Wednesday, May 23, 2007

After the Gold Rush

So, to be perfectly honest, I’m pretty disappointed David Bowie didn’t play with Arcade Fire at Radio City Music Hall as had been heavily rumored in the weeks leading up the first annual High Line Music Festival. Not because I needed to see David Bowie (I saw him a few years back and his live show is as outdated as a pair of old bell bottoms) or because Arcade Fire needed a sit-in to save its show (frankly there were so many people onstage, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed he was up there), but because I haven’t called a David Bowie set-closer since Phish played Hampton in 2004. And, once you’re caught in the fast moving current of underground music, three years can feel like a lifetime.

Above: Win Butler, the Exeter Days

That being said, after a few days of not so silent deliberation, I’m proud to move Arcade Fire’s recent string of New York shows into the mini-pantheon that houses my ten favorite live performances (peace out “Piper” from Oswego ’99, you’ve been downgraded to number 11). It feels like hyperbole, but, in all honestly, like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Radiohead before them, without much pomp and circumstance, Arcade Fire has changed the essence of what the live performance can and should be all about. If a Grateful Dead/Phish show is all about space and a Radiohead performance is all about atmosphere, then an Arcade Fire concert is most certainly all about intensity: the barrage of onstage musicians, the pulsating drum beats, the death-laced lyrics and, especially, the giant, Springsteen-like grandeur of guitarist/frontman Win Butler.

But, unlike the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Radiohead, I still vividly remember a time before Arcade Fire existed and I’m still struggling to figure out how a band can alter the pulse of popular music in less time than it took George W. Bush to screw up his first presidential term. Arcade Fire entered my world less than two years into their existence, in 2004, when my friend Dan saw them in at Arlene’s Grocery (a tiny club whose capacity is only 90 people larger than the group’s roster), and I checked them out for myself about a year later. I liked them enough, especially their cover of the Springsteen rarity “Jersey Girls,” but always figured their hype would eventually outweigh their music. But, in the intervening eighteen months, something incredible happened: Arcade Fire disappeared, created a dark, haunting second album and blossomed from a band you “should check out’ to a band you “needed to see”…multi-times…in a row…in different cities…on the same tour…after careful studying annotated fan-sites like Bono began playing their Funeral album before his concerts, Trey Anastasio was spotted side-stage at Central Park and, on near consecutive visits, Arcade Fire brought out the New York art community’s two most important Davids (Bowie and Byrne). They underplayed their biggest markets, hid from the media, while allowing A-list celebrities to sell their brand, and, on both Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I found myself dancing--- err sweating--- through enough shirts at their shows to drive my dry cleaning bill into the triple digits. The music felt good, the energy felt big and the band/audience interaction felt intimate. In a lot of ways, it felt like a Phish show, only with less glowsticks and more hair gel.

Which begs the questions: who is Win Butler, why did Trey pass him his torch, and how the hell do I get in touch with him so I can forward my dry cleaning bills?

And, after some stealth research, this is what I found: Long before he saved indie-rock, or even forged a French-Canadian accent, Win Butler, or Edwin Farnham Butler III as he was known in his prep-school days, attended New Hampshire’s Phillip Exeter Academy with one of my closest childhood friends. He grew up in Texas, not Montreal, where his father worked for Halliburton, and used his mammoth size to score a spot on the varsity basketball team (thus making Butler the coolest thing to not come out of Canada since Levon Helm). According to my friend’s yearbook, he sat at the cool-kids’ table and helped establish an Exeter tradition called Winter Thaw (think A Separate Peace set during Spring Break). From an early age he had both impeccable taste in music (his yearbook cites both Bono and Morrissey) and an excellent command of the English language (an early poem reads: “let me hold you silent dream, before his place wipes me clean”). He played a variety of dorm room jam sessions with Arcade Fire co-founder Josh Deu and Arcade Fire’s current keyboardist, his brother Will. The group’s name is taken from a fire which took place at the local Exeter video arcade or, as my friend describes it, the biggest thing to happen in Andover, NH, since the College Board released its official guide to the SAT. Clearly, Win Butler had something special from the beginning, a charm, a charisma, though one wonders if he’d have the same level of success if he stuck with his original prep-school jamband, Willy Wanker and the Chocolate Factories.

