Live Review: Ghostland Observatory, Showbox, Seattle 4/4/08

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photos by Dan Muller
review by Jim Beckmann

Lately, some critics haven’t been very kind to Ghostland Observatory. Sure, Pitchfork’s remark about the Austin band’s “Daft Punk-for-frat-boys schtick” in its review of Robotique Majestique (1 ½ stars) is within keeping of the site’s hipper-than-thou milieu (although I thought Daft Punk was for frat boys), but when Seattle’s own independent voice The Stranger tries to out-Pitchfork Pitchfork (½ star and a derisive “bell curve” comment), the whole thing reads more like sour grapes at the band’s success. Regardless, after quickly selling out two nights at the Showbox at the Market, Ghostland Observatory played to the normal distribution of Seattle’s fandom and proved how skewed the critics’ opinions could be.

Detractors of the band’s recorded music are missing the point: Ghostland Observatory is a meant to be witnessed live. Lead vocalist Aaron Behrens’ persona amalgamates Freddy Mercury’s and Mick Jagger’s onstage cockery, their crowing and strutting, which are only hinted at on album. While both Queen and The Stones released some impressive studio work, their shows were more explosive. And so with Ghostland Observatory. Just ask the ecstatic crowds the Showbox, who I doubt would give a second thought at that moment to getting lumped in with the implied middle state doltish mediocrity suggested by The Stranger’s review. They were too caught up in Thomas Turner’s pulsating beats and Behrens’ rhythmic chainsaw guitar to intellectualize. They were there to groove.

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Try as they might, the crowd could not collapse the venue’s floorboards any more than they could pull the ceiling down with their hands, no matter how hard they danced or how high they thrust their arms in the air. Behrens played them like another instrument, leaning into front rows, touching hands, swinging from one end of the stage to the other. Meanwhile, Turner, the cloaked wizard of the knobs, remained bent over his equipment most of the time and nodding to the beat. He’s the perfect straightman to Behrens’ onstage athletics — that is, until he slides behind the drum kit and lets loose. It’s like when one of those living human statues you’ve been idly staring at while enjoying a corndog at a festival suddenly springs to life. It’s no less a performance.

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The dramatic light show is an essential part of Ghostland Observatory’s live shows. Sure, it’s the visual equivalent of a Pink Floyd laser show, but it’s old school without the irony — just as the band’s supposedly uncool electronic blips hearken back to dual-digit low-bit technology. Rather than seeming cheesy, the lasers sliced sharply through the fog-dense air, rotating, sweeping quickly, then stopping a moment before exploding outward and upward again in sync with the beat. For a moment, it looked as if the beams might lop off Behrens’ long swinging braids. I caught myself ducking more than once.

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Recent songs “Heavy Heart” and “Dancing On My Grave” drew as much if not more enthusiastic applause from the all-ages crowd as classics “Sad Sad City” and “Move With Your Lover.” Even the moodier songs, the ones less frenetic and less falsetto-laden, kept the audience in thrall. Throughout the main set, Behrens kept his banter to a minimum, but clearly he reveled in audience’s enthusiasm and during the encore thanked the Seattle fans for their enduring support, suggesting that the city was his second home. The locals obviously appreciated the reciprocated love and cheered the duo offstage. As the overheads turned on, the sweaty, weary crowd headed home fulfilled and oblivious to — or uncaring of — their unhipness. Rock on, sheep, rock on!

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17 Comments

  1. Sara
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    This was, without a doubt, THE best show I’ve seen in a long long time!

  2. Eric
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I read The Stranger’s review of Robotique Majestique on Friday, and I got the distinct impression that Aaron Behrens and Thomas Turner whizzed in Eric Grandy’s cornflakes at SXSW. Or something like that.

    At any rate, I saw them at the KEXP BBQ in 2006 and they were the highlight of the show. I wouldn’t have seen them if John and Cheryl hadn’t raved about them during CMJ.

  3. melodien
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Umm, if they’re meant to be witnessed live, how exactly are detractors of their RECORDED music missing the point? If anything, that sentence appears to be agreeing that their recorded music is awful.

  4. Posted April 7, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Not necessarily, but the records don’t show the full power of the band. However, the reviews of the new record, in particular The Stranger’s, pretty much say that the band sucks… period, and that you’re a dope if you like them. They are not admittedly reviewing the live performance. I am. But it’s unfair to dismiss a band outright based on their record.

  5. melvin
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    well, i had tix for the saturday show but got rid of them after hearing the new record. so i guess i won’t know how good they are live because the new album is such a turd.

  6. Michelle Carroll
    Posted April 8, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Gohstland. This show was not as moving as the other performances I’ve seen for one reason only… no stage lights to see Aarons moves and raw sexuality. Tooooooo many lasers, not enough Aaron. Maybe people in the first two rows could see him, but the rest of us only saw a silhouette.

    Let’s not forget how they got where they are and it’s not the lasers. Don’t mess with a good thing.

  7. Anthony Lombardi
    Posted April 8, 2008 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I disagree completely with the contention that record critics need to consider a band’s live show. The record is the permanent marker of the band’s work. Live shows are seen by a few dedicated fans. One could argue that many will not attend a live show if the records don’t impress them.

    I personally have never heard this band, nor do I intend to- anything resembling Daft Punk isn’t for me, but I believe for most music fans, records(in whatever format they are released in) are the barometer that people will use to determine their likes and dislikes.

