There are some live performances that you need to sit through and listen to. From shaky lens to television performances, here’s some stuff I’ve been living through until we can get out and listen to music in all its life once again.
(When I listen to music it’s the only time I ever feel like I am alone and am fully allowed to be. I haven’t gone to sleep without migraines or my head nightmarishly pulsating, but then I wake up and know that I have something here again…)
Perfume Genius Live in the KEXP Studio, July 24 2017
I listened to this three years after its recording, off the masterpiece that was Set My Heart On Fire Immediately and discovering a new love for Perfume Genius, I needed to return to Mike’s earlier work.
While touring the effervescent No Shape, performed in the aptly-lit and glittering studio with my favorite host, Perfume Genius opens off with Valley. It’s more gentle and nostalgic than the version on the record or on his Tiny Desk. You hear the tapping and ditzing of keys by Alan (Mike’s partner) in a keyboard not so far away; listening to No Shape with its light filters and echoing… it suddenly feels distant, incomparable to the warmth and earnest of the slower-paced KEXP version. His voice trembles, lifting up his headphone, but it’s smoother than ever.
When Valley closes off, I knew this short twenty-minute performance wouldn’t not be enough. The tone and liveliness of Mike’s voice to how much more vivid this arrangement is than in any other live recording is stunning. It’s Perfume Genius in its clearest, most authentic, most humanly rising: which is better than a distant transcendence.
No Shape is praised and rightfully so, there’s no agreeing that reaching transcendence is its objective. Where in Wreath, Mike’s vocals are accompanied by a chorus (making that comparison to Running Up That Hill again, because it’s almost a necessary companion), with a constant beating and drumming behind his voice of protest. Suddenly: the layers are stripped. His vocals are uplifted, his words are sput out more distinctly, his inflections become human, and he pounds on his chest. The music is more ethereal than ever, only if the transcendence rooted in non-conformity and bravery is best exemplified in seeing his defiance with all its imperfections and contumacy.
Slip Away, the album’s most striking track is stripped even more. The drums roll more, Mike follows himself, catching and catching––until it ends and we know that the grandiosity he sings is rooted in the spaces right around us.
If the album celebrates Mike in his confidence and heavenly portraiture of love, this KEXP session is necessary listening. Where the record is decadence and imagination (just look at the official music videos), this live puts in a new form of power to the layers of fantasy that he professes.
The Hotelier playing “Home, Like Noplace Is There” in full at The Fest, November 2 2014
“If white people have no culture explain midwest emo.” One of The Hotelier’s very-sad-very-smart tricks is naming one of their most celebrated songs Your Deep Rest which is “your deep rest” about death but also “you’re depressed” because of how you feel aha get it; and it’s a little cringe in the way that passionate, amateur authenticity always is––but it’s pounded in this weathered experience and freedom that few music can do.
2014. The drums and audience clash so loud less than four minutes in, such that vocalist Christian is almost inaudible despite his screams and pleads––before crashing: I just slept for years on end––FUCK!
The song cuts, Christian thanks the audience, who have already clearly showed that they know every word and all to come. The crowd is filled with tattoos, beer cans, glasses, washing every word up for all its truth. For all the midwest emo sadness, Home Like Noplace Is There is one of the most magical, raw experiences I’ve heard. The show is catharsis.
All hands rise up, pointing, sometimes at nothing in particular to sing of helplessness and familial pain to lyrics universal in the room: working-class, suburban boredom and a longing for bigger things. When you’re all packed and recognize your entrapment, it’s easy to let everything go.
Watching this in the early morning feels like a special kind of care. It’s easy to dismiss these records as whiny and narcissistic, but seeing it roared from body to body in a heated room where no other words could ever be truer in the moment connects you (at least I believe it must). I listened to this album over and over when in my first year of college, feeling so out of place and desperate for some form of escape. It said many of the words I needed to get out for me. I wonder what it could have been like if I had the spirit to let them out myself.
Sufjan Stevens on Austin City Limits, September 17 2006
I memorize the smile and strings pulled right after Sufjan sings the first line of The Lord God Bird, his song on the ivory-billed woodpecker––one of his more hidden tracks commissioned by NPR back in 2005, or the way he deems Jacksonville “cool enough” after the heartbreaking Casimir Pulaski Day, putting on yellow-tinted shades and smirking before singing on preachers and slaves… and moreso the spiel that Sufjan goes into as he recounts––as good as any unreliable narrator––the much-speculated story circling between love and god in Predatory Wasp. He rambles, chuckling about dragons and eagles and rowing with a friend and a Good Year Blimp, scratching his head and letting leave an “oh no,” before he and his orchestra chronicle his journey in song. It is so gentle and holy that it is nothing short of prayer, as vivid as childlike awe can recall.