As the story goes, after spending a year studying poetry and art at Sarah Lawrence College, Win Butler dropped out of school and began slinging wooden clogs in Boston (heady). Soon after, he joined Deu at MontrĂ©al’s McGill University, met his future wife, a Haitian-born singer named RĂ©gine, and changed the face of popular music while I was still figuring out how to change my own sheets (ah freshman year). His story reminds me of another former prep-school hippie, or hip school preppie, who graduated from Taft in the early-1980s and spent the rest of that decade working his way through the northeast’s maze of clubs and keg parties. Like Butler, his family came from a decidedly square background (lest we forget Ernest Anastasio II helped write the SAT) and, I suspect, much like Butler, Ernest “Trey” Anastasio III had at a young age, a charm, a charisma, which allowed him to do something different, something special.

I’ll admit it: I didn’t find Phish during the “Nectar’s-era,” “the Big Ball-era” or even the “Clifford Ball-era,” but, instead, during the high-school yearbook era, which roughly stretched from the release of Billy Breathes until the start of Phish’s first hiatus (was there ever a song more custom designed for yearbook pages than “Chalk Dust Torture.?”) Now, my high-school alma mater is known for many things: the place Barbara Bush spent her pre-teen years, an average SAT score which is easily divisible by the number 1400 and an alumni board filled with names that end in suffixes like Esq., MD and III. But, the one thing my prep-school isn’t exactly known for is its command of the jamband alphabet (indeed, our jam-rock education seemed to stop at the letter d with the discovery of Dispatch and Dave Matthews). The first person in my prep-school class to find the Vermont Quartet, as far as I can remember, was a girl named Sarah, who, in retrospect, probably found Phish through her slightly older brother. She’d talk about the mid-1990s Phish shows I missed (Big Birch ’94, Great Woods ’95) and I wasn’t surprised when I saw her in the hallway the first time I caught Phish at Madison Square Garden. We both kind of looked at each other from a distance and grinned, as if to say ‘what are you doing here.’ Some questions don’t need to be answered.

After graduation, I attended a heady college, stored the Pharmer’s Almanac under my pillow and gradually found the other bands now stuffed together in the favorites section of my MySpace page. I remember bumping into Sarah the summer after our freshman year of college at an early Berkfest, right before moe.’s main stage set. I wanted to tell her about all the new bands I’d found in the intervening year, how Phish led me to moe. and moe. led to String Cheese and String Cheese led to me to the Berkshires, but, instead, we both kind smiled with that familiar grin. Around the same time I also heard her older brother overdosed near the end of his senior year of college---the first person I lost on the long journey from high-school to Coventry. I saw Sarah a few times on Phish’s final tour in 2004 and then again at a Flaming Lips show at Webster Hall, but, as I began to see more and more music, I began to see her less and less.

In retrospect, it feels pretty silly to equate the act of discovering new music to adventurers flocking west for the first time. But, like those settlers, after a band’s time has come and gone…after the hype…after the gold rush, all that’s left is some good music and a hopeful search for the next big thing (and, of course, a web of poorly updated fan-sites).

It’s eerily fitting that as one of my high-school peers ascends to international fame, my high-school hero finds himself court-ordered to live in my college town, to eat at my college coffee shop (“large, no sugar”), shop at my college record shop (“new vinyl player”) and not? drink at my college bar (sorry DAs). After Coventry, my friend and colleague Jesse equated the end of Phish to the proposed final chapter of the Superman saga, when, instead of being gunned down in a Sopranos-style shooting, Clark Kent met his final fate by simply become human. And, if the simple thought of Trey Anastasio wandering through my old college town isn’t enough anymore to make me quit my job at Relix, grow out my latent Jew fro and signup for another four years at Skidmore, it’s certainly enough to remind me that at the end of day, rock-stars are nothing more than normal, talented people with something special.

I guess part of me wishes I saw Arcade Fire at Arlene’s Grocery that night in 2004, before David Bowie sat-in and the gold rush really set-in. But, at the same time, I wonder if that experience would have changed the memory I have of hearing my favorite Arcade Fire song, “Haiti,” for the first time, if that nugget of music would have felt as fresh and original. I tried to remember the first time I heard Arcade Fire at Radio City last week, but I couldn’t focus on my memories. The music felt too good, and the only thing I could think about was how expensive their dry cleaning bill must be each night (I guess you need a Halliburton inheritance to clean ten outfits each night).

