Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The 1975 bring a vibrant sci-fi Halloween party to Stage AE

Posted By on Tue, Nov 1, 2016 at 11:31 AM

The 1975’s first sold out show at Stage AE began like both of their albums — with the band’s swelling, eponymous track and de facto theme song. But this time, it was abruptly interrupted for an even more familiar sound: the opening blares of the Star Wars theme.

Before The 1975 fired off the indelible one-two of “Love Me” and “UGH!,” a modified version of The Force Awakens’ opening crawl was projected on the screen, subbing in Matty Healy for lost Jedi Luke Skywalker and guitarist Adam Hann for Han Solo. When the band finally emerged in costume as Han(n) Solo, a wookiee (bassist Ross MacDonald), and an X-wing pilot (drummer George Daniel), Healy wasn’t a Jedi, but a fully cloaked and masked Kylo Ren.
  • Photo by Shawn Cooke

Of course Matty Healy was Kylo Ren, you’re probably thinking. Yeah, it’s an on-the-nose costume choice — the bad-boy rocker you crush on easily, but dread bringing home to mom and dad would come out as the galaxy’s most dangerous problem child. And yet, Healy and Kylo bear more similarities than their misanthropic edge. Much like Vader’s spiritual successor, Healy is deliberately reverent to his forbearers, but in glam rock, dance, and R&B instead of intergalactic terror.

I’d never seen The 1975 before last night, but would comfortably wager that Kylo’s robes were the most clothing Healy has ever worn onstage. Despite some diminished mobility, the costumes didn’t hinder the experience to be less than an ideal 1975 show. If anything, the unpredictability of Healy pulling out a lightsaber during songs, seeing stormtroopers mock-battle in the background or Princess Leia (saxophonist John Waugh) rip through solos made for a looser, more amusing show. Healy even scaled back his commentary about our National Nightmare: “this is normally the part of the show where I say ‘fuck Donald Trump.’ But tonight’s all about Star Wars.”

This was a Halloween party with the glossiest house band imaginable. Not that it took much, but Healy and the gang fully solidified their record I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It (say that 10 times) as the best M83 album of the year. It’s an ambitious and indulgent work, whose chameleonic styles almost made more sense alongside fan favorites from the band’s self-titled record. The encore alone provided the elastic transition from soul balladry (“If I Believe You”) to their straight-ahead midtempo standard (“Chocolate”), which gave way to one of the best dance pop tracks in recent memory (“The Sound”).

It’s still sort of unbelievable to see a band that anonymously burst on the scene with an anthemic, borderline emo track in “Sex” reach the level of arena-grade synth rock. The 1975 just has so much in its toolkit, and you can’t fault Healy for wanting to play with it all on one record, as he does on I Like It When You Sleep. The band certainly didn’t tone anything down for the live show, including just about every ambient interlude from the last record.

And how can you blame them? When your most adventurous album with the most unconventional song structures to date debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 ahead of fucking Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, it sure feels like a mandate to artistically go for whatever you want. In interviews, Healy seems to understand that he owes the freedom to a devout, intelligent, and overwhelmingly female fanbase. A 1975 show can sound like a One Direction concert, like when Healy actually whipped out a cigarette during “A Change of Heart” to rapturous screams. But I swear, some of those same people near me were reacting with similar enthusiasm when “Please Be Naked” began (that’s an ambient interlude off I Like It When You Sleep — nothing for the radio). It’s not hard to see why he’d trust them to follow along wherever his creative impulses might lead.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Joyce Manor rocks the Rex with support from the Hotelier and Crying

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 3:22 PM

Last night, Joyce Manor returned to Pittsburgh, four months after playing Altar Bar in support of Modern Baseball on The Holy Ghost Tour. The feverish response the Torrance, Calif.-based band got at last night's show was the same as it was back in late June, if not more intense.

From set opener "Heart Tattoo," fans were into it, and almost immediately started moshing and jumping up and down while Joyce Manor ripped through the song. As the set continued, the band developed a rhythm of speeding through its mostly less-than-two-minute songs, then stopping abruptly. The band was a victim of pitch, constantly tuning and re-tuning after every two or three songs. It felt like speeding down a highway at 80 miles an hour, only to be slowed to a crawl by construction every five miles. But don't misread that description of the band's set: It was a great performance, with minor stoppages throughout its 20 song, hour-long show. 