His “first performance on national television”, there’s no high quality recording of the now fourteen-year-old show, but each song could be lifted straight from the album; or perhaps greater. It’s humanized, each introduction and awkward pause the breath and pull before delving once more into the meticulous melodies and orchestras you are once again whirled into. Here: the chaos is live. The patient, slow fades from Sufjan in full wing, the outfitted orchestra and percussionist trembling with him, and the soul he brings. After the Episcopal Wasp then crescendos into a vow against the age of industrialization and poverty––no moment is left without attention and care. The
Once 2021 comes, I hope to see him tour The Ascension live. I don’t think any record can capture emotion as much as he does in this performance. It’s so remarkably expected of Sufjan to be able to turn music into something so whole; and in this, it becomes inexplicably infinite.
1. The Lord God Bird (The Great God Bird)
2. Casimir Pulaski Day
4. The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us
5. Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)
6. A Good Man Is Hard To Find
7. The Dress Looks Nice On You 8. Chicago
Car Seat Headrest plays “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” at the Black Cat, May 23 2016
This is one of the only recordings left of Ballad, named as one of Stereogum’s Top 200 Songs of the 2010s. It’s an unusual choice at the surface and not an immediate Car Seat Headrest song you’d named. “Bombast”, as Stereogum describes, though it seems to be a lot more forthright and earnest in its millennial angst, self-delusion, and narcissism. Will breaks down, in more panic and anguish that can ever be contained in the record version as he screams about mistakes in anecdotes and vignettes that we can only do our best to fit ourselves in. He’s sinking: thinking of blood, himself in his youth, the fear in his body, and everything in between.
One of the most special Car Seat Headrest performances to me (which is saying a lot), you can only picture Ethan’s vocals and the loudening band behind him. He switches up the lyrics: “Some things are unforgivable! God won’t forgive me! You won’t forgive me!“, his voice cracking with instruments that can barely keep up. He perhaps is never truly inadequate. The three-parter song closes with an act of defiance. He gives up but is never brought down.
The near-twelve minutes to sit through when listening to Ballad alone are a world of their own, but it takes on new form with the changes in the song’s pivotal breakdown. The crowd whoos with him, distinct enough from his monotone, attempt at lifeless “I give ups” that trace the end of the movement––unaware of the levels of anguish let out at the very end. The song’s live recording has been taken down a number of times for explicitly unknown reasons, and it shouldn’t be long songs that make the band afraid of performing it (they close off almost every performance with Beach Life-in-Death nowadays). Perhaps it’s another cost to spit out the words and relive them: your childhood traumas that in hindsight, are nothing yet never go away––even if in the moment, are everything.
Every song off Teens of Denial can be an anthem on its own. This one is more special. It lives in bedrooms and secrets, triggered only when one lets the world seize all of you… so hearing this live gives it an entirely new narrative that I’m graced to be able to hear in clasped recordings tossed in Google Drive rares collections. (Wonder when this one will go down?)
Of Montreal plays a stripped-down version of “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” on AOL
Opening with a pixelated “dl.aol.com” tag is a boxy, low-resolution video. The camera shakes when panning around Kevin Barnes. For ten minutes, every one-liner on Grotesque… is given new light.
You’ve red-rovered the gestapo circling my heart…
When I first listened to of Montreal, I was stunned at how nothing else was quite like it; amazed by sounds before I knew the importance of influences and their influences. Now, Grotesque‘s bassline, synths, and distortions are gone: the experimental, cynical, twisting song takes new life. Every line Kevin coos now stands alone and wholly so.
Dogleg on The Michigan Daily’s Standing Room Only, 2017
Think NPR Tiny Desk, but actually mixed a little terribly and in the full awkwardness of seeing one of the best active midwest emo bands perform in a cramped circle around a mostly-dead newsroom. Alex Stoitsiadis owns: with scattered applause and weird cuts and some light jokes as they pass around water. You wouldn’t expect that Kawasaki Backflip came from this era, or that the live of that single would have the strength it did here tenfold. The only thing that could have made this better was if they played Star 67.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard Live in the KEXP Studio, June 6 2018
It’s no surprise that Polygondwanaland is my favorite KGATLW. From the open source ethos, rolling 10-minute starter Crumbling Castle. I listened to this live over and over in my first semester of college. Performances like these mixed so masterfully rightfully place the prog rock crown on them.
I am born again I see the light it’s in my face I am analyzing information now I am a god
Of their many KEXP appearances, they hop from Polygond’s opener to the end –– clean and smooth. Just as the they have two drummers (to sound louder!) matching one another, the performance is almost hypnotic in its consistency. Stu’s vocals are ridiculously good in the studio — from the wah-wahs to a whoo-ing “1 2 3 4!” as every minor sound (from the tapping, intentional breathes, to split-second pauses) sticks and lands. The tightness is mesmerizing, never claustrophobic as the seven-man has perfected the art of being thunderous: rolling, trembling, forever steady.
PLUS, DESERTED DUNES