Depeche Mode: Tour of the Universe 20/21.11.09

RIYL: motherfucking Depeche Mode

On Pack Up the Plantation, the 1985 live album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the band slowly eases its way into “Breakdown.” Petty sings the first line “It’s all right if you love me” just above a whisper, at which point the crowd takes over, singing all the way through the first chorus and even splitting vocal duties between the lead vocal and the “Breakdoooooooown!” backing vocals. It’s exhilarating to listen to, because you can feel the rush the audience felt by getting the chance to be the star. After a few beats, Petty humbly tells the crowd, “You’re gonna put me out of a job.”

Which brings us to today’s lesson. Letting the audience sing part of one song is one thing; forcing them to sing multiple songs is another.

It made sense that Depeche Mode would want to document their 2009 world tour. They were playing to gigantic crowds, and they hadn’t released a live album since 1993′s Songs of Faith and Devotion Live. With four albums of new material to showcase – though they chose to only play songs from three, skipping 2001′s Exciter entirely – it was time to run the tape recorders once again. Tour of the Universe 20/21.11.09 documents two shows the band played before what looks like the entire population of Barcelona, and you can see why the crowds were so excited. Despite front-loading the set with what feels like half of the band’s most recent album, Sounds of the Universe, Depeche pulled out some gems for this tour, including a whopping four songs from fan favorite Black Celebration. They also had a live drummer and principal songwriter Martin Gore playing guitar almost exclusively during the shows. What’s not to love?

Dave Gahan, that’s what. He’s too busy playing rock star to actually sing the damn songs. Gahan leaves it to the audience to sing far too much – and sometimes makes them sing the chorus twice in the same song – and low-range vocal melodies, even when sung by tens of thousands, cannot stand up to the sound the band is putting out. When the band launches into “A Question of Time,” the crowd is reaching a fever pitch, so when Gahan has them sing the chorus the first time, they’re only happy to oblige. When he forces them to do it a second time, the response is nowhere near as enthusiastic, and you can actually hear the crowd deflating. If you have cameras rolling, and they just captured you killing the crowd’s buzz while you fed your ego, would you really test the crowd’s patience again?

Sadly, the answer is yes…twice. Gahan does it again on “Policy of Truth” and – this is the unforgivable one – “Enjoy the Silence,” the band’s biggest hit. The arrangement of the song is spectacular, with the band launching into a fantastic breakdown, but Gahan will not sing the chorus. Now, this is one thing to watch in person – which we did, because he did the exact same thing when the band played Lollapalooza last year – but it’s another altogether to watch on a DVD, where you’ll be reaching for the Fast Forward button even on your favorite songs. It’s even worse onthe CD, where it just sounds like a karaoke track and the singer is too drunk to read the lyrics on the Teleprompter. If there is one show where Dave should have sucked it up and sung the damn songs, this is the one.

Then there is the matter of their drummer Christian Eigner. His playing is fine, but his snare drum is positively flat, as if the band is too afraid to sound like the rock band they’re pretending to be. They would have been better off giving the bottom end the thump that a live setting demands. As it is, the drum tracks from Music for the Masses – a 23-year-old album – sound harder than what Eigner plays here. The direction of the show is spotty, too, spending far too much time out of focus or, worse, focused on the fans recording the show on their phones (worst, trend, ever).

This was a golden opportunity to showcase Depeche Mode’s staying power and their status as godfathers of electronic music, but Tour of the Universe, despite a great set list and solid performances (when Gahan deigns to sing, anyway), does not cut it. It’s one of those things where you simply had to be there to get the full effect of the experience. If Dave had sung all of the damn songs, this set would be essential. As it is, it’s diehards-only material.(Capitol 2010)

Depeche Mode MySpace page
Click to buy Tour of the Universe from Amazon

The Pixies: Live, Acoustic and Electric

RIYL: Nirvana, The Replacements, Jesus & Mary Chain

Here’s a nifty Blu-ray two-fer for the indie rock purist in your life. “Acoustic” and “Electric” were released individually in 2006, but are smartly paired together here, along with some footage of one of the Pixies’ first gigs at the legendary TT the Bear’s.

