Live Review: Tortoise at San Fran, Wellington

Tortoise San Fran Wellington
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Tortoise

w/ fFolks and Hiboux

San Fran, Wellington

Saturday 3 December 2016

 

I arrived at San Fran  just in time for local act Hiboux, who set the mood beautifully for Tortoise. The five piece act played mesmerising rock music that had me moving, and even had a camera crew documenting their set (which didn’t help my confidence when taking photos – my entire camera is only a third of the size of many of the other photographers’ lenses!)  I loved the atmosphere that they created, and bonus points for including saxophone in a few songs.

Hiboux Tortoise San Fran

Hiboux. Bern Stock (L) and Lester Litchfield (R)

Watching roadies set the stage for Tortoise was an interesting affair. They carried item after item onstage and arranged the instruments accordingly. I was excited to see two drum kits facing each other at the front of stage. Funnily enough the kits were different brands (Pearl and Sonar). Does that mean the band has two different endorsements with drum companies? A a large vibrophone sat on the right of stage, and on the other end of the stage sat something that looked like a trigger pad crossed with a piano.Selections of guitars and basses stood in formation along rear, and a number of synths, sequencers and other electronic things sporting dials filled the spaces left.

Tortoise boasted some very talented players. And not only was each muso talented, but they all took turns playing different instruments, like Sufjan Stevens’ band. I wonder what this looks like at band practice when they are writing new material? How do they decide who plays what for each song when they don’t have set defined roles?

Tortoise San Fran Wellington

I think I figured out the answer to this from observing the band play. For the most part, the Santa-looking Doug McCombs ties the songs together with his bass guitar, while Jeff Parker sets the melody on guitar.  This leaves the three other members free to share their time between percussion and synths.

I am a drummer myself, and I loved being able to see two drummers playing off from each other right at the front of the stage, rather than having someone hidden away at the back in the shadows like we usually see. I remember being captivated by Genesis DVDs as a teenager, watching Phil Collins and Chester Thompson become one when both sat down behind their kits. I’ve seen a number of bands use two drummers in the past (Bon Iver, Death Cab For Cutie, Shihad, Incubus and The Roots spring to mind) but never in a revolving sense like Tortoise.

John McEntire is the groove master, sitting in the pocket and playing incredibly tight, uncomplicated beats, using the butt of the sticks on the snare. He takes the throne when the song needs something simple to lock in with McCombs. He also grimaces and looks like he is in pain while he plays. John Herndon, however, doesn’t merely play the drums, he beats them into submission. He is the monster, unleashing his frenetic energy to add busy percussive flavour to the mix. Dan Bitney sits in the middle, complementing everyone as drum duets form. He adds those extra elements that one drummer cannot offer with four limbs alone.

Tortoise San Fran Wellington

Tortoise play exciting music. Exciting because of how interesting and experimental it is. Gone is the verse-chorus-bridge type structure that we are accustomed to. Gone are the vocals. Why have a singer when you can have three drummers and vibes? Songs grew and layered in ways that are unique even within post-rock circles, with subtle frequencies taking turns to flash themselves at us.

It was a marvel to watch interactions between band members. Two drummers would become one, with bass slotting in perfectly. Members would casually move around the stage, playing a game of musical chairs. I would watch how they split their time. Someone would adjust a dial and set the right effects, then add some colour using mallets on the vibes, then shake a tambourine or shakers, and  finish off strumming on a guitar. And that’s all within one song!

Tortoise are stunning. Visually, they put on a brilliant show. Not because of lights and screens – but because of how they arrange the stage and share responsibilities.  And musically, they create sounds that are so unconventional and intriguing that one cannot help but listen with amazement. I caught myself grinning many times throughout the set. Grinning at the sheer… weirdness… talent… brilliance…? I’m not sure what exactly, but I cannot recommend seeing Tortoise highly enough.

All photos and words by Joseph James

Live Review: Keith Ape at San Fran, Wellington

Keith Ape San Fran Wellington
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Keith Ape and Bryan Cha$e (The Cohort)
w/ KVKA, Beach Boy, Jay Knight & FAR TOO KIND.
San Fran, Wellington
Friday November 11 2016

Keith Ape Bryan Chase San Fran Wellington Will Not Fade

I’ll start by admitting a few things. I don’t know the first thing about trap music. I don’t speak Korean. And I hadn’t even heard of Keith Ape before yesterday. But I could tell that this show was going to be a banger, even if it was out of my comfort zone.