The crowd remained enamored through the entire evening.

Opener The Hotelier had the crowd so invested in its songs, singing, sometimes screaming, the words back to vocalist/bassist Christian Holden, then going almost immediately silent between songs. The infatuation the crowd had for Joyce Manor was similar: audience members knew all the lyrics, and sang along.

Joyce Manor had some, but not much, banter between songs, which created a somewhat awkward feeling, at least for the audience. Bassist Matt Ebert thanked the fans for supporting the band and coming to Joyce Manor's first headlining show in Pittsburgh. Singer/guitarist Barry Johnson admitted he has been sick for what seemed like the last six months, which explained a scaled back interaction with the crowd. Before "Beach Community," the singer gave a shout out to edhoculi (the crazy good Pittsburgh band named after the jacked NFL referee), and any awkwardness or questions of sincerity were quelled after that.

"Leather Jacket" was the set closer. It seemed the crowd didn't know crowd-surfing existed until that song, which launched a continuous flow of individuals not old enough to rent a car getting lifted onto the stage. Crowd-surfers then jumped off the structure like Superman  — arms extended and body straightened — or like the late Randy Savage jumping off the top rope in a WWF ring, with great height and form.

Joyce Manor left for a brief moment, returning for a two-song encore which included "Christmas Card" and the band's most popular thrasher "Constant Headache," off the 2011 debut LP. During that final song, hundreds of voices screamed in unison. Johnson and the crowd sang together to end the night, in what seemed to be the crowd's most passionate state. The singer, along with the choir of punks, belted out the song's most vulgar and spirited verse, "But I just laid there in protest / Entirely fucked / It's such a stubborn reminder / One perfect night's not enough."

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Switchfoot at Stage AE: Snap a photo, see the unity

Posted By on Thu, Oct 13, 2016 at 5:55 PM

Switchfoot’s performance at Stage AE on Oct. 12 started early. It started during Relient K’s opening set when Jon Foreman, Switchfoot’s lead singer, ran on stage for the end of the last song, “Deathbed.” At this, a look of surprise came over the face of Matt Thiessen, Relient K’s frontman.
  • Photo by Caleb Murphy

If you snapped a photo of Foreman and Thiessen singing together on that one mic, both with big smiles, that would be a frame that could represent the rest of the show.

Switchfoot’s message is unity. Many times during the show, Foreman stepped across the space between the stage and the front-row barrier to touch people’s hands. During their fourth song, “Gone,” he encouraged audience members to lock arms with the person next to them and sway with the music.

Snap. Another frame showing the love-thy-neighbor atmosphere the band brings.

A little later, all five band members huddled around Foreman’s mic, Chad Butler (drums) on the snare, Tim Foreman (bass) singing, Drew Shirley (guitar) on acoustic guitar and Jerome Fontamillas (keyboard) on accordion. The five of them had their arms around each other, singing, “Hello hurricane, you're not enough. Hello hurricane, you can't silence my love,” in honor of Haiti, which Hurricane Matthew recently devastated.

Snap. A frame showing how they’ve become a band of brothers, standing up for the broken.

Soon, the lights went off and Foreman was walking around stage with a flashlight, singing, “I'm looking for America. America, where are you?” This led into, “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues).” With a guitar riff that could be mistaken for one of AC/DC’s, the lyrics go, “This is the sound of a heartbeat. This is the sound from the discontented mouths of a haunted nation.” All the while, footage from the Civil Rights Movement played on the screens behind the band.

  • Photo by Caleb Murphy
Snap. A frame yearning for redemption.

Multiple times throughout the night, Foreman stepped down into the crowd, high-fiving as he pushed through the sea of people, singing with those around him. While crowd surfing during the song “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight,” Foreman garnered a chuckle from people during a break in singing.

“Sometimes I wonder how I get to these places,” he said as people’s hands held him above heads.

Snap. A frame showing trust in your fans to carry you through the air.

Soon after, Relient K decided to repay the favor and crash Switchfoot’s set. Foreman welcomed Thiessen and Matt Douglas (Relient K’s drummer) to the stage to sing the end of “Live It Well.”

