatever you’re doing. Then if you remove yourself from all those comfort zones, a city you’ve lived in for eight years, which was Minneapolis for me, you sort of just go into yourself a whole lot more than you can when you’re comfortable. Not that I was so uncomfortable and so alone and so lonely, ‘cause I loved living in Portland, it’s such a great city, so fabulous. But it was exactly what I needed – to take time to be alone in a really good way.
Beyond having played here — any Pittsburgh connections?
I have a super cool Pittsburgh connection! My mom’s father, Dunc McCallum, was a hockey player, and he played for the Pittsburgh Penguins! It was in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. My mom talks about living there when she was little, and she loves it. I think it’s a magical city and I love it – the architecture, and the mountains and everything. I’m excited to be back.
VIA has been building up a massive festival tease all year. One monthly VIA Presents show after another has formed a steamroll of anticipation for what kind of stops they’re going to pull for festival number two.
Yesterday, they finally released some sort of pressure valve release, although, it kind of just preps you for more waiting and game-playing. Game-playing because the lineup will be released in the form of a game of hangman. This hangman challenge however could result in more than just self-satisfied wordplay. The winner, i.e. the person who guesses the lineup first, will receive a pair of five-day, all-access festival passes, good for seven events. It’ll require a bit of music knowledge, so If you’ve been going to the VIA Presents shows, you’re probably in the running for some serious hangman playing. To help players along, VIA will reveal letters throughout the gaming period, which runs from June 17th – July 1st.