The acoustic show, recorded in 2005 at the Newport Folk Festival, was certainly a unique affair for both the festival and the band; the band had never done a full acoustic show before, and the festival organizers never had an artist that could claim to have influenced Nirvana, but there they were, plugging through a well-balanced set of alt rock hits (“Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Here Comes Your Man”) and large chunks of their debut album Surfer Rosa and their 1989 breakthrough Doolittle. It’s cute, though forcing guitarist Joey Santiago to play an entire set without an electric guitar is a crime against nature, something that the “Electric” set rectifies. Recorded at the tiny Paradise rock club in Boston only a few days after the Newport gig (Frank Black and Kim Deal are even wearing the same shirts), “Electric” is the Pixies as they are meant to be heard. Black even goes off the set list at the beginning and begs drummer David Lovering to do “La La Love You” because his mom’s in the audience. The band scarcely lets up from there, and Santiago gets his ya-ya’s out on a blistering version of “Vamos” where he plays his effects pedals like a synthesizer.

There isn’t much in the way of on-stage banter – after the first couple songs, they just tend to play and play – and for some reason they had no use for “Dig for Fire,” one of their best-known songs – but they get credit for mixing up the set lists and covering 37 different songs between the two shows. And with the holidays fast approaching, this is the kind of thing that someone is probably reluctant to buy, but would love to get. (Eagle Vision 2010)

The Pixies MySpace page
Click to buy Acoustic and Electric from Amazon

The Airborne Toxic Event: All I Ever Wanted: Live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall

Note: This is a review of the 90-minute documentary film only. At press time, we did not have access to the CD or the DVD of the entire show. Though we hope to, soon.

It’s still baffling to us that Pitchfork would go so far out of their way to bash a band like the Airborne Toxic Event – they gave the band’s eponymous debut album, which we loved, a scathing 1.6 on their 10-point scale – and after watching “All I Ever Wanted: Live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” the insult seems twice as offensive. They seem like geniunely good, extremely gracious people, and the way they got the community involved in their landmark show was deeply touching. A local high school band plays on “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” and a raucous cover of the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio?,” while a school girl’s choir jumps in for a rousing, kitchen-sink version of “Missy.” The band sounds great – the high school band misses a few notes, but hey, they’re kids – and they look like they’re having the time of their lives both performing and recording this show.

If there is one problem with the movie, it’s that it goes for long stretches without any music, and when they do include music, they opt for a cover version (the Ramones, Magnetic Fields, Q Lazzarus) as often as they show them playing one of their own songs. The covers are cute, but the movie could have used more original material. The set includes a separate DVD of the entire show, of course, but if we’re having our music documented for all eternity, we’re going to make sure the majority of the footage consists of original material, not someone else’s. But then again, that’s a very Mikel Jollett thing to do, favoring someone else’s songs over his own. (Island 2010)

Airborne Toxic Event MySpace page
Click to buy All I Ever Wanted from Amazon

A Tale Of Two Singers: Creed vs. Alter Bridge

Creed: Live (DC3 Global)
RIYL: The sound of dogs being murdered underwater, Nickelback

Alter Bridge Live In Amsterdam (DC3 Global)
RIYL: Seether, 3 Doors Down, Daughtry

Remember Creed? Yeah, me too. In fact I’m still in the support group. Their reunion tour was the first in an unholy trinity of ’90s reunion announcements (the other two being Blink-182 and Limp Bizkit), and this live DVD captures the band’s Second Coming in all its horror. It’s been a few years, but Creed still sounds like Creed, a plodding combination of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and every mid-’90s Christian rock band you never heard. However, the downtime has not been kind to singer Scott Stapp; he can’t hit the notes like he used to, and is frequently flat and out of tune. However, Stapp never sounded all that great to begin with, so you might not notice. What you will notice is that he looks horrible. Easily 20-30 pounds heavier, and before the end of the third song, the man is just drenched in sweat. He doesn’t look fat (hell, he’s thinner than I am, so I’m not one to talk), but he looks unhealthy as hell, as if he needs a tank of oxygen and an adrenaline shot at any minute or he’ll keel over the second he stops his guttural whaling. Behind him the rest of the band just seems like they’re going through the motions, dealing with a frontman they’ve long tired of. Stapp’s lack of endurance means that he takes frequent breaks between songs to talk to the audience and at one point proclaims that “You can change your legacy and destiny, man.” And that may be true, but this DVD sure as hell won’t do it. Hell, even if you liked Creed back in “the day” (the day being the late-’90s/early-’00s) you won’t want to hear/see this incarnation of them. This is a horrible excuse for a concert video and is even below the low standards that Creed fans undoubtedly have.