Like a not as deep as it sounds scene from Garden State, as I left the show, I saw Sarah in the corner of my eye, talking with a group of friends near Radio City’s marquee. She looked just as I remembered her, perhaps a bit older, cleaner, and all around more “indie-rockafied.” I thought about walking over to her, wondering where she was going, remembering where she had been, but, instead, I stepped into the subway, knowing we’d meet again, sometime after the gold rush.

I was lyin' in a burned out basement
With a full moon in my eyes
I was hopin' for a replacement
When the sun burst through the skies
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high
Thinkin' about what a friend had said,
I was hopin' it was a lie
Thinkin' about what a friend had said,
I was hopin' it was a lie
-Neil Young, “After the Gold Rush”

Relix Staff Editor/ Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus wishes Arcade Fire were around ten years ago so he could have quoted them on his high-school yearbook page.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Seven and Seven's Last Call

If left to my own devices, I’d rather order a tall glass of chocolate milk than just about any other mixed drink. But, unfortunately, chocolate milk stopped being socially acceptable sometime around the second grade and for the past eighteen years I’ve been forced to hide my lingering childhood addiction like a premature bald spot on a teenager’s scalp (a Band-Aid which usually comes off as natural as a bad comb over). Back in the heady days of yore, aka college, I managed to squeak by living on a steady diet of Magic Hat and Stella. But, as my taste buds have evolved past kegs and my metabolism has slowed to the speed of a stoned snail, beer has crushed my six pack into a pile of hairy mash potatoes.

Fortunately, the summer after I graduated college I found a new signature drink, the Seven and Seven. As far as I can tell, I stole it from my friend Jon who stole it from our friend Dyer who is actually so retro he manages to be one of my most forward thinking friends. I fell hard for the Seven and Seven for several reasons (besides the fact that it making for good alliteration): First, it’s a somewhat mysterious drink which always starts conversation. Second, it has a girly taste, but macho ingredients, which immediately makes its cooler than your average vodka cranberry. Third, it contains whisky which automatically squashes any comparisons to its sophomoric younger sibling, the Rum and Coke. From August 2003 through February 2007 I ordered a Seven and Seven on almost every occasion I could, to the point that both my parents and my employer immediately placed it on my tab at all family/phamily functions. Its name served as more than a few conversation starters at bars and its alcohol content served as the catalyst for even more unnecessarily feuds with members of the opposite sex. But, now, after all this time together, I’m forced to retire my whisky to the cabinet and search for a new drink at my favorite watering holes.

Why you might ask? Well, for one thing, as the collegiate cycle has rolled on a new crop of alcoholic freshmen have claimed the drink as their own, rendering it the new Rum and Coke and, therefore, just about as socially acceptable as freshman Fridays in the dorms (or, more accurately, Falstaffs for those of you from Saratoga Springs). I’ve also noticed that it does wonders to my breath and as I’ve gained confidence in club-like environments that has posed quite the problem. And, in an effort to smooth out all my unconscious nervous habits, I’m trying to stop myself from chewing ice in public (we’ll deal with paper crumbling and blogging in future entries on the subject). So, for now, I am officially retiring the Seven and Seven as a dietary staple. Perhaps it will pop up again at a party or two, but, as of now, I’m searching for a new signature drink. That is, of course, until chocolate milk becomes so retro is its once again cool.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Really Uptown Girls

Last year my college friends Anna and Jason moved uptown---way uptown, like almost in Westchester uptown---to 189th Street. While I certainly have nothing against Manhattan’s upper tip (besides those fond memories of crying through my visit to the Cloisters in second grade)---it always seemed kind of far away and, more importantly, there were no concerts to draw my downtown ass uptown on a weekday night. But, now that above 125th St. is the New below 14th St., almost every single week there seems to be a new reason to ride the A towards its final destination. So, on Monday, I made dinner with my friends at Anna and Jason’s apartment and then walked a few blocks south to the New York’s newest hipster paradise, the United Palace Theater. Now, don’t worry Mom and Dad. The United Palace Theater is actually sooo far uptown it is actually past the “sketchy” part of uptown and in relatively quiet, residential community populated mostly by Hassidic Jews, Spanish Families, and post-college explorers looking to plant a flag in the name of Brooklyn.

I noticed a bunch of cool buildings as I bounced from 189th St to 174 St, most of which are built alongside the cliffs overlooking the George Washington Bridge. Over the past 25 years, I’ve breezed past the GW literally thousands of time, but never seen the bridge from that angle, which touched me in that deeper than it sounds, 2 AM, post-Garden State kind of way.