“Life is short, I wanna live it well,” they all sang. “And you're the one I'm living for.”

Snap. Another frame that shows people bonding over music.

As the night wound down, confetti shot out of cannons from either side of the stage, cities of bubbles floated around the packed room, and Foreman kneeled in front of a half disco ball during “Float.”

And then, right before playing the very last song of the evening, “Dare You To Move,” Foreman put into words the atmosphere of the room.

“This is one of those nights,” he said. “You just kind of don’t want it to end.”


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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ghost shows Stage AE the softer side of Satan

Posted By on Wed, Sep 21, 2016 at 11:54 AM

Describing a Ghost performance (and the concept behind the band) to a neophyte can be a challenge. One part contemporary doom metal, one part gleefully hamfisted religious commentary, the Swedish act has gained wide popularity by, in part, at least, following the template of bands like Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper. On Mon., Sept. 19, the band's six anonymous members brought their brand of theatrical Satanic praise to Stage AE for the second stop of their Popestar Tour.
  • Photo by Andy Klingensmith

The obvious and easy comparisons to painted, hard-rocking bands of years past are not without merit. A modern-day KISS Army, most clad in licensed apparel, lined the sidewalk surrounding the venue long before doors opened at 7 p.m. A few donned face paint in the style of the band’s charismatic frontman, Papa Emeritus III. While it wasn’t difficult to imagine that many had class to attend the next day, it also wasn’t a stretch to imagine that some had previously served as a Knight In Satan’s Service.

In terms of contrast, there may not have been a better choice to open the show than local synth/space-rockers Zombi. The duo set the table for the high production values to come with a (relatively) immobile yet powerful showcase of instrumental wizardry that, depending on your age and demographic, either lives up to their namesake with George Romero-inspired soundscapes or recalls watching Stranger Things last Tuesday. Along with a few selections from its earlier work, a great deal of Zombi's most recent album, Shape Shift, was on showcase, filling the room with chest-thumping drums and grand electronic notes.

After a lengthy introduction (the commitment to recreating a morning at church knows no limit), Ghost opened the show with “Square Hammer,” the poppy, not-quite-haunting single from its latest effort, Popestar. With the reveal of a looming, vibrant reproduction of stained-glass windows and the tried-and-true fog and strobe lighting, the venue was immediately transformed into a brightly colored demonic cathedral, complete with devout followers. The band of Nameless Ghouls, along with Papa, roamed the pulpit with a practiced and controlled enthusiasm that commanded the attention of the room.

With standouts from previous albums such as “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Stand By Him,” the band drew widely from its catalog. Ranging from the vicious, threatening guitar on more traditional metal anthems such as “Mummy Dust” to the softer side of Satan as heard on “Body and Blood,” the show moved with a calculated rhythm familiar to fans of the melodic, heavy style of the group's
  • Photo by Andy Klingensmith
Despite the music's dark themes, the disarming and affable nature of Papa’s Nordic-accented banter kept the mood light. “This is a song about drinking blood,” he would state without a trace of irony as the lights turned to crimson. When two local “Sisters of Sin” were introduced on stage, Papa, perhaps knowing his fans all too well, made very clear that there was to be “no touching” as they made their way through the crowd. He did, however, encourage the “fans in the back” to grab each other as they pleased.

Though the show may have seemed familiar to patrons of Ghost’s previous visits to the city, surprises were in store. While the set list contained many of the same songs, the inclusion of fresh pyrotechnics as well as a shimmering ticker-tape shower created the illusion of a larger-than-life ceremony. Each of the final few songs of the night felt like a grand finale, and each time it wasn’t. the congregation cheered in approval. Ending with the soothing “Monstrance Clock,” a hymn that encourages audience participation, Papa bid the crowd goodnight with his final, most important message: “Drive safely!”

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Brooklyn's Rhyton brings its freewheeling jams to Brillobox this week

Posted By on Wed, Aug 3, 2016 at 4:50 AM

  • Courtesy of Japeth Mennes
  • Rhyton

Despite Rhyton’s roots in New York’s noisy experimental underground, the band’s fourth offering, Redshift, is an eminently listenable affair. On it, the Brooklyn-based three-piece — comprised of Stygian Stride’s Jimy SeiTang, the No-Neck Blues Band’s Rob Shuford and Pigeons’ Rob Smith — pay tribute to a wide range of influences, from Free Jazz to Joe Walsh, whose “Turn to Stone” they cover. 