I rate Guitar Wolf as one of the best live acts I’ve seen. I don’t understand most of what they’re saying, and I don’t usually listen to that kind of music. But when an artist puts that much energy into a performance, than you can begin to understand how they have managed to build a diehard underground following. I figure Keith Ape must be similar. He manged to sell out this NZ tour, and hasn’t even released an album yet! I guess an album isn’t even required when you’ve already managed to clock up over 30 million views on YouTube…

Keith Ape Bryan Chase San Fran Wellington Will Not Fade

Arriving at San Fran, the place was already packed. A handful of people throughout the crowd wore surgical masks over their faces – one of Ape’s trademarks. The general vibe was jovial, with people dancing and singing along to the songs that the DJ’s were playing. Things started to ramp up when KVKA took to the stage. He worked hard to hype up the crowd, offering free merch to those who went nuts during sections of his set. It made me think of a recent interview with Emanual Psathas (aka Name UL), in which Psathas was discussing how artists from our local scene should be able to  perform just as well as international acts they open for.  I think KVKA proved that point well, providing enough energy and talent to claim the stage as his own.

By the time Keith Ape and Bryan Cha$e came on for their set the place was humming. San Fran is my favourite Wellington venue and I’ve seen plenty of sold out shows here, but none quite on this scale. The sea of bodies was pulsating just in front of the stage, as you would expect. People were dancing and jumping and spilling their drinks as they mashed their sweaty bodies against each other. But what was different is that rather being contained to the front, this was also happening further back near the bar.

Keith Ape Bryan Chase San Fran Wellington Will Not Fade

As well as this, people were also standing on any higher space they could find – atop a shelf along the side of the wall, dancing on the tables at the bar area, one girl was even dancing on the end of the bar itself. I was watching the tables move and sway under the weight of dancing bodies and wondering if they would hold up under the added stress. One goth-looking figure even fell off at one point, but just climbed back up to continue the dancing.

Ape and Cha$e had a good partnership going, tagging off each other as they worked the stage. The crowd was already going before they came on, but their extra input of energy served as a catalyst to set the place ablaze. Many bottles of water were opened and thrown out over the front few rows of the pit just to give people some respite from the heat.

Keith Ape Bryan Chase San Fran Wellington Will Not Fade

Despite having no album to draw material from, Ape’s set lasted long enough. He’s had his share of hits, as well as collaborating with other big name American rappers like Waka Flocka Flame and A$AP Ferg, so it was clear that many people in the crowd were familiar with his material. One track had been written during the tour in Japan just a week earlier, and was received just as well, but the biggest hit of the night was predictably “It G Ma” – the big YouTube hit that Ape can attribute much of his success to.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on trap music. I can’t pretend that I understood much of what Keith Ape was rapping about. But I can testify that he lifted the roof in Wellington last night. There was a lot of hype around this sold-out show, and Keith Ape more than lived up to it and proved to himself that even a self-confessed “outsider” can be successful on an international stage.

 

Joseph James

Live Review: Name UL and Drax Project – Choice(s) Release Show

Name Ul Choices Album Launch San Fran Wellington
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Name UL featuring Drax Project

w/ Eastern Bloc and Maxwell Young

San Francisco Bathhouse, Wellington

Friday 2 September 2016

Name UL and Drax Project San Fran Wellington (2)

Image: Will Not Fade

Name UL (real name Emanuel Psathas) has been making waves in the local hip hop scene for years now, which is all the more impressive considering his young age. He has opened for some of the more notable hip hop acts to arrive on these shores for years now, including the likes of Jurassic 5, Freddie Gibbs, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt. And his work within the scene has paid off, landing him a song writing job in LA to start next year.

Thursday saw the release of Psathas’ first  full length, Choice(s), and Friday saw the album come to life at the San Francisco Bathhouse in Wellington.

