Live Reviews: Friction Showcase, John Vanderslice & Jose Gonzalez

The Crackers United crew, bringing NYC 2 years of Friction
photo by tktk

This week, we have four reviews, two from NYC and two from Boston. First off, we’d like to congratulate Crackers United on hosting two exciting years of Friction, the monthly showcase that has presented a lot of KEXP faves like Ghostland Observatory, Office, and Vampire Weekend (they were on that EARLY!). More importantly, Friction features a ton of up-and-coming bands and underground heroes, like Dan Deacon, Land of Talk, Dan Deacon, O’Death, Apes+Androids, and too many others to list.


Friction’s 2-Year Anniversary, Part 1, The Mercury Lounge, NYC 9/20
review by Sheryl Witlen
photos by Patrick Parault

On Thursday, September 20, I was lucky enough to attend Friction’s 2-Year Anniversary at The Mercury Lounge. With the lineup of the celebratory performance of the monthly showcase, presented by Crackers United and sponsored by KEXP, starting off with The Blacks, whose set I missed, followed by The Most Serene Republic, leading into Die Romantik, and closing out with A Place to Bury Strangers — it was clearly a night to enjoy, but also to challenge your intellect.


First off, one should be prepared for a contest of wits before attending The Most Serene Republic‘s live show. Adrian Jewett (lead vocalist and trombone extraordinaire) is as sharp as they come. So you’d better enjoy yourself. You are expected to turn your cell phones off — and don’t even think about text messaging or snapping a photo — they really don’t take lightly to that sort of thing. Clapping, singing and cheering are compulsory. Please do not ask Adrian Jewett to converse with the audience. When one audience member innocently asked him about witty banter in between songs, Adrian curtly quipped back, “What do you say to a New York audience? I like Woody Allen movies, I like The Strokes, I like the New York Punk Scene?” at which point Tony Nesbitt-Larking queued in with a rendition of “Last Night.” When the song cut short, the audience sighed sadly until Nick Greaves, Emma Ditchburn, and Sean Woolven all returned to their guitars and waited for Adrian to join them on their next song.

The Most Serene Republic is a joint artistic effort to say the least. With so many talented musicians on such a small stage, it is absolutely necessary to pay attention to your role within your band and your duty throughout each song. Reminded of the Brooklyn duo Matt and Kim, I became more excited about the performance with each new song. Nick, Sean and Emma all line up on the right side of the stage as if protected inside an invisible bubble that inspires them and acts as a group to keep their guitars loud and sharp. As if Adrian was not enough of a presence with his theatrical voice that keeps you balancing on your toes, he bullies and taunts the audience by questioning, “Are you watching us, or are we watching you?” It must be quite the feat for Emma, the only female member of the band, to steady herself next to him and own the responsibility of contributing back up vocals to the sharp-tongued Adrian. Even though Jewett comes across as being as bored as someone descending from an international flight, his passionate lyrics and concentrated delivery reveal his actual enjoyment of being on stage for you-even if he will never admit to it. If you are not captured by The Most Serene Republic after your first listen, I highly recommend that you study their songs and make it a point to attend their next live show. They are one of the most versatile bands on the scene and, armed with Jewett, they are sure to create an experience you will never forget.


I am not the sort of music fan who really enjoys stage props within a performance. During the set change before Die Romantik, I watched as members of the band strung three chandeliers, arranged a sign with the letters DR that cast a bloody red glare, and had the house lights lowered to a mere glimmer of illumination. All of these elements put together reminded me of a Midlake video, transporting me back to an earlier time full of burlesque theatres and clandestine speakeasies. As Die Romantik took the stage, the overall effect was complete. Having done my research, I knew that Olivier Bernard (guitar), Eric Hagemann (drums), and Dominic Matar (keyboards) met in the most romantic and idealistic city of all, Paris. It helped to be privy to this bit of knowledge to understand what they are aiming for artistically and visually and ultimately trying to accomplish through the duration of their show. Olivier and Dominic traded vocals with completely different levels of energy. While Olivier comes across as painfully shy, barely even casting a glance over the audience, Dominic sways over his keyboard oozing misery. Their sound is similar to Muse or Blonde Redhead, with the overall melancholic atmosphere enchanting those in attendance into pure silence. You could have dropped a pin, for everyone was in awe and concentrating on what was happening on stage. On a few songs, the haunting background hints of organ with Olivier and Dominic’s vocals sounded like they had been altered by a synthesizer.