The eight freewheeling jams that result are sonically pleasing at first blush, but it is in repetition that the album’s technical riches are revealed in the form of ambitious timing, thoughtful lyrics and studio wizardry that weaves rootsy twang of the most organic variety with synthetic sound effects. The album’s title track is a good example of this: it's a playful intergalactic country number that calls to mind the lysergic spaciness of early Meat Puppets and the furtive paranoia of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick in equal measure; and it clocks in at just under nine minutes.

Listeners can glean as much or as little as they choose from Redshift to equal enjoyment. There are plenty of moving parts to contemplate. That the band achieves expansiveness by employing such measured phrases is remarkable, especially without dulling the members' technical proficiencies or resorting to prog-rock condescension.

‘Redshift’ refers to the astronomical phenomenon of “displacement of spectral lines toward longer wavelengths often used to measure the otherwise immeasurable.” It’s a high-minded conceit, but, on Redshift, Rhyton illuminates the sacred by couching it in the profane terms of rock music.

RHYTON with SAGAS, LANDMARK TONGUES. 8 p.m., Sun. Aug. 7. Brillbox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $7. 421-621-4900 or

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Modern Baseball’s sold-out show confirms pop punk can be inclusive and electric

Posted By on Thu, Jun 23, 2016 at 3:20 PM

I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more. Women are the lifeblood of pop punk and punk music. As the line began to wrap around the block on which Altar Bar sits, I passed a wide mix of people, but it had to be noted that so many excited showgoers were women in groups with their friends, laughing and goofing off.

For those not well-versed in the politics of the pop punk and emo scene, it can be quite trying to be a woman who loves these genres of music. In her essay about emo, “Where the Girls Aren’t”, music critic Jessica Hopper points out that emo can alienate the very fan base that keeps it afloat, and that formula translates directly to pop punk.

While women comprise a great deal of the source material for these artists, it can be somewhat difficult to find women and queer musicians making pop punk, and while many women support music by going to shows, dude-dominated spaces can feel unsafe and are unfortunately rife with harassment.

It’s reasons like these that Modern Baseball created a hotline for this particular tour and why Barry Johnson, vocalist and guitarist of Joyce Manor, notably stood up against hypermasculinity by calling out a stage diver for being too aggressive with other concert attendees. 
  • Courtesy of Jessica Flynn
  • Modern Baseball

At Wednesday's show, Vocalist Chrissy Tashjian of tour opener Thin Lips kicked off their set by dedicating a song to the women in the crowd, later reminding everyone of the gender neutral bathroom open for the show and calling for allies to “step up and be homies” in the wake of the Pulse shooting. As someone who spent their young life playing pop punk and feeling isolated for being both a woman and queer human, it was moving to hear so much emphasis and celebration for those like myself at the show.

On the musical side, Thin Lips set the tone for the evening with their unique brand of pop punk, a mixture of earworm vocal melodies and gnarly riffage. It’s the mix of upbeat punk with moments of darkness and edge that showcase just why Thin Lips is certainly a band to keep your eye on.

Showcasing a great deal from their latest effort, Riff Hard, they held it down with a Mixtapes-y musical leanings (read: not quite pop punk but too saccharine at moments to be straight punk) and That Dog levels of catchiness. It’s like a magical concoction of lots of good things that have happened in punk times past to create something entirely new and enticing.

The second act of the night was Joyce Manor, who was playing its first show in Pittsburgh. Johnson addressed the crowd during the set saying, “Sorry it took us three records to get here.” I’m sure the band had to be aware of their popularity in the ‘Burgh, as some locals had created a “Joyce Manor skips Pittsburgh again!!” event page during its Never Hungover Again support tour.

The crowd definitely didn’t hold it against the band. From the moment that it tore into “Heart Tattoo,” the floor of the venue was literally bowing and bouncing under the pressure of a sold-out crowd getting off its feet.

JM may be a noisy punk band with pop elements, but don’t be fooled by the punk image and distortion pedals; this band is musically tight and incredibly cohesive. The group’s Bassist Matt Ebert fills out the sound so well with the high-end vocals, and the dual riffing, as showcased on songs like “Schley,” comes across magnificently live.