Name UL and Drax Project San Fran Wellington (3)

Image: Will Not Fade

This was it: two years of writing and recording finally coming to fruition. Sure, some of the songs were from older EPs, but most of this material was new. Was it going to measure up?

Short answer: yes. Yes, yes, and then some. Psathas actually admitted that he was quite nervous, but he needn’t have worried. Choice(s) debuted at number one one the iTunes NZ hip hop charts, and number seven overall. And it translated just as successfully live.  The audience lapped it all up with vigour – both new and old material. There was no mistaking that the new material hit the spot, judging from how enthusiastically everyone was dancing and grooving along to the music.

Name Ul San Fran Wellington.JPG

Image: Will Not Fade

The set started with Name UL on the mic and DJ Heist Beats on the decks. People were singing along to the familiar songs like “My Side”. It sounded great. And then it got better. Matt Beachen from Drax Project joined in on drums, and then the rest of the Drax crew joined during the following song. The extra live instrumentation really added to the mix. How often do you hear someone ripping it up on a sax at a rap show?

I’ve only seen a few hip hop acts with live bands (The Roots, David Dallas with The Daylight Robbery), but I think that hip hop within a live band context is far superior to having a DJ or laptop providing the beats. With more happening onstage, there is more to watch and take in, as well as the extra layers of music building upon each other.

Name UL and Drax Project San Fran Wellington (7)

Image: Will Not Fade

I saw Immortal Technique – one of my more highly rated rappers -play San Fran years ago and his sound was horrendous. By contrast, last night Name UL was slaying the crowd with the most incredible sound and energy. It was also nice to hear Drax Project back on form under a different setting, after poor sound mixing marred their own otherwise-untouchable album release three months ago. They’re a diverse group of musicians who know how to adapt to different settings- progressing from crowd-drawing buskers to the next big thing, and casually adding hip-hop backing band to their résumé along the way.

I’ve only seen Name UL play support sets to dates. And he did well, but in those situations people had paid to see international headliners, not a kid from Wellington. The reception tonight was exponentially better than the lukewarm reaction I’d seen during those early instances. For this show, people were excited to be there – bouncing around and loving the atmosphere. And fair enough too – the sound was great, the tunes were fresh, and the addition of Drax Project helped to make the show even better.

Name UL and Drax Project San Fran Wellington (8)

Image: Will Not Fade

Two years of writing and recording, finally realised in a live context. I can see why Psathas would have been nervous playing a lot of untested new material. But all that work paid off, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the show was a complete success. Everywhere I looked during the set people were dancing, bouncing, singing and generally enjoying themselves – both on and off stage.

Do yourself a favour and check out Choice(s). And if you get the chance, catch Name UL live. Because if you don’t, the next opportunity may be when he’s selling out shows in LA.

Joseph James


NAME UL – CHOICE(S) OUT NOW  

iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/nz/album/choice-s/id1148581235?at=10lrHH&app=itunes

Apple Music – https://itunes.apple.com/nz/album/choice-s/id1148581235?ls=1

Deezer – http://www.deezer.com/album/13916774

Google Play – https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Name_UL_Choice_s?id=Bjfxqeus6hxt2rm6efrhjwxcqdi

Spotify – https://open.spotify.com/album/3C0O00SagxGcr4KFnCCuvj

Live Review: Drax Project at San Fran, Wellington

drax project ep release tour
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Drax Project

San Fran, Wellington

Friday 20 May 2016

Drax Project (the word drax being made by combining the words drums and sax) is the latest up-and-coming band from Wellington. They formed when some students from the School of Music began busking and playing covers in town on busy nights to earn a bit of coin. After gaining some attention they started playing the pub circuit and writing their own material. In 2014 they  dropped their debut EP, and armed with some new original material, started making more waves.

This rise from a busking covers act to bonafide band has culminated with them signing to Universal to release second EP, T/W/OO.  They have a hybrid sound drawing from many other genres to create smooth soulful pop tunes.

This gig at San Fran was indicative of their seemingly sudden rise in fame. In some ways it was fairly professional – this was the only time I’d ever seen a curtain used to cover the stage between sets at this venue, and they had images projected on the back of stage throughout the night – but fell short telling in other ways – namely the sound levels. This is not a reflection on the band, but rather people manning the sound desk.

