Built to Spill performs at Slowdown Aug. 27 under the watchful gaze of their sponsor.
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Column 286: Under the Moon, Under the Stars
Live Review: Built to Spill, She & Him.
The best thing about outdoor concerts: Even if you can’t stand a single note of the music, all you have to do is look up, overhead, and there’s something worth seeing.
Of course that wasn’t necessary this past weekend at two of the summer’s most anticipated indie concerts, both held under the black ocean of night, lit only by streetlight, stage light, star light and eventually, moonlight.
In the case of the Slowdown Block Party — held in the venue’s parking lot Friday night — there also was advertising light in the form of massive stenciled floods that blared “TOYOTA aNTiCS” — the primary event sponsor and the reason you didn’t need to pay to get into the show. Parked throughout the lot was Toyota’s line of economy cars “tricked out” to make the young, ultra-hip audience covet them. It’s all about demographics, my friend, which we would hear more about from stage later.
In this era when the dying shell of the music industry continues to decay before our very eyes, it’s sponsors like Toyota that are helping prop up the carcass. There was a time when bands and their fans would consider such blatant commercial “opportunities” as “selling out” — an inexcusable crossing of the line between art and commerce. In the old days (just 10 years ago) any respectable indie band would have taken one look at that aNTiCS sign, packed up its gear and left. But these days gigantic sponsor banners are the norm at music festivals, while most indie bands would kill their publicist and/or booking agent just for a chance to get their music used in a Toyota commercial. Selling out, it seems, is just good business.
But I digress.
When I joined the crowd of around 2,000 just after 9 p.m., The Mynabirds were finishing their set as the last remnants of daylight waned. Laura Burhenn’s band sported a new cello player tucked neatly behind the front-stage vocalists. As is the case with almost every cello I’ve seen at a rock show, you could barely hear it except at the quietest moments. There was a time when it seemed like every indie band was trying to work a cello into its line-up, including noise-makers like Cursive. But slowly they all got the drift, and cellos began to disappear. Until now.
A stroll around the grounds between sets revealed beer tents, food tents and merch tents mingled among the little Toyotas. You don’t realize the enormity of Slowdown’s parking lot until you’re at this kind of event. It easily could hold a few thousand more music — or sports — fans. In the shadow of the half-constructed TD Ameritrade Park, imagine all the money that will be rolling in during the College World Series next spring, and every spring thereafter. Enough money to “make their year” and allow Slowdown to host more concerts like this one, but without the tacky sponsors.
The Mynabirds were followed by another Saddle Creek band, The Rural Alberta Advantage, whose dusty backbeat hoedown fare makes them a strange fit for the label (though their new material sounded promising). Finally, on came Doug Martsch and Built to Spill. With his stringy hair and big, crazy graying beard, Martsch looked like he just walked out of a survivalist compound. Tough his Neil Young-meets-Kermit the Frog voice can’t hit the high notes on crowd faves like “Time Trap,” Martsch can still shred like few others in the indie world. And when joined by two other axemen, Built to Spill becomes a Fender-powered rocket at lift-off.
Too often, however, the songs turned into extended jam sessions — great stuff if you’re a guitar enthusiast, boring for anyone else. It was between jams that guitarist Brett Netson let loose on the night’s sponsor, angrily warning the crowd that they had been defined as “a demographic.” “I wonder who’s sponsoring this show,” Netson snarled. “What kind of car do you want to buy? A used one.” Hope they got paid up front.
The following night outside along the river a different kind of star took the stage at The Anchor Inn. It was movie star Zooey Deschanel — the she in She & Him — who’s had her own fling with selling out, acting in a TV commercial where she sings about how Cotton is the “fabric of my life”– a jingle that would fit comfortably on the latest She & Him album.
Fortunately, Zooey didn’t sing about her love for natural fibers Saturday night. Instead, she and M. Ward (“Him”) played a selection from their two Merge records. Deschanel indeed has a sweet voice. But you wonder if she would be singing in front of 1,600 people if not for her film career. At its best, her voice is second-round American idol pitchy, especially on an ill-conceived Beach Boys cover. Still, Deschanel and Ward are smart for taking on a retro ’60s girl-group pop style that’s both musically and lyrically risk free. But while Ward and the entire band are talented, there was something strangely inauthentic about their retro sound in a way that only a freed Phil Spector could decipher.
The crowd of mostly women, however, could have cared less about authenticity as they drank their watermelons and bobbed their heads to the milquetoast beat, while the rest of us leaned back on the banks of the Missouri River and looked up as a burnt orange new moon slowly rose in the northeastern sky.
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A terrible summer head cold kept me away from The Waiting Room last night for Crooning for Kat — figured I shouldn’t ruin everyone’s night by infecting them with my pestilence. I hope all of Greater Omaha made it out, and that Kat’s quickly on her way back to good health.
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I bet the hot topic of conversation last night at TWR (other than Kat) was the Omaha City Council yesterday rejecting the request by CVS Pharmacy to build a new store at 49th and Dodge, the current location of The 49′r (story & video here). So I guess that means The 49′r will live on, right? Right? Did Mark Samuelson, who owns the Niner, hope to put the bar to bed? One would assume so, since CVS couldn’t have developed the property unless Samuelson wanted to sell it. Looks like he’s lost his buyer, which also makes one assume that The 49′r will indeed live on… until Samuelson finds another buyer.
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Tonight at The Waiting Room it’s Capgun Coup with Conchance featuring Black Johnny Quest, and Dojorok and Kethro. $5, 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, down at Slowdown Jr., it’s the return of Poison Control Center with Talking Mountain. $7, 9 p.m.
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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 © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.