The band members perform most songs a little bit or much faster than the recording, which kept the crowd surging and buzzing as they shouted along. The full band version of “Drainage” was hauntingly heart shattering, leaving me with goosebumps. There were moments in which the crowd almost overpowered the vocals, a sea of emotionally-charged fans crying out “Everything reminds me of you,” during “Beach Community” and belting the final verse in “Constant Headache” with awe inspiring fervor. The set was well worth the three-record wait.

Another magnificent characteristic of pop punk that Joyce Manor and Modern Baseball shows reveal is the ability for this kind of music to dismantle unfeeling machismo in favor of emotionally raw and honest lyrics about having feelings. Folks all the way across the gender spectrum were blatantly moved by Joyce Manor’s set, openly crying as they sang along.

And if Joyce Manor has the power to move people to tears, Modern Baseball has the power to make people let down their walls and be an honest version of themselves. “Holy crap!” Brendan Lukens charmingly exclaimed early in the set, shocked at the passion of the crowd. People were so consumed in the music and singing along to concern themselves with looking cool.

Modern Baseball’s live show has bit of a messier feel, but it suits the style of the music well. It isn’t sloppy, but it reminds you that you’re experiencing live music and not something that has been recorded and re-recorded over and over. Lukens mic definitely could have been louder, but the harmonies still cut through clear and full, soaring over the jangling, infectious riffage.

MoBo’s music is intimate and confessional, and the crowd responded with a raw energy and sincerity. The floor continued to bow, surging back and forth as MoBo barreled through newer tracks from Holy Ghost like “Wedding Singer” and older hits like “Fine, Great,” “The Weekend” and “Rock Bottom.” The set ended with “Your Graduation,” pulling the crowd to operate as one giant wave of passion.

While the pop punk community as a whole definitely has some shit to sort out, Thin Lips, Joyce Manor and Modern Baseball are proving that pop punk is still electric, and pop punk that is genuinely inclusive is invincible. 10/10, would catch this gig again.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hatebreed draws dedicated fans to Mr. Smalls Theatre

Posted By on Wed, Jun 8, 2016 at 1:18 PM

Before doors opened, a line of eager fans had already assembled, the line stretching across the street that Mr. Smalls Theatre sits on. I usually find it a little bit tacky when people wear their band merch to the band’s gig, but the sheer number of people wearing Hatebreed gear made it alarmingly endearing. I overheard a showgoer talk about how he had seen Hatebreed six times in three different countries and two different continents, and I knew I was in the company of real fans.

And for as much as Pittsburgh fans love Hatebreed, Hatebreed certainly has love for Pittsburgh. The band was even selling shirts that read, “I survived the Hatebreed pit in Pittsburgh.”

Before fans had the chance to see Hatebreed, California metal bands Act of Defiance and DevilDriver opened the show. Act of Defiance had more of a heavier rock feel, and the ‘80s metal influence was evident, which makes sense, as half of Act of Defiance are ex- Megadeth members.
I was really loving their #longhairdontcare looks and the earnest desire to hype up the audience. (Could have done without the itchy amount of attention being paid to the two cute underage girls in the front, but that’s just me.) People went bonkers for the cover of Pantera’s “I’m Broken,” and a good percentage of the crowd was acquainted enough with the music to circle headbang and shout along.
  • Photo by Meg Fair

After a long set-up time, DevilDriver took to the stage. The melodic heavy metal band was greeted with enthusiasm by the crowd, and it was clear they had fans in the house. There were lots of fists pumping in the air and shouting “Hey!” in unison, and some of the first crowd surfers of the night began to emerge.

The set started off a little stiff, but DevilDriver was fully loose and in the crowd’s face by the end of the set. While I have to admit that DevilDriver doesn’t write my favorite kind of metal, it definitely had chops and played a tight set.

As DevilDriver exited the stage, more people moved from the 21+ section and crowded into the all ages pit area. The giant Concrete Confessional scrims were hoisted and techs raced back and forth checking all the mics and guitars.

A notable number of attendees were pairs of fathers and sons, these fathers eager to share the energy and messages of Hatebreed with their kids. As Hatebreed’s techs sound-checked, a father leaned over to his son and excitedly asked, “Can you feel that in your chest?!” My heart low-key imploded.