Volume and sound mixing is hard to get right. I am not advocating for having it excessively loud (like at the Mogwai gig last year), and I always wear special earplugs at shows.  But the band needs to be loud enough to hear clearly. And I can understand that it isn’t always easy to perfect. I’ve seen Rise Against – one of my favourite bands – play four times at different venues, and their mix has been fairly bad every time.

The first set was surprisingly different. It’s not often that I’ll see a band that uses either cajon (a percussive box that the drummer sits on and slaps) or upright bass, let alone both. The four musos sat aligned at the front of stage, treating the crowd to a set of unplugged numbers. The distinctive pitter-patter of the drumsticks on the cajon, the rhythmic strumming of the two guitars, and the deep regular hum of the bass was crowned by the gorgeous vocal harmonies.  It’s just a shame that I could barely hear all of these elements together at any given time, seeing as everyone in the bar was having a conversation.

The second set fared better, possibly because the electric instruments were amplified more, meaning that we could hear more elements of the band. I’ll give them this – they can play! I guess that’s what you should expect from music students, but they really were impressive. I liked that the drums had trigger pads to bring in new sounds. But the best parts were when singer Shaan Singh ripped loose on saxophone between verses. The solo material was well received, obviously familiar to the audience, despite being so new. The audience sang along to the popular songs, prompting Singh to say “wow, you guys are louder than us!” The band also played plenty of covers to extend the set time, drawing from their wealth of experience playing these covers hundreds of times together back in their busking days. Two big hits that went down especially well were reimagined versions of Ginuwine’s “Pony”, and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”.

They have the talent, they have the songs, they have the popularity, and they have a big label backing them. This was a sold out show, and if they get their sound mixing sorted out I expect that they’ll sell out many more to come.

 

Joseph James

Live Review: Strung Out playing Exile in Oblivion

strungout pears nz tour
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Strung Out playing Exile in Oblivion plus hits

w/ Night Gaunts and PEARS

San Fran, Wellington

Friday 1 April 2016

Strung Out San Fran Wellington (1)

Strung Out. Jake Kiley (L), Jason Cruz (R)

Albany act Night Gaunts started the night off with their upbeat high-pitched ska. They bounced around and got the small crowd grooving along to dub styled offbeat strumming, complemented by saxophone. I’m not sure why I was surprised, but they were far more polished than I expected. Their chirpy happy-go-lucky sound didn’t quite match the tone on the other two bands of the night, but they played well nonetheless.

PEARS have been through a lot on this tour, so we were lucky to even have them. Their bassist had dropped out of the tour mere days before the tour, leaving them scrambling to find players to fill in. Hayden from Night Gaunts obliged for most of their set, with super-smiley Strung Out  bassist Chris Aiken taking over for the last few songs.

Vocalist Zach Quinn had recently bust his fist PUNCHING THE STAGE on the Australian leg of the tour, resulting in pricey hospital bills and leaving him in a wrist brace/cast that you can see in the picture below. I recently broke a few bones in my wrist and I can tell you straight away that there is no way I would have been attempting half the stuff Quinn was doing on stage. He threw himself about with abandon, like violent interpretive dance. He jumped down into the audience and walked around – you know, just because – before climbing back onstage and writhing around on the floor.

PEARS San Fran (8)

PEARS vocalist Zach Quinn, with Jarrett Nathan behind him on drums.

When bands have members like this it always makes for a captivating show. It was so unpredictable. I don’t think the band members themselves even know quite what to expect.Guitarist Brian Pretus played front man, and rather than just rattling off obligatory nonsense to fill time between songs, he actually was worth paying attention to. He told stories, cracked jokes, and had the crowd chanting.

The date actually coincided with the release of the second PEARS album, Green Star, which meant that the band were in good spirits. I guess that this, combined with the show being the last of the tour, meant that the band really wanted to give their all. This was great to watch, with the performance being super high energy and frantic. As chaotic and wild as it seemed, there was still evidence of talent beneath the whirlwind. Quinn and Pretus shared some great vocal harmonies when they weren’t launching about the stage. Pretus displayed great abilities and drummer Jarrett Nathan kept them on their toes with his lightning beats. It looked like loads of punters were already loyal fans of the band and there were singalongs aplenty, especially when PEARS covered The Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk”.