For those of you who haven’t been, the United Palace Theater is a beautiful 3,500-person theater that, as my cubicle mate Aaron aptly describes, doubles as a “praise the lord Jesus” church on weekend. But, except for the one excited hipster I saw waltzing out of his gentrified apartment across the street and into the theater (I wonder how many times he has said “I told you so since the United Palace opened) the audience was mostly made up of below 125 Street dwellers: a mutt like mix 16 year old suburbanites, retired jamband kids and hipsters still confused there are 161 blocks north of 14th St.

The show wasn’t sold-out which came as a surprise to most of my friends. Believe it or not, jambands still outdraw most pop acts, especially pop acts whose target demographic is high-schools on a weeknight. As far as I can tell, this is mostly because your average pop-music fan will usually catch a band only once in a lifetime and almost always only catch a band once a tour. While standing between the bathroom and the bar I did meet an affable high-school student sporting a Skidmore College t-shirt. We got to talking and it turns out he is going to be a freshman at my alma matter next fall (,man). Like many incoming Skidmore students he plans to double major in music and business and, judging by the wave in his hair and glaze in his eyes, mirror in drug dealing and local concert promotion. He reads Relix too and even thumbed through my recent Phish interview while “in the shitter!” Cool!

After the show, we followed the masses to the nearest A Train entrance and spent the next hour on the subway trying to figure out how it can take sixty minutes to move three miles underground in a city where everything seems to move a mile a minute aboveground. Oh, and a word of advice: for those of you venturing uptown for Bjork or Arcade Fire this week walk two blocks north (towards Westchester) and head west (towards Jersey) to 177th Street after the show to avoid some serious Coventry-style congestion.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Kids Table

On Saturday, "wedding tour" took me Northwest Massachusetts where I witnessed the marriage of Carrie and Hector. Having now attended the weddings of a good half dozen peers in the past ten months, I've learned a thing or two about wedding edict (for some reason saying thing like, “wow, those napkins match your bridesmaids' dresses” is better than picking the most expensive item on the wedding registry), and, more importantly, table placement. Unfortunately, after finally graduating from the “kids table” at both Thanksgiving and Passover, I’ve once again found myself roped off from the main dinner party along with a mutt-like mix of single, twenty-something’s whose main unifying factor is that they are all too rowdy to sit near grandma and grandpa. Only, instead of sitting at a slightly smaller fold-up adjacent to my parent’s dining room table---where I can ease drop on R-rated topics like town politics, national politics and, especially, temple politics---we’re usually positioned on the outmost perimeter of the reception space somewhere between the bar and the bathroom. Now, things could be worse…I could be placed at "the young cousins table," which is so far away from the bride and groom its actually hit a wormhole magically transporting the entire table into a scene from the Bar Mitzvah movie Keeping up with the Steins. But, either way, I’m slightly offended because I’ve always liked talking with adults more than kids (I’m tempted to launch into a story about how my Transformer action figures all has 401Ks, but that’s a tale for another blog).

After some careful observation, I’ve discovered that there are some ways to safely escape the kids table without secretly switching around some couple's seating arrangements during their cocktail hour. First off, you can simply wait it out and, sometime around age 32, the kid’s table enviably folds into the GA seating section at any wedding. You can also position yourself as part of a larger group or clique in the weeks leading up to a wedding and hope to score a seat at such illustrious tables as “the work/office table,” “the high-school/college friends table,” or the “old-school Phish/Bisco touring crew table (I’ve found that printing out your PT stats and sending them along with your RSVP card is the most secure way to score a spot in the latter group).

But, really, the best way to escape the kid’s table is to either get married or become involved in a serious relationship yourself. This takes a bit of time and advanced planning because I’m told you have to already be involved a relationship before receiving an engagement notice to guraentee a +1 for your significant other. Yet, apparently, if you are involved in a serious relationship for the length of someone else’s engagement, you’ve demonstrated that you can sit still through both dinner and dessert and can move a few tables closer to the bride and groom. You can use your own wedding as ammunition and place any seating offenders at the “obligation table” (a rogue table which boasts both an upper east side ZIP code and family members with pre-fixes like great, grand grand, and step). But, heck, who I’m I to talk. By the time I get married all my friends and their kids will likely be gerrymandered into even smaller tables organized by family group and my wife and I will sit alone at our own little kids table. At least we'll be near the bar.