The band kicked off their hour-long set with “Destroy Everything,” and the crowd was on its feet. While this tour is to promote The Concrete Confessional, its latest release, Hatebreed made a point to play a song off of every single record, including its first EP.

For those not acquainted with Hatebreed, the lyrics, while tough, are generally empowering or encouraging. It’s a band with All-American values—patriotism, determination and a desire to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Throughout the set, vocalist Jamey Jasta spent time in between songs alternating between calling for pits and encouraging everyone to look out for each other. Jasta spoke about perseverance, honoring military men and women (before “Honor Never Dies”) and the importance of respect, honor and dedication, three character traits that all the fans happen to apply to Hatebreed itself. 
  • Photo by Meg Fair

With over two decades of musical performance, seven studio records and rigorous tour history, it’s no surprise that the band plays an incredibly tight set. Hatebreed showed off its talent for blistering, heavy hardcore with newer tracks like “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” and “Something’s Off,” and they cemented their ability to create crowd engagement with oldie-but-goodie closer “I Will Be Heard.”

After a gig like that, I often wonder if the bands tour with a chiropractor to accommodate for all the circle headbanging and jumping around. I also wonder if Hatebreed knows it's the world’s heaviest band.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Beyonce's Formation Tour celebrates womanhood and power

Posted By on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 at 12:38 PM

Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at Heinz Field on Tue., May 31 - PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIELA VESCO/PARKWOOD ENTERTAINMENT
  • Photo courtesy of Daniela Vesco/Parkwood Entertainment
  • Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at Heinz Field on Tue., May 31

The buzz of excitement in the air was tangible as swarms of Beyoncé fans, lovingly named the Beyhive, descended upon Heinz Field. Her powerful presence had attendees dressed up and ready to slay, and they came ready to give it all for Bey. A young lady screamed, “I’d die for Beyoncé!” as she trucked it across a busy Reedsdale St. in an attempt to reach the field seating gate. Same, girl.

Before the main event came producer and DJ Jermaine Dupri, who formed and produced the hip hop duo Kriss Kross and has worked with artists such as Usher and Mariah Carey. Unlisted on the bill, it appeared most people were unsure what to make of him at first.

Dupri mixed hype tracks like Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” as well as “Panda” by Desiigner and encouraged the crowd to get up and dance so they would be warmed up for Beyoncé. Although most of the crowd was hesitant to get involved, by the end of his set people were having fun and dancing. But frankly it was more entertaining to watch the crowd dance than watch Dupri perform.

While Jermaine Dupri is a great producer, his live performance was quite predictable and didn’t challenge the crowd, but I’m not sure it was even supposed to. Most people sitting around me were just pleading for Beyoncé, and he ended his set with a remix of a Jay-Z song. While Queen B may have forgiven Jay for his alleged betrayals, I certainly have not, so I felt it very inappropriate to bring up his disloyal face in the sanctuary that is a Beyoncé concert. 

As the sun set, the visual elements of Beyoncé’s tour rig came to life. The enormous cube dominating the center of the main stage began to glow and before I knew it, it burst into life with the first of many sublime video elements of the tour, some of which were interspersed with clips from Lemonade. As soon as the first notes of “Formation” began, the entire crowd was on its feet and screaming for their ruler.

From the moment she hit the stage, Queen B’s fierce strength and honesty was on display. The concert was a celebration of self-love, unapologetic confidence and forgiveness (yuck!). Bey may have used some of the stage time to talk about forgiveness and moving forward, but she also led into “Me, Myself and I” by declaring the most important relationship in your life is the one you keep with yourself, to which me and the women around me roared with approval. 

Her most honest and vulnerable moments were the most special. Each chuckle and crowd interaction was tender and loving. She consoled an emotional fan, squeezed hands with those stage-side, offered the microphone to singing fans and consistently reminded the showgoers how special they were. Imagine, the baddest, most powerful woman in pop telling a crowd of adoring fans that they were the special ones. During a simplified rendition of “Love On Top,” Beyoncé stopped singing and teared up as the entire crowd carried the tune for her.

