concert

My Mama Don’t Like You: Justin Bieber at Barclays Center

I debated whether or not to buy a ticket to Justin Bieber’s New York tour for months. It was a big financial decision. Or as a co-worker said the day after when I walked into the office in a Bieber tee, “I hope that wasn’t expensive!” Newsflash: pop concerts are not cheap, particularly when everyone on StubHub sells tickets at $150 over the original value for all those of us who couldn’t buy them the day they were released due to work, funds, life. However, I knew I desperately needed the momentary reprieve that a night of Bieber and “What Do You Mean?” could give.

2016 has already been a rough year for us all. We’ve endured the loss of Bowie and Prince, survived another winter, and, if you’re like me, departed work a little more world-weary with each passing day. I bought the ticket to Justin Bieber in hopes of celebrating his revival (yes, Selena Gomez’s not the only one) and hoping for my own.

No one can deny the ascent of Justin Bieber on last year’s charts. His crossover appeal has seen such a rise that Urban Outfitters now sells “vintage” men’s tees of his baby face (I loathe these shirts. Men can continue owning Metallica tees for all I care.). It’s been ok’d by Complex and Pitchfork to indulge in Bieber’s musings. I’ve always been a Bieber fan musically, but I’ve been on the fringe of his fandom. I will defend “Die In Your Arms” until the end of time, but I’ve never quite seen the appeal of his locks or tattoos. I already have my fandom (One Direction), and it takes up more than enough of my time and money. Yet in light of their hiatus, I knew I had the savings to allow for one night of carefree dancing and swaying to “No Sense” and “Love Yourself”. The price of admission was entirely worth it once Bieber sat on a velvet sofa and sang you think I’m crying on my own, well I ain’t to a reverent audience.

Upon arrival at Barclays, I immediately made the mistake of purchasing a tee outside of the arena only to discover my favorite shirt inside after four steps into the arena. $80 and two tees later, I trudged past the merchandise only to discover the beer lounge immediately to my right. I’ll be honest: I plopped myself there for the first two openers alongside wine moms and Bud Light dads. I was here for Justin and Justin alone. I made sure to charge my phone, and watched as gleeful teens in a uniform of ripped black jeans and tank tops made their way to their seats. I lusted after a Saint Laurent jacket that walked by on a young teen and watched the number of Calvin Klein merch bags grow in number. I was pleased to see that most of the people in attendance were still the young women who had been there since the beginning. Pop airwaves might be drowned in “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean?”, but among the fans paying for tickets are the same women who attended the Believe Tour.

The tour opened with Purpose’s album opener, “Mark My Words.” Singing from the middle of a glass box, fists and face pressed against the glass, Justin Bieber sang Mark my words, that’s all that I have / Mark my words, give you all I got. After the spiral of the last few years, Purpose begins with a hushed promise.  There was a reliance on the stark images of Justin on top of a metaphorical mountain on stage, the slope of the stage. He climbed the inclined stage as he did the charts—effortlessly.

The concert kicked into gear when Bieber came back out, the box descending into the depths of Barclays Center, to perform “Where Are Ü Now”, the smash hit remix of 2015. “Where Are Ü Now” has been remixed for the tour, and Bieber effortlessly carried out killer dance moves alongside his vocals. Singing to us fans, he pleaded, I need you, you, you, you, you, you / You, you, you / I need you the most.

It’s impossible to separate the narrative of the relationship between Selena Gomez and Justin from Purpose. He confronts the tabloid culture of his breakdown on “I’ll Show You”, singing My life is a movie and everyone’s watching / So let’s get to the good part and past all the nonsense… Much like his continued appearances on James Corden, striving to show his heart, his humanity, Justin just wants us all to focus on the beats and lyrics. He wants us to focus on his craft and not the spectacle. I’m not made out of steel / Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real… It can be hard to remember that the celebrities we see on Tumblr and Twitter exist outside of our browsers. “I’ll Show You” asks us to look for the man behind the music. Act like you know me, but you never will… As I stood there, swaying and spilling beer, I thought of all those meet and greets Bieber had cancelled due to sapped energy. The distance between us and Bieber grows daily as the magnitude of his celebrity engulfs him, but lyrically we’ve never known him better. Bieber, the singer, is trying to let us in. He just wants to set the limits. He just wants to show us, under the lights of an arena.

Bieber went on to perform “The Feeling,” his collaboration with Halsey, and the instant classic “Boyfriend”. The arena joyously sang along to the slick vocal magic of “Boyfriend,” which is just as massive as it was in 2012. It’s still exhilarating to sing along to Chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue / I don’t know about me but I know about you.

I was happiest to hear “Love Yourself.” There’s no arguing with the brilliance of the lyric my mama don’t like you and she likes everyone. By pairing up with Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber wrote the first song off Purpose that might not actually be aimed at Selena or his fame. This isn’t an apology, but a declaration. The kiss-off that I’m happy to add to my pop arsenal is you should go and love yourself. Even better, in a year of self-care, the shortened love yourself. Ed Sheeran knows how to write a ballad, and this track allows Bieber to do what he does best: quite simply, sing. I’ve loved watching Bieber take this song around the world. The presentation in concert was minimal, which allowed for the track to find its true depth. Anyone who has watched the concert film Believe knows that Bieber’s tours of old were about bombast, cinema, and flair. The Purpose Tour smartly contains itself. It’s not as interested in the staging as it is in Justin’s restoration. Sure, there are dancers; but at times there is just Justin, the man, alone on stage. Nearly consumed by the lights, we get to watch him apologize and resurrect the career he nearly imploded.

Thankfully, the last half of the concert retained old hits “As Long As You Love Me” and “Baby”, while adding  “Purpose” and “What Do You Mean?”

It’s interesting how “Baby” in 2016 retains its desperation:

And I’m in pieces, baby fix me
And just shake me ‘til you wake me from this bad dream
I’m going down, down, down, down
And I just can’t believe my first love won’t be around…

At the height of his fame, Justin still is in pieces. He still can’t believe his first love won’t be around. Week after week, we get continued Instagram posts where Justin reflects on his history with Selena. While she was seen crumpling a sign calling for her to marry Justin earlier last week on her Revival Tour, Justin seems intent on hanging onto the past.  “Baby”, a breakout pop hit, feels just as relevant to Justin’s history and headspace now as it did in 2010. The song now carries the weight of his real true love, the media backlash, and the continued desire to connect with millions of people through music.

I am still speechless that Bieber performed “Children.” The track dragged. If I’d been in need of another 20-oz beer this would have been the time.

I’d like to remind you to not leave during his drum solo, a pulsating reminder of the talent behind every changing hairstyle (thankfully, he cut the cornrows before Barclays so I could attend in good conscience). The encore of the night was, of course, “Sorry”. As we grabbed our coats and threw away our beers, Justin wanted us to remember that he wanted to redeem himself. Justin, in my opinion, consider yourself absolved.

Setlist:

Mark My Words
Where Are Ü Now (Jack Ü cover) (Purpose Tour remix)
Get Used To It
I’ll Show You
The Feeling
Boyfriend
Cry Me A River (Timberlake cover)
Love Yourself
Been You
Company
No Sense
Hold Tight
No Pressure
As Long As You Love Me
Justin Bieber Drum Solo
U Smile
Children
Life Is Worth Living
What Do You Mean?
Baby
Purpose

Encore:
Sorry

Sons of an Illustrious Father at Shea Stadium

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Friday, February sixth, I went to go see Sons of an Illustrious Father. I’ve been trying to see SoaIF for over a year now, but I was always too young for the consistently 21+ shows. Alas. I pined for a year, but last week, I had my chance. The band is playing at Shea Stadium, a small, warehouse-style version of the famous Shea Stadium. This one hides away in Brooklyn, very incongruous in a street of warehouses that hide start-ups and other wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Sons of an Illustrious Father is a Brooklyn-grown trio made up of Lilah Larson, the founder of the band, Josh Aubin, and Ezra Miller. They all play some combination of drums, guitar, bass, and keyboard, and they split their vocals among the trio, although one member tends to take the lead on each song. Self-described as “heavy meadow,” Sons of an Illustrious Father bely their self-awareness along with their talent with words. I found out about Sons the same way I assume a small-but-decent percent of their fan base did: I followed the Ezra Miller tunnel. In case you haven’t heard of him, Ezra Miller is an actor in addition to being a musician, and in my eyes, he’s proven himself to be incredibly admirable thinker and human being as well as talented, and cherished figure for queer kids like me. Peter Travers calls him a “technicolor dream of weirdness.” Well said, Peter Travers, now please give me your job. Anyway, you could say that I’m a fan.  This is not to say that I sought him out. I remember that a blog I followed had posted pictures of the SoaIF album shoot, and I recognized the face.  I am defensive and brittle about this: I am not That Type of Fan.

I go to the concert with two friends who are both also fans of both Sons and Miller.  As we take the L to Brooklyn, I’ve got to wonder