When Creed got back together, the future of Alter Bridge, the band made up of everyone from Creed except Stapp (with Myles Kennedy replacing him), was immediately called into question. However, they let everyone know right away that they weren’t going anywhere no matter how successful the Creed reunion turned out to be, and after watching their “Live in Amsterdam” DVD, it’s easy to see why. They actually like being in this band. Say what you will about Alter Bridge – they certainly aren’t original and at their best they’re just slightly above average, but their brand of classic rock redux is light years above anything Creed ever put out. And the band seems to know it, as they happily strut around stage, play to the crowd and just seem to have a good time. One can assume that Kennedy is to thank for this; he is a great front man with boundless energy and enthusiasm and he even seems to like his bandmates. And while the songs he’s singing may not always be great, he can sure as hell sing. So, Alter Bridge is a great live band, but their songs are not – and that’s a bit of a bummer. Still, if you like Alter Bridge this is a must-buy, as it showcases a band at the top of its game, happy to perform and happy to be with a lead singer who isn’t a pompous, bloated has-been who’s more suited to front a Meatloaf tribute act.

Nine Inch Nails: Another Version of the Truth

RIYL: Ministry, Gary Numan, free stuff you can watch on YouTube

If you want some good weed and some killer tie-dye shirts, you talk to Grateful Dead fans, but if you want state of the art A/V work (and maybe some anti-depressants), you go to Nine Inch Nails fans. Last year Trent Reznor let over 400 GB of HD footage from his Lights in the Sky tour “leak” onto torrent sites, apparently after he was unable to release an official DVD with the footage. Over the past year, various NIN fans around the world have been working on the footage, editing, color-correcting and even subtitling it for an “unofficial” release over the internet. That release, dubbed “Another Version of the Truth” finally made its way online, and it was definitely worth the wait.

The Lights in the Sky tour was Nine Inch Nails’ most ambitious yet, a choreographed spectacle that lived up to its name, thanks to multiple LED screens and some of the brightest flood lights you’ll ever be blinded by. Matching the brilliant visuals was the one of Nine Inch Nails most varied set lists to date, incorporating everything from Pretty Hate Machine to The Slip, even including a surprising amount of material from the instrumental Ghosts I-IV. It was a great show – you had to be there. But if you weren’t, this DVD comes damn close to recreating the experience. The footage is edited together great, the cuts are fast when they need to be, but more often than not the edits are lax, letting us take in the performance without added distractions. Which is good, because Trent and company were on fire for this tour. For both the quiet numbers, like the material from Ghosts, or for loud boisterous explosions of noise like “Wish,” the group is tighter than ever, and their performance are made all the more impressive by the revolutionary A/V spectacle that surrounds them (literally, they had a lot of LCD screens out there). Highlights of this include “Closer,” where Trent sings directly into a camera that projects his face across the screen behind them, distorted by the soundwaves of the music, and “The Warning,” where bright displays turn the band into silhouettes.

“Another Version of the Truth” is available online for free here in a multitude of formats, including one that you can burn to a Dual Layer DVD. A Blu-Ray is apparently coming soon. No matter what format you choose however, this is a must-own for NIN fans, and the price sure as hell is right.