While Bey is a powerhouse on her own, but her team absolutely makes the show as stunning as it is. Throughout the performance were well-placed moments intended to showcase her mind-boggling backing band, The Sugar Mamas. The drum solo after “Pop My Trunk” displayed some seriously insane gospel chops, and the ripping guitar solo that riffed off of the sample in Kanye’s “New Slaves” that led into “Don’t Hurt Yourself” was, in a word, awesome.

If stunning musicianship and Bey’s perfect pipes weren’t enough, the choreography was sharp, visually enthralling and perfectly executed. Her dance troupe was not meant to be a background bonus. They felt like Beyoncé’s squad, a group of individuals with captivating personalities there to remind the crowd that powerful women travel in packs.

Nearing the end of the show, the martial drums of “Freedom” rolled out as she and her dance troupe marched out to a shallow pool of water at the end of the stage. The anthemic track burst to life as the dancers splashed, and the song climaxed with the troupe and Beyoncé shouting “God” into the air.

It felt like a baptism, each member of the crowd being initiated into a church of powerful womanhood and defiance. The segue into “Survivor,” a Destiny’s Child track, was accompanied by dancers throwing their fists in the air, an important reminder that her art is just as much about Black Power as it is about the power of women.

I had peeked at the set list ahead of time to see what to expect, and when I saw “Halo” was listed as the last song I was skeptical. I’m not much of a ballad fan, and it seemed weird to end with a love ballad when she’s touring on a record about her husband’s infidelity. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and a little embarrassed to find myself getting emotional as Mother Beyoncé reminded the crowd that the ability to love someone else is an amazing gift.

The juxtaposition of powerful images, like Beyoncé as a Pharaoh in the same show as a montage of intimate family videos displaying Bey’s motherhood and marriage, revealed the multi-faceted aspects of womanhood. While some debate the substance of her feminism, this particular performance revealed that Beyonce is doing a great deal to force people to reconcile the fact that women can run empires and blow stadiums away and also be loving wives and mothers at the same time, not to mention retain sexuality as a powerful element of your identity.

On the Formation World Tour, Beyoncé proves in a matter of hours that you can work hard, be a loving mother, a sexual creature and a fulfilled human being as long as you love yourself first and foremost. I was thoroughly slayed.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Concert review: The Avett Brothers at Stage AE, May 12

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 9:45 AM

The whole evening leading up to The Avett Brothers’ performance, an ominous figure underneath a large sheet sat the length of the stage. Before the bluegrass punk-rock band appeared, their roadies slowly rolled off the giant sheet to reveal the band’s entire concert setup.

People then saw what instruments were involved, but they may not have seen what was coming.
The Avett Brothers opened the night of May 12 at Stage AE with kazoos in their mouths, playing a foot-stomping, four-on-the-floor version of “The D Bag Rag.” They followed that up with “Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise” from their hit album I And Love And You. All of the members, especially the brothers Seth and Scott Avett, looked like football players getting pumped up for a game, or like children with too much energy.

Throughout the night, Seth and Scott switched between acoustic and electric guitar, piano and banjo. At one point, Seth jumped on the mic and handed Scott the tambourine he had been playing; for a second, Scott pretended like he didn’t know what to do with it, only to start banging on it while he jumped on the other mic. The brothers weren’t the only energetic, instrument-sharing folks on stage though. The cellist, Joe Kwon, and the fiddler, Tania Elizabeth, also bounced around. During one song, each played the others’ instrument with their own bows.

The audience also joined in and acted as the “sixth man” of the night. The pit crowd took over the first verse of “Live And Die” as the brothers stepped in front of their mics to sing along. During “Morning Song,” they initiated a call and response with the crowd, singing, “I have to find that melody alone.”

“Don't sing if you don't want to," Scott yelled as he walked across the stage.

At points, the band would show its rock side, like during “Vanity” when they went off on a well-planned, Queen-like tangent of an instrumental break. Other times, they’d uncover a bit of rap skills, like in the song “Talk On Indolence,” which includes some killer bars that both Scott and Seth laid down. “I didn’t know they could rap!” yelled one man in the audience.

The last song of the band’s pre-encore setlist was, not surprisingly, “I And Love And You.” When Scott sang, “Three words that became hard to say,” he lifted up his hand making an “OK” sign, three fingers in the air. The crowd instantly followed his lead. As he sang, “I,” “love,” and “you,” every hand lowered one finger at a time.

