Appendix: Live Music '04
I meant to write up the measly 8 shows I saw in 2004 on the exhaustive 2004 CD annotations but forgot. Some brief notes:
The Wrens were probably the best live act I saw, which is no surprise since I spent a goodish portion of the year listening to The Meadowlands over and over and slowly realizing that it was, in fact, the best album of 2003 (after 2004 really stopped compelling my attention). They took to the sweaty stage at Emo's and rocked exceptionally for 75 minutes; I only wish it had been longer. Because Meadowlands is long (and quite possibly because their previous album came out in 1996, and is out of print to boot), all but one song was drawn from there. As an expert live band, just enough of each song was changed to make it fascinating for the dedicated listener; on "Ex-Girl Collection," the drummer left so that the expert 3-part guitar attack could let its harmonies shine more cleanly, then coming back onstage. "Ready, bitches?" he asked, and they were. My favorite part, though, was accidental: Emo's is right next to a dance club whose loud beats can bleed over between numbers. When the Wrens picked up on this, they shushed the audience to hear it more clearly and played along. That was awesome.
The inverse opposite of watching the Wrens rock a small crowd of indie elitists was probably seeing Prince rock an arena. Truth be told, I'm not the world's biggest Prince fan: he's done a lot of great work, sure, but he's still pretty rarely my first choice for listening. But most arena acts suck ass, and I'd never been to an arena show and wanted the experience, and I have friends who are huge Prince fans, so I shelled out $50 (this was back before I was a college student and had money). The day of the concert Texas was flash-flooding, so the drive up to San Antonio was far longer than usual and mildly dangerous; we got there just in time to be an hour early. But a Prince show is as tight as you've heard, and the fact that the legendary Maceo Parker was in Prince's band for this leg of the tour didn't hurt at all. Purple Rain was disposed of in a quick song medley - all but that title song itself, of course, which was the final encore. In a tribute to his astonishing ego, Prince had the crowd cheering for a good ten minutes, begging for an encore which of course had to come before actually coming back out. And even I, the guy who doesn't like that song to begin with, suddenly starting screaming at about minute 8: "Come on you motherfucker! Give the people what they want! Do it already!" Prince is an expert in crowd manipulation, and he hires sax players who can look good with all their cleavage hanging out as they simultaneously dance and play; it's a good show.
When Travis came to Austin, they were originally scheduled to play the Austin Music Hall, but I wasn't terribly surprised when the show was moved to the smaller La Zona Rosa at the last minute; Travis is no longer as popular as they were, particularly in the US, and the same corporation owned both venues anyway, so it was no sweat off their back. Jason Falkner - the power-pop workhouse who, in-between multi-tracking his own albums, found the time to tour with Air, record with Beck, collaborate with Brendan Benson, and generally pop up all over the damn place with everything except for new solo material - opened, at first cranking out a few solo one-man-and-electric-guitar numbers before taking out his iPod, which pumped out all the backing tracks he needed. Travis played for two solid hours with scarcely a wasted minute, were startlingly nice and apparently sincere, and skipped most of their crappier material in favor of nearly the entirety of The Man Who, the singles from The Invisible Band, and all the good songs (and then some) from the underrated 12 Memories. Fran Healy was once quoted as saying that Travis's music is like a chair, that you can sit in it. But it turns out you can kinda rock to it too (except for when they deliberately tried to rock out with "All I Wanna Do Is Rock & Roll" and climbed on an amp; that was kinda sweet but ultimately embarassing).
The Sleepy Jackson came to rock SXSW, and played as many sets as possible; I think they actually squeezed in four, which is pretty phenomenal. Their mid-day gig at the Yard Dog Art Gallery (glorified junk yard/"amateur art" space that set up some satisfying deafening speakers in the back, with Budweiser sponsoring the whole thing with free keg beer distributed, by and large, by very nice old ladies) was very cool, mainly because they played so loud that they lost power twice. And apparently once more at their real showcase performance later that day.
And then there was Wilco. I lucked out into a ticket for the second night of their stint at Radio City Music Hall. No disrespect, but it's hard to imagine a less rock-'n-roll venue, which would be OK, except Wilco is an unreconstructed 70s rock band. This was the suspicion any person might've had after hearing most of A Ghost Is Born, and some earlier songs like "Monday" from Being There, which is basically just a redux of the Who's "5:15," horns and all, and it was confirmed in full by Wilco's set: the first thing you saw was that they had two massive keyboards bookending either end of the stage, something that I thought had gone out with the first wave of prog bands. There were also long, would-be epic, and utterly non-ironic guitar solos (the odd but lovely string arrangement on "Hummingbird" stood revealed as actually kind of an ELO-ish solo). And though they played well for a solid two hours, there was something annoying about their audience, an uneven mixture of 40-ish NPR listeners who'd finally found a rock band that spoke to them for the first time in years and slightly insecure hipsters who weren't sure if they shouldn't be running out of the plush interiors back to Williamsburg. Radio City Music Hall is large enough that they cancelled each other out, but their mutual bewilderment revealed itself during an opening set from the Fiery Furnaces: the hipsters would periodically cheer just to establish their cred, despite the fact that the act was conspicuously floating out into the void. Once the 40-somethings figured out that this was the New Face of Rock, or something like it, they wanted to feel like they were at a rock show, not Radio City Music Hall: they hoisted their $5 beers and cheered "Yeah! Rock 'n roll!" Which is the wrong answer to both acts, but whatever.