  8. Posted April 8, 2008 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Anthony, they do need to consider the live show if they’re going to say that the band is complete crap. Call the record crap — fine. But to suggest that anyone who likes the band are dolts… well, I think that you and I already got into that discussion :)

    Clearly, the band sells out live shows. And in a state of the industry when albums are becoming less the source of a band’s income, why shouldn’t we consider the live shows significant? And how many people like “melvin” above missed out on an opportunity that they might have really enjoyed if we sum up a band’s worth solely on its recorded material?

  9. Anthony Lombardi
    Posted April 8, 2008 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I see the point, but with the massive amount of records coming out, not sure how a writer can categorize a live performance as part of a band’s quality. It makes the same argument that people make about Phish et al.

    “The albums aren’t good, but seeing them live will change your mind”.

    Are some reviews mean-spirited? Yes, but I think most writers who blister a band do so because they are being asked to review something which they don’t see quality in and take it to the extreme. It would be easier to allow a writer to simply ignore the band no?

  10. Posted April 8, 2008 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    “The albums aren’t good, but seeing them live will change your mind”.

    I don’t think Jim said the albums aren’t good in the original review, Anthony.
    That was Eric Grandy over at the Stranger. Jim said they were great live, as he was reviewing the concert.

    “Are some reviews mean-spirited? Yes, but I think most writers who blister a band do so because they are being asked to review something which they don’t see quality in and take it to the extreme. It would be easier to allow a writer to simply ignore the band no?”

    Absolutely agree. Eric Grandy should have walked over to the Stranger music editor and said ‘this just isn…” oh. Wait. He IS the Stranger music editor. Have you considered an “Allow Yourself To Say No!” Music Editor Support Group? You can post an open call on the Slog :-)

  11. Sandy
    Posted April 9, 2008 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    My husband and I both love Ghostland! We own, and sincerely appreciate, all 3 of their records, and enjoy their live shows as well.

    We attend approximately 40 concerts a year. We were at both of the recent Showbox performances, and the Portland show, and thought they were among the best shows we’ve seen in quite some time. The shows are a zero to sixty in 3 seconds experience, a wild ride, at the end of which we are left wanting more!

    The fact that all music is doomed to be appreciated by some, and despised by others, simply cannot be escaped. However, for Eric Grandy to suggest that Ghostland Observatory is “Rapture for retards” exceeds the bounds of good taste, and springs from a level of self importance that is very telling indeed.

    If you don’t like Ghostland Observatory, then by all means, apply cork to the back of the CD and use it as a coaster. Appreciate whatever music you like, but please extend us the same courtesy, without labeling us “retards”!

  12. kat
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been watching these guys for several years back in Austin from tiny gigs at coffee shops to massive festival stages and I have to say that while I was not altogether taken by their album, I would still agree that experiencing their live shows will still keep me interested in what these guys can bring for years to come.

    Best way to see these guys in up front in a small venue dancing your ass off until you’re not sure if you’re soaked in your own sweat anymore. Do artists have to be removed from their performances in order to be considered “good”? While I agree that later on down the line someone picking up their album wouldn’t find something altogether revolutionary, those who remember the live experiences will have some amazing stories to tell. Does simply liking music because it makes you feel good make you a “retard”?

  13. Matt
    Posted October 14, 2008 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    This arguement has gotten way off track. Their albums are great, their live performances are amazing. Music snobs that refuse to attend concerts never truly appreciated music in the first place. The kind of people (a few in this message board) exist solely to impress us with their musical knowledge.

    Ghostland Observatory is the greatest band of all time. You just have to have the rhythm in your soul.

    Also, seeing their live performances greatly enhances personal experience of listening to records. You haters are a drag on this world.

    for any new comers to the band, I would recommend their myspace page. Ive never read a list of musical influences on a person that was more kick ass.

  14. John
    Posted January 31, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    This is the worst band that is mildly successful. This guy doesn’t have anywhere near the talent of Freddie Mercury or Mick Jagger or Prince (their bio compares him to these folks which is why writers like the review above also make this point—I guess they can’t come up with their own material sometimes). Cheesy beats and lasers and a crowd doesn’t make a good band-although i can’t argue that some people have fun at their shows. The Asian dude from American Idol sold records and drew fans as well, doesn’t make him good (William Hung?). So Ghostland is the William Hung of music.

  15. Chris
    Posted March 13, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    These guys are very lucky and very annoying.
    Lucky to have got somewhere with the drivel they produce.
    I know far better bands in town that are way more talented and write way better material.

    I remember hearing them the first time and absolutely being annoyed with the singers voice and stupid antics on stage. Music for hipsters and scenesters because hipster/scenesters have short attention spans… maybe their disappearance will come soon.

  16. sam f
    Posted April 21, 2009 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    that’s exactly it: they have lucked out. their songs are so incredibly tame and practiced. their beats are boring, the guitar and vocals are 100% unabashed, shallow throwback, the native american slash wizard thing is interesting for less than a minute, it’s just a completely calculated experience.

    plus, they tour with a drumkit. i have seen this band 3 times i think, at festivals or whatever, and every single time they have used the kit on one or two songs, and to play the same programmed 4/4 beat that is on every single song they play.

    the people who go apeshit about their live show are not “retards” but it is hard to argue their case when there are so many more interesting bands that can make you dance without catering to mimicking poorly to the lowest common denominator.

  17. Erica
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    My main gripe about this band is he compares himself to Prince and Freddy Mercury. Those guys are in a league all their own and this guy needs to be slapped upside his head. If he is like an early Prince, I’m hung like Ron Jeremy. Sure, he might mimic some of their presence, but he is not even close to those giants and innovators. I can’t believe you made some similar comparisons in this article. It’s almost like you took it right out of the bands promo material.

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