On Tour, But Not As A Musician

August 8, 2017

There are a lot of musicheads here at Fast Horse, and I’m proud to count myself as one of them. I’ve written a few times in the past about shows I’ve seen, musicians I idolize and weird gems I’ll turn to when my playlists get stale. But it just now occurred to me that I have a lot more to share on the musical front in 2017 than I have in a long time, so I figured I’ll share some music moments that have been stuck in my craw.

In a nutshell, I figured out that instead of waiting around for your favorite artists to come to you, you can kill two birds with one stone and travel to awesome places to see them! This may seem like the most basic realization imaginable for a music fan, but for the longest time I was super-stingy with spending on concert tickets. (I used to work at a music venue here in town and got used to free tickets to things. I was a greedy person.) It never occurred to me that you could hit the road or jump on a plane to see a show.

That changed in 2016, when I used nearly every single vacation day (and Fast Horse offers quite a few) to travel the country seeing Bruce Springsteen. I saw four marathon E Street Band concerts over the course of the year, and during one breakneck week in October, saw both his appearance at the New Yorker Festival with editor David Remnick and attended a book-signing event at Powell’s in Portland. Yes, that meant I got to meet the man. (To say I have a thing about Bruce Springsteen is an understatement, but you get that by now.)

Anyway, I hit the road (and the skies) in search of excellent music in 2017 — and, of course, caught a few killer shows here at home. Here are a few of my favorites from recent months.

A small slice of Primavera’s sprawling, fan-friendly layout. And this is early in the night!

First up, Primavera Sound. This annual springtime music festival in Barcelona’s Parc del Fòrum is one of the world’s premier gatherings of musicheads and is devoted to all kinds of sounds, from Catalan hip-hop newcomers to the indie giants of today to towering legacy songwriters. Since 2010 or so, I’ve seen the annual lineup announcement and said, “I should go to that”; this year, my best friend and I pulled the trigger and booked ourselves some tickets to the Costa Brava.

I’m going to be that guy: none of the headliners (Arcade Fire, The xx, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver) really did anything for me. But where else are you going to get the chance to see Aphex Twin, Solange, Death Grips, Van Morrison, Swans, Grace Jones and Sleep on one bill? The festival vibe itself was a treat — you could party if you wanted to, or just enjoy the music as the Mediterranean surf churned next to you.

Key moments of the festival: Standing at the very, very front rail for Death Grips and Swans, two brutal bands who have reshaped what I love about music. Getting to see a live Aphex Twin set, where his inscrutable genius was on full (and mysterious) display. Finding out that Solange is as exquisite a talent in performance as she is on album, and with an ace band to boot. Seeing Grace Jones hula-hoop her way through “Slave to the Rhythm” again. And, in a wistful full-circle moment, seeing Van Morrison for the first time since I was five years old — my first concert ever. I also really dug sets from Shye Ben Tzur & The Rajasthan Express, a pan-Arab ensemble whose album, “Junun,” was produced by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and punk royalty Descendents.

Plus — and this just blew my mind — since it was on Spanish schedule, the music didn’t start until 6 p.m. each day and wrapped up somewhere around 4 or 5 a.m. That meant that you spent an hour or two at most in the sun before the cool night settled in. No festival-roast sunstroke for this guy! My bestie and I saved our sunburns for the beach, thank you very much.

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland (photo by @benmaphoto)

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Ten days of music, food, beaches and drinks later, we came back to the U.S. and recuperated for a few days before going out to Portland to catch the Stumptown date of the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds tour. The band’s newest record, “Skeleton Tree,” was recorded after the accidental death of one of Cave’s teenaged twin sons, and it is unlike any other record I’ve heard. Instruments slips in and out of sync; Cave’s voice cracks as he sings; the songs’ stories exist in a gripping dream world of grief, loss and love. It’s a record of extreme power and doesn’t make for an easy listen — for the full impact, check out the accompanying documentary, “One More Time With Feeling.”

Cave shows are beloved for their raucous energy, paint-stripping volume and the frontman’s own manic performances; how would this somber, exhausted, confrontational and personal record come across live? I was sitting in the fifth row and could see into Nick Cave’s eyes as he sang, and it was mesmerizing. For two-and-a-half hours, the Bad Seeds held court through most of the new album, along with a selection of older, punky favorites and stately ballads. It was just incredible, and though I can’t put my finger on what it did to or for me, it’s become a talisman of sorts. It was just one of the most powerful shows I’ve ever seen. If there’s another leg of this tour, go see it — or at least listen to the album.

And then, a few nights later, we stopped by Portland’s great Mississippi Studios for a show by EX EYE, a new quartet featuring experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson, Liturgy/Guardian Alien drummer Greg Fox, synth artist Shahzad Ismaily and guitarist Toby Summerfield. I had seen them last summer at Eaux Claires, which was a sort-of one-off show that they wrote some music for; now they’ve got an album out and a few live dates under their belts as a group. Holy shit! If you are a metal fan or just want to see something you’ve never seen before, check them out.

Stetson, who uses a circular-breathing technique to create swirls of sax noise, applies his style to droning, crushing doom metal while also bellowing through a throat contact mic. Fox is just one of the most astounding drummers alive. That’s it. Summerfield threw in an extended, tweaked-out slide guitar solo that had my jaw on the floor. And Ismaily turned a Moog Rogue synth in a bone-crushing instrument of destruction. I was standing right in front of the speakers for the first half and it was so loud and immersive I thought I was having an out-of-body experience — and then I was like, “I’m going to throw up if I stand here any longer.” That sort of reaction is a good thing to me.

The night we got home from Portland, we got to see King Crimson at the State Theatre. You can hear a recording of this current iteration on their “Radical Action…” release from this year (it’s on Spotify) — two guitars, keys, bass, brass/woodwinds and three drummers! As a drummer, it was just a trip to see. And, as a Robert Fripp freak, it was just amazing to see this sharp-dressed little man wail on a guitar while sitting on a stool at the back of the group. They threw in their cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in the encore, and it got me a little choked up to see Fripp perform the iconic guitar line he wrote during one of the century’s great anthems.

One more: Just last weekend, I made my inaugural visit to the Palace Theatre in St. Paul to see Bryan Ferry, the suave singer and former Roxy Music frontman who has made so much music I love over the past 40 years. His vocals were mixed a little low, but he was clearly having a great time and the crowd was going absolutely nuts for his first Twin Cities visit in 16 years. I got to hear so many Roxy favorites along with solo hits like “Slave to Love” and plenty of covers, including Dylan and the Velvet Underground. At 71, Ferry was as much of a debonair performer as I’ve seen in so many old Roxy Music videos. This was a real bucket-list show for me, and it lived up to expectations.

And now my concert calendar is kind of empty — at least until Death Grips and Ministry (!) play the Skyway Theatre in October. What shows are you excited about seeing?