by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a better Simon Joyner performance than what we got at last Friday’s Hear Nebraska album release show at The Waiting Room. I’d have to go back and back, maybe to some of the Fallen Men shows when Skeleton Blues was released in aught six, or further and further still, to the Howard Street Tavern days when Simon was first joined by Chris and Alex and Lonnie.
Sitting on a bar stool center-stage surrounded by no fewer than six musicians (The Ghosts), Joyner played a loud, droning, wonderful set of seasick hangover blues folk ballads heavy on feedback and pure on vocals. I knew a few of the folks up there with him — brilliant pedal-steel man Mike Friedman, violinist Megan Siebe (of Anniversaire and more recently cellist with Cursive – Megan is becoming Omaha famous, before you know it she’ll be touring Japan with Bright Eyes), and (who I think was) dashing singer/songwriter Noah Sterba.
The rest I did not know, including the shaggy gentleman ripping apart an electric guitar, spraying shards of love and anger and pain throughout the crowd. I was told the next day (by the proprietor of Almost Music, Brad Smith) that it was likely David Kenneth Nance. Brad than played a track off Nance’s 2013 Grapefruit Records release Actor’s Diary, which I should have purchased on the spot (but instead ordered online the next day). On Friday night, Nance provided the Sturm to Joyner’s drang, pitching one bright sustained note after another alongside Joyner and the rest of the band, who were lost in their own howling storm.
Among the set list was a new one about a drinking buddy, and a lot of old, familiar ones including “The Only Living Boy in Omaha” and Joyner classic “Double Joe” and Ghosts highlight “Vertigo,” which closed out the set with Joyner leaning back and (almost) falling off his bar stool. As his trademark straw cowboy hat fell from his head a bevvy of photographers rushed the stage to try to capture the moment. It was a glorious spectacle indeed.
Joyner made way for the night’s headliner — Lincoln band Universe Contest who brought a lighting rig the size of which I’ve not seen with any other local indie band since, well, The Faint. The Faint’s first foray in lighting entertainment — multi-colored floor floods controlled via foot pedals operated on stage by Joel Petersen during the performance — was quaint and crude, but effective.
Universe Contest’s light rig was a series of blinding LED light panels attached to a massive metal framework — it must be a bitch to haul around and set up. A lighting guy controlled the synchronization from a controller behind the sound board. Sometimes the effects were dramatic and impressive, other times they were distracting. At their best they provided a contrast, dimming to nearly nothing during quiet moments, blazing white hot during peaks. The investment is proof these guys have their sights squarely set on getting to the next level.
Countering the hard work that went into lighting was all the flying debris. Universe Contest is apparently the band you throw shit at. I counted no less than seven empty beer cans hurled at the stage throughout their set, as well as an assortment of other trash. One beer can bounced off the guitarist’s fretboard; he reacted without a flinch. I waited for someone in the band to pick up a can and say, “The next person who throws shit at us gets this shoved right up his ass,” but it never happened. Instead, the garbage continued to rain down on them. Maybe it’s a Lincoln thing because I’ve never seen anyone throw anything at any other band on The Waiting Room’s stage. (Imagine what would happen if someone threw something at Joyner).
Anyway, it was a distraction from what everyone should have been paying attention to — the music. Early in their history, Universe Contest had a Modest Mouse thing going on that was unmistakeable. They’ve moved beyond that, though there’s still touches here and there, as well as marks of other band such as MGMT and Le Savy Fav. Their sound is more electronic than I remembered and certainly more rhythm-heavy. While I could barely hear the guitars, I could feel the bass, and the drums — a standard trap set mixed with electronics.
I counted at least three vocalists sharing leads throughout the set, most were handled by the guitarist and bass player, though the keyboard player’s vocals were the most restrained (and the most sublime). There were only a few numbers where the vocals did more than add to the rhythms, which is one way of saying there were few if any central hooks in these songs, nothing you’re going to hum to yourself as you walk back to your car.
Instead, Universe Contest’s music is openly simple, with a number of songs centered around a repeated phrase that builds momentum with every turn. When the band gets in a groove it exudes a modern tribal energy that’s both neo-psychedelic and progressive.
Add it all up — the lights, the music, the flying debris — and Universe Contest is never less than entertaining. They sound like they’re halfway between being an indie pop band and being a full-on prog band; and that indecision defines them (for now).
I’m told the crowd was just under 200, and Hear Nebraska sold quite a few albums. I spied a copy and they look pretty cool. I haven’t gotten mine yet since I bought a super-special signed copy and they were still getting the sigs. Where can you buy your copy? For now, they can be purchased here at hearnebraska.org. Sweet orange vinyl. Get one while you can.
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The way the holidays sit on the calendar this year has got me discombobulated. Is it Monday or is it Friday? If you’re like me, you have tomorrow and Wednesday off, which makes this a Friday. Unfortunately, the clubs didn’t get the memo and mistook this for just another Monday… Come on, people….
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TOMORROW: The blog entry you’ve all been waiting for: MUSIC PREDICTIONS FOR 2014. Be here and find out what’s going to happen to you next year…
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A reminder to enter to win a copy of the Lazy-i Best of 2013 compilation CD. The collection includes songs by Arcade Fire, Eli Mardock, Foxygen, Yuppies, Tim Kasher, Speedy Ortiz, Low and a ton more. The full track listing is here. Entering has never been easier: To enter either: 1. Send an email with your mailing address to email@example.com, or 2) Write a comment on one of my Lazy-i related posts in Facebook, or 3, retweet a Lazy-i tweet. You also can enter by sending me a direct message in Facebook or Twitter. Hurry, contest deadline is midnight Jan. 6!
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
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