As with Adrian Jewett of The Most Serene Republic, it was clear that Dominic Matar takes Die Romantik’s music seriously, stopping to tell the audience “Pretty speeches are for the idle minded.” Not exactly your typical friendly banter from most local New York bands. Blending folk-like Russian rhythms with waltz-like influences, the songs, through keyboard and guitar, unfolded a new layer of darkness and affection throughout each song.


If The Most Serene Republic was meant to set the theme for a night of intelligent and complex music, and Die Romantik was intended to take you down to a lower level of energy and a new level of obscurity and enchantment, then A Place To Bury Strangers was meant to completely throw the audience to the ground. Not your typical indie band, A Place To Bury Strangers delivered a performance that was an education for the senses. Gathered in front of a screen where various light and film images were being projected, Oliver Ackermann, JSpace and Jono MOFO comprise one of the loudest bands I have witnessed. Ever. A lot of bands attempt a loud, face paced, jam rock sound that does not translate well live, often tending to lose their audience or drown out their vocalist. A Place To Bury Strangers sets themselves apart in the genre of psychedelic and experimental sound with pure innovation. Their songs do not wind down at any point and carry their audience into a pool of low energy while transporting them from one song to the next. Instead they fall over into one another while beginning and ending songs abruptly. Easily a sound to please fans of Forward Russia, Louis IX or even Godsmack, theirs is one sure to progress into even more extreme elements and depth.

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Friction’s 2-Year Anniversary, Part 2, Music Hall, Williamsburg, Brooklyn 9/20
review by Sheryl Witlen
photos by Patrick Parault


The Big Sleep is a Brooklyn-based trio comprised of a drummer, a bass player, and one heck of a vocalist, Sonya Balchandani. On Sunday night, this local threesome played the heart out of their full length debut, Son Of The Tiger to an appreciative home audience. Layers of atmospheric bass clashed with electronic elements and mixed with screeching guitar riffs, carrying the listener on a roller coaster of sound. Often labeled as avant-rock band, they test new limits of electronic and psychedelic rock, blasting the scene with up tempo drumbeats and crystalline vocals. Balchandani fuses the lead vocals with the guitar melody into one form, creating a practiced and fluid sound. Neither the lyrics nor the melody are left lacking. Similar to The Album Leaf, The Big Sleep dances on the edge of fixed industry genre guidelines and creates their own image of sound and artistry.


The Twilight Sad spare little time for their audience to prepare for the emotional experience that is their live show. Immediately, the band members pick up their instruments and hurry to catch up with their passionate vocalist, James Graham, who has already started belting out the lyrics to “Cold Days From The Birdhouse.” Straining with every inch of his physical being, he belts out each word as if his life depended on it — all the while perched on his tiptoes balancing on the edge of the stage. Listening to this song on their album, while good, does not even come within a shadow of seeing it live. Eerily beautiful and heart-stricken with sadness, the song casts a hush over anyone who might have crept into the room late. Early on The Twilight Sad’s debut full-length, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, set itself apart as one of my favorite albums of the year. Their songs are so carefully full of pain and private emotions you feel as if you are peering into Graham’s personal notes. His Scottish accent lends a textured, sophisticated bite to their sound as he is backed up by Andy MacFarlane on guitar, accordion, and noise, Craig Orzel on bass, and Mark Devine on drums. Despite it being a mellow Sunday, night those gathered to check out The Twilight Sad live jumped around and sang a welcome worthy of a Friday night. The crowd’s enthusiasm allowed Graham to relax and share stories of the flight over and a pilot that made them fear for their lives. As if the musical equipment itself was listening, the amplifiers on stage suddenly cut out. Instead of throwing in the towel as many a live act might has done for such a relatively small audience, Andy, Craig, Mark and James carried on, apologizing during the rest of the set if a note went astray or a lyric swerved out of time — the harmony between them clearly runs as deep as it does in their music.


John Vanderslice, The Middle East Upstairs, Cambridge, MA 9/27
review and photos by Miriam Lamey


“You’re incredible,” John Vanderslice beamed at the enthralled crowd, during his first gig of two at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge, MA. The audience hung on his every word as he chatted between songs on topics ranging from NPR to a rather forward fan, who apparently presented him with signed underwear at a New York gig. While Vanderslice may come across as a little too charming onstage (perhaps bordering on pretentious), he played a solid, yet subdued set.