Strung Out San Fran Wellington (3)

Jake Kiley (L), Chris Aiken (R)

As always, when bands play an entire album you know what to expect [examples: Nas performing Illmatic, Jimmy Eat World playing Futures], but also hope to hear handful of hits from other albums as well. Strung Out have been playing a selection of their albums start to finish over this Australasian tour. Last night was Twisted by Design in Auckland, and tonight they played Exile in Oblivion.

After a sound check the band kept us in suspense by playing a handful of old jazz numbers through the public address system, knowing that we were expecting one such song to be the intro to”Analog”, to first track of Exile. When said track finally played everyone cheered, knowing that this signaled the start of a brilliant set to complete an already-great night.

They’re tight, and play rippingly fast. And you can tell that they’re on top of their game. Exile came out 11 years ago, and they were able to play it through without a hitch. And on top of that, they’ve been playing many of their other albums in their entirety at other stops on their tour, showing that they are exceptionally rehearsed. They ripped through Exile, and followed up with half a dozen tracks from the rest of their catalogue.

Sweat dripped and the audience swarmed as fans rocked out and sang along to favourite tunes from one of their most beloved bands. Strung Out reciprocated, clearly appreciative that their fans enable them to play music for a living. Singer Jason Cruz told about how the band got a bit tired and jaded when they were first touring Exile on Warped Tour in 2005, until a crew member had told them to suck it up and take a reality check. This made an impact on them, and it is clear that they make the most of their opportunities and give back to the fans who support them to get where they are now.

This was the last night of the tour, and you could tell the PEARS and Strung Out had built a special camaraderie over the course of their time together. Throughout both sets, band members and crew from side of stage would throw bananas and potato chips at the band playing. During the last song – a cover of “Soulmate” by late No Use For a Name singer Tony Sly – members of PEARS and the crew started stealing away pieces of the drum kit one by one, making drummer Jordan Burns work extra hard as he tried to improvise with less equipment at his disposal. Somehow, by the end of the song the drum kit was scattered around the stage, with Strung Out singer Cruz stuck underneath a pile of the drums.

Strung Out San Fran Wellington (2)

Chris Aiken on bass


Although  we have had punk bands like GBH and The Buzzcocks come recently, it is a rare treat to have more modern international punk acts make their way to Wellington. Thanks to Chicks That Scream for organising shows like these. For me personally, gigs like this one are often key highlights of my year.

Special mention to Jordan Burns’ mother, who passed away three years ago. This show was dedicated to her.

Joseph James

Live review with gallery: Jakob at San Fran, Wellington

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Jakob Wellington Auckland 2016.jpg

Jakob

w/ Titan

San Francisco Bathhouse, Wellington

Saturday 12 March 2016

Napier trio Jakob are never anything short of superb, and last night was no exception. I’ve seen them play roughly half a dozen times now, and mostly at this same venue. To be honest, other than the support acts, these shows are rarely any different. But it’s hard to improve a show when it is already so close to perfection.

Guitarist Jeff Boyle hypnotises us as he rocks back and forward, strumming and picking and rolling the volume knob to create swirling waves of sound. The venue vibrates and rib cages rattle as hairy behemoth Maurice Beckett plucks at his bass strings. Drummer Jason Johnston ties in with the throbbing bass lines by smashing tribal rhythms out his kit. He hits with power and control, economic with his movements. Lights bathe the trio in various colours as they cast an enchantment with their musical spells.

Go pros and cameras were on stage filming the entire set, and the merch guy told me that they are expecting new shirt designs in the next few weeks, so I wonder if there will be an exciting announcement to follow?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Jakob are one of the best in the world – essential viewing every single time. I saw them last time they came, co-headlining with Beastwars. I saw them the time before that, touring their new album Sines. I’ve seen them play around half a dozen times now, many times headlining, and other times supporting acts like Tool, Russian Circles and Butterfly Effect. And when the standard of the talent is so high, I don’t see why I would ever stop attending Jakob shows when they come to town.

Joseph James