Medeski, Martin and Wood: Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set

RIYL: Fusion jazz, jambands, Bernie Worrell, Galactic

If you are sick of the state of the music business, if you need some new music that sounds truly new, if FM radio bores you to tears and even the blog-rock CDs showing up on every music site’s “best of” list lets you down because it all sounds like half-practiced, overproduced slacker junk played by snotty people you wouldn’t invite to parties at your place…please go and buy this box set. The culmination of the two-year Radiolarians project, The Evolutionary Set is the career pinnacle of MMW, jazz-rocking experimentalists who are neither jazz nor rock, but “avant-groove.” Kind of an thinking-fan’s instrumental Phish, this trio started with an idea in 2007: Write some proto-jams, briefly rehearse them, take them on tour, develop them live, and then record the finished project. It spawned three ridiculously tight, sometimes funky, sometimes rockin’, sometimes ambient-noodling numbers that sound like nothing you’ve heard. It doesn’t hurt that these guys not only have played together almost two decades, but that they’re exceptional players. The box set includes the three Radiolarians albums, a double-vinyl set, a DVD documentary, a remixes disc, and a live album. It’s intelligent jazz, it’s primitive rock. It’s funky stuff. It’s an updated 2009 version of the strangely beautiful Miles Davis period that included the records On The Corner and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. It’s everything indie music’s all about, and while the major labels and commercial radio won’t touch this stuff, you should. (Indirecto Records, 2009)

Medeski Martin and Wood MySpace page

Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream of Trains In New York

RIYL: Syd Barrett, Bonzo Dog band, XTC

Always the eccentric, predictable only in his unpredictability, Robyn Hitchcock has never been an easy character to decipher, frequently defying easy accessibility and offering only rare opportunity to peer below his songs’ psychedelic sheen and to meditate on his melodies. Consequently, the concert film “I Often Dream of Trains In New York”, is a rare treasure in that it gives a more intimate view of the man and his muse via a thorough track-by-track replay of an early album many consider his signature achievement.

Hitchcock’s no stranger to cinema, of course. Last year’s documentary “Sex, Food, Death… and Insects” offered a surprisingly candid potrait of the artist in creative mode, a follow-up of sorts to the musical portrait captured in Jonathan Demme’s critically lauded “Storefront Hitchcock.” Hitchcock had a cinematic reunion with Demme more recently in fact, when he was given opportunity to perform a pair of songs in Demme’s current film, “Rachel Getting Married,” following up his acting debut as one of the protagonists in Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Regardless, it’s Hitchcock’s allure as an artist with a curious magnetism and slightly off-kilter wit and regimen that enthralls his followers, and if “I Often Dream of Trains in New York” seems to strip away that elusive veneer, it doesn’t detract from his charm or appeal. Performing in a stripped-down acoustic setting and backed by multi-instrumentalist Terry Edwards and guitarist Tim Keegan, he revels in the sentiment, sarcasm and wry irony parlayed by such numbers as “Up to Our Nex,” “I Often Dream of Trains,” “America” and “I Used to Say I Love You,” songs that take on an idyllic, folk-like serenity in this live setting. Even so, the a cappella “Uncorrected Personality Traits” brings to mind the bizarre, unabashed silliness of the Bonzo Dog Band, while a cassette recording of “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl” serves as ample reminder of Hitchcock’s penchant for bizarre lyrical twists. It’s fitting then that the tracks are interspersed with Hitchcock’s own commentary on the origins of these songs, relayed, appropriately, from a seat on a train. Likewise, a bonus feature, “Beyond Basingstoke” offers further illumination and enlightenment.

A must-see for all Hitchcock aficionados, “I Often Dream of Trains in New York” is also an ideal passage for the uninitiated. (Yep Roc 2009)

Robyn Hitchcock website

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense

One of the best concert films of all time gets its hi-def due with this lovingly curated reissue “Stop Making Sense.” Directed by Jonathan Demme, “Sense” captures the Talking Heads at their squirrelly best, spasmodically jumping between new wave, funk, and arty Afro-pop with a crack band of ace sidemen that included Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir, and Lynn Mabry. The Talking Heads found their footing slowly, evolving from willfully experimental Rhode Island hipsters to a merry band of world music vagabonds, and Demme frames their journey with a stage setup that opens slowly; for the opening number, “Psycho Killer,” David Byrne comes out with nothing but his guitar and a boombox. He’s joined by bassist Tina Weymouth on the next number, they’re joined by Chris Frantz next, Jerry Harrison follows Frantz, and so on and so forth, until the whole entourage is under the lights, making the most joyously paranoid racket of the ‘80s.