The Avett Brothers are performers who dare to mix musical genres, but in the smoothest way possible. Pinning them down into one box or another is not something listeners can do.

They’re kind of like a mysterious figure beneath a large sheet.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Concert review: Ms. Lauryn Hill at Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall, May 11

Posted By on Thu, May 12, 2016 at 4:19 PM

Much has been made recently of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s unreliability: in the short run-up to last night’s last-minute show at the Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall (it was only announced on May 6), social media has been sprinkled with articles about, among other things, Hill’s chronic lateness (she showed up more than two hours late to a show in Atlanta and left the stage after 20 minutes). Even Questlove was peeved, and wrote a rather loopy open letter on his Facebook page, urging Hill to get it together, for her own sake.
Hill posted an apology on her own Facebook page, assuring fans that her lateness is not a symptom of indifference:

…Because I care so deeply about the artistic process, I scrutinize, have perfectionist tendencies, and want space made for spontaneity, which is not an easy process, with the many moving parts on the road. Some days we are more successful than others re time. However, the vitality that is infused into the performances is always appreciated by the audiences, who may not know exactly what it took to accomplish. What hasn't been touched upon by the media, I'm sure, are the hundreds of people who rushed the stage and stayed in excess of an hour after the show ended last night, just to connect.”

Courtesy of the artist - MS. LAURYN HILL AT THE BLUE NOTE
  • Ms. Lauryn Hill at the Blue Note
  • Courtesy of the artist
Given that, and the fact that Hill had already canceled tonight’s Baltimore show, I had my doubts that the Pittsburgh show (her first since 1999) would happen at all.

Honestly, I was rooting for Hill to do whatever the hell she wanted: in light of the historical celebration of temperamental, unpredictable male rock stars, attacking a brilliant artist like Hill (who has had her fair share of well-publicized struggles) for inconveniencing her audiences seems pretty unfair. And it seems rather grotesquely capitalist to demand that any artist give you your “money’s worth.” A live performance is not a trip to Starbucks: constancy is not always part of the deal.

At the venue, there was a palpable vibe of cautious excitement – signs at the entrance had Hill slated for a 9:15 p.m. performance, following a DJ set, but everyone knew that anything could happen. When Hill did take the stage it was around 10 p.m., but no one in the sold-out room seemed to mind: hyped up on the DJ’s collection of soul and hip-hop hits, everyone was already having fun, and we were  grateful to see her.

Wearing a flamboyant red, ruffled jumpsuit, Hill ruled the stage, which was crowded with a full band, including a horn section and three backup singers. In light of her rough PR week, opener “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” felt especially poignant and showcased Hill’s profound gift for turning raw expressions of human frailness into something bordering on sacred.

Nearly every song was played at around twice the usual tempo, which at times felt exhausting but was mostly dazzling. The band kept pace with Hill’s frenetic rapping, as she moved through songs like “Mystery of Iniquity” and “Everything is Everything,” and Fugees' tracks like “Fu-Gee La” and “Ready or Not.” Anyone expecting album-replicas would have been disappointed, but almost two decades after The Miseducation … Hill’s interpretations of her own songs are fully alive: last night’s rendition of “Ex-Factor” was a fevered gut-punch that will forever change the way I understand that song.

It’s easy to see what Hill means when she talks about her “perfectionist tendencies.” Throughout the set, she continuously signaled to a tech to make minor changes, and put her entire body into conducting her band, which seemed truly immersed in the moment. At times the sound was muddy (that room doesn’t always handle volume well, and this show was certainly much louder than I expected), and one woman in the bathroom complained that, from the balcony, she couldn’t hear anything Hill said (the only other complaint I heard was from another woman who said she paid $60 to hear Hill sing, not rap — which she actually did more later on in the show with songs like “Killing Me Softly.”)

Hill rounded out the night with some reggae covers and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” which she recorded for the compilation Nina Revisited … A Tribute to Nina Simone. It was indeed an evening of, as Hill would say, “many moving parts,” which all came together to create an evening that probably exceeded most people’s expectations. Hill is right that some days are more successful than others, in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. And luckily for us last night was, by any standards, a total success. 

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