This veteran musician, known for channeling political ideas through his music, has an appealing yet mainstream sound. At times, Vanderslice vocally resembles Elliott Smith; at others times, he leans towards Conor Oberst. Vanderslice’s gravelly voice is compelling and combined with smooth guitar and the occasional violin, the effect can be intoxicating; it was clear as to why his Cambridge gigs were sold out. Interestingly, Vanderslice chose to start his set with the first two tracks from his recently released album, Emerald City, an intriguing piece containing lyrical narratives on post-September 11th America and the Iraq war. His first song, “Kookaburra,” is a winding, poignant piece that came across clearly onstage and maintained its dreary edge as on the record. “Time to Go” followed, and the vocals arched over the thrilled audience while the darker, heavy riffs imbued the music with an ominous feel. To a whooping crowd, Vanderslice slid into the poppier, almost sweet “Tablespoon of Codeine.” The tight harmonies and eerie keys sounded quite fabulous and overall, this was probably Vanderslice’s best song of the night.


As his set progressed, Vanderslice’s band left the stage one by one, until he was the sole musician onstage. At that point, he played “Numbered Lithograph.” Because of the song’s refrain, “I’ve never been lonlier,” this choice seemed pretty contrived and as if Vanderslice was trying too hard, something he certainly did not have to do. To be completely honest, Vanderslice acted as if he wanted the spotlight on himself, but the way in which it was executed made the whole set feel a bit cheapened and definitely theatrical. Granted, the distorted guitar and lone vocals sounded quite dramatic, and the song was well-played, but the theatricality overwhelmed the music. The audience, however, were still utterly charmed by the tune. The rest of the band rejoined Vanderslice and he finished off the set. This guy is obviously talented and a great musician; he gave a fantastic performance, but somehow it lacked a certain spark, a truly exciting and unique vibe that blows away both non-fans and die-hard fans alike.


Jose Gonzalez, Paradise Rock Club, Boston 9/30
review and photos by Miriam Lamey


Jose Gonzalez’ sold-out show at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston , MA was packed with thrilling music, awed fans and even a successful marriage proposal. This astoundingly talented guitarist mesmerized the filled-to-capacity venue to the extent that, at times, it felt as if the audience held their collective breath in order to better hear every nuance of his guitar playing. And that is a feat in and of itself. Gonzalez’ guitar work is intricate, beautiful and completely mystifying. He combines finger-picked arpeggios and riffs with tapped rhythms and off-beat chords to create a sound so large that it seems as if it comes from a full band. At times, he musically resembles Kings of Convenience, Iron and Wine, Nick Drake and Neil Young, but Gonzalez has a different, more passionate style. As he ran through his set, it quickly became apparent that his intricate guitar work and poignant vocals dripped with his intense concentration and love for his music.

Gonzalez hunched over his guitar alone onstage for the beginning of his set and was dramatically lit in reds, blues and purples. It was difficult to see just exactly how he was coaxing such complex-sounding tones and trills from one guitar, but the effect was amazing. The sounds swelled through the room and Gonzalez’ simple, light voice was the perfect compliment to his playing. The utterly gorgeous “All You Deliver” sounded almost haunting when played live, and the song’s heavy strums juxtaposed next to the lighter picking gave the song an urgent, almost desperate feel. In contrast, the opening notes of “Lovestain” prompted whoops from the audience, and rhythmic claps while Gonzalez moved through the song. The utterly fluid playing and lyrics, “You left a lovestain on my heart/And you left a bloodstain on the ground” made the song heartbreakingly beautiful. However, the set wasn’t all about failed relationships and life’s pains; Gonzalez selected more upbeat tunes as his band joined him onstage for poppier, folky tracks such as “Remain” and the title track from his latest album, In Our Nature. He ended his set with a cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.”

Gonzalez returned to the stage for his encore, and immediately asked “Where is Mark?” or words to that effect. A voice replied, and Gonzalez asked, “Did she say yes?” Mark concurred, and the audience fell into applause, as it became apparent that the faceless Mark had proposed. Gonzalez responded with, a soft, “This is for you guys,” and launched into his achingly pretty cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats.” Gonzalez’ version is a drastic improvement on the original for he pours such genuine feeling into the words and music. And that precisely summarises Gonzalez’ Boston show; a meaningful, true and quietly radiant performance.

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