The Blu-ray transfer doesn’t scrub every last scratch or speck of dust from the frame, but knowing the Talking Heads, that may very well have been intentional; in any case, it makes for fine viewing at 1080p, despite periodic minor problems with the picture, and the sound – presented here in a pair of DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes that let the viewer choose between the equivalent of audience and soundboard recordings – more than makes up for any visual flaws. The special features include audio commentary from the band and director (everyone’s tracks separately recorded, natch), along with other bonus content ported over from the DVD version (bonus tracks, storyboards, a few minutes of Byrne interviewing himself), plus Blu-ray exclusive footage of the 1999 press conference that reunited the band for “Stop Making Sense’s” 15th anniversary screening. There’s a short list of concert films whose contents justify a $34.99 list price, regardless of format. This is one of them. (UMVD)

Click here to buy “Stop Making Sense”

New Paul McCartney live CD/DVD on the way

Decades removed from their break up, the Beatles are possibly busier than they’ve ever been. Almost every day, an interesting bit of news surfaces with connection to the band. Earlier this week, Lucy Vodden, the underlying inspiration for “Lucky in the Sky with Diamonds,” passed away. Four days ago, an essay written by Paul McCartney when he was 10 about the Queen was unearthed. Of course, this news pales in comparison to The Beatles: Rock Band and the remasters of their entire catalog, which were released on September 9th. It looks like Beatlemania will never end and I couldn’t be happier.

On November 23rd, Paul McCartney will release a 2CD/1DVD package of his performances from earlier this year at New York’s Citi Field. Good Evening New York will highlight each night’s 33-song set filmed with 15 high-definition cameras.

A deluxe edition will feature an additional DVD featuring McCartney’s performance at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The live album will also be issued on vinyl.

The gigs, at which McCartney played songs by The Beatles and Wings, as well as selections from his solo back catalogue, took place on July 17, 18 and 21.

They were significant for McCartney as The Beatles played the venue in 1965 when it was known as Shea Stadium.

This will be McCartney’s second release on Hear Music, which is owned by Starbucks Corporation.

The Black Crowes: Warpaint Live (DVD)

RIYL: The Allman Brothers Band, Widespread Panic, The Rolling Stones

The Black Crowes hit the road in the spring of 2008 for a mini-tour that featured a nightly first set of the just-released Warpaint album being played in its entirety. This show from the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles captures the band on a hot night. Vocalist Chris Robinson has got his mojo working while then-new members Luther Dickinson (lead guitar) and Adam MacDougall are fitting right in.

Warpaint was the band’s first new studio album in eight years and the band is clearly energized. General consensus has it that the band’s new 2009 album, Before the Frost… Until the Freeze, has already surpassed Warpaint with an even stronger batch of tunes, but as drummer Steve Gorman has noted in a recent interview at, Warpaint was pivotal for the band in helping them regain their musical “compass.”

Tunes like “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” and “Evergreen” benefit from Dickinson’s charged leads and backing harmonies from Charity White and Mona Lisa Young. Guitarist Rich Robinson and drummer Gorman form the band’s backbone, laying down a Stones-meets-Zep vibe on “Wee Who See the Deep.” Solos by Dickinson and MacDougall surpass the studio performance to demonstrate why the Black Crowes have always been more about the live shows, though they generally turn out stronger and more cohesive albums than most jam bands. Dickinson moves to mandolin for the poignant “Locust Street,” with Chris Robinson pouring on the soul. As with the album, the highlight of the set is “Movin’ on Down the Line,” the first song written for the album, an uplifting psychedelic rock tour de force.

The second set is only six songs, but features stellar covers of Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett’s “Poor Elijah,” the Bramlett/Clapton gem “Don’t Know Why,” and the Stones’ “Torn and Frayed,” a tune tailor made for the Robinson Brothers harmony vocals. There’s also an extended work out on “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye.” This short but sweet second set is what elevates the DVD from three to four stars, as the band really digs in deep. (Eagle Rock Entertainment 2009)

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