Thursday, March 26, 2009

A.C. Newman w/The Broken West, March 25, 2009, Logan Square Auditorium, Chicago

This was my first time seeing a show at Logan Square, which is a big boxy room that looks like a VFW hall, with a temporary stage at the back and lots of room for folks to wander. The sound from close to the stage was pretty good, though I imagine the acoustics further back might not have been so hot.

I got to see a swell double bill for my rookie LSA experience. I had heard of The Broken West, as people like writer Bryan Thomas have touted the band’s music. The five piece band (two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums) is a well oiled machine. In particular, the drummer was terrific, driving the music throughout.

The band’s sound could loosely be called roots music or Americana. They fall somewhere between the catchy sounds of bands like The Byrds and early Wilco and more robust fare like Neil Young and Green On Red. The first two songs from The Broken West simply had a great sound, as the interplay between the musicians was very compelling.

On the third song, the show hit a higher level. There’s no other way to put it -- this was simply a better written song. And from that point forward, almost every song in the set had a great chorus, strong vocals (the lead singer has a sandpapery voice and the bass player had a good vocal turn) and on the few occasions where they stretched out a song, the collective power really lifted things higher.

This performance was met by an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. The band thanked everyone for showing some “Midwestern hospitality.”

A tough act to follow perhaps. But A.C. Newman and his co-ed band were up to the task. I came into the show having taken awhile to warm up to Newman’s second solo LP, Get Guilty. Before the set, I would have told you that it was a bit too close to the formula for his band The New Pornographers, whereas his first LP, The Slow Wonder, was more intimate and deviated from the formula more.

Coming out of the show, in which five or so debut tunes were mixed in with pretty much the entire new album, I’ve got to change my tune. Newman was augmented by a guitarist, a keyboard/trumpet player, a violinist, a bassist and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums. Hearing the intricate arrangements performed with such energy made me realize how much I take for granted.

Much like his fellow New Porno Neko Case, Carl Newman has really created his own style. It’s in the melodies and rhythms and the chords he chooses. And it’s amplified by the clever arrangements. After opening the show with the opening songs from his first two albums, he went into the new tune “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer”.

This song is everything that makes Newman special. It’s built on a few crisply strummed acoustic guitar chords with sympathetic accompaniment by the drummer, tapping the rim around the drum head. This sets up the verse, which is insistent. The song softens up in the refrain, as keyboards come in. After the second refrain, there’s a dramatic instrumental break with a cool squealing guitar solo, which melts away and the song gets going again.

That doesn’t even begin to fully describe what all is going on with this one tune. To hear a band actually pull it off live, with the interlocking parts, the backing vocals, leading to a great ending…well, it’s pretty special.

The set, like the new album, mixed stirring moments such as the pretty “Thunderbolts” or the haunting “Young Atlantis” with cool quirky pop like the locked in groove of “Submarines of Stockholm” or the bouncing “The Collected Works”.

The new material is so fully realized that the smattering of Slow Wonder selections sounded thin at times. The E.L.O.-ish “Better than Most” and “Drink to Me, Babe” were two examples of songs that did not come off nearly as well live as on record. But this was not true of everything from the debut. Indeed, the encore of the sensitive “Come Crash” and the E.L.O.-ish (yes, another Jeff Lynne-like tune) “Town Halo” was a great way to end the night.

So there were two good national acts on the same bill. It was like it was 1988 all over again.


japanesegodjesusrobot said...

I actually liked Get Guilty a lot right off the bat maybe because it's more similar to The NPs. The Slow Wonder took me a long time to warm up to, on the other hand.

I also thought The Broken West sounded a lot like early Wilco but Anne thought they sounded like early Spoon (which I can sort of hear as well).

annab said...

I got The Broken West one of their first L.A. gigs when they were called The Brokedown. Also their first press. It's like I got to watch them grow up!!! btw, bass player Brian used to be in the Eugene Edwards band. He can play any instrument! Let me know if you are interested in the first e.p. they put out, I have a few copies lying around. They were a bit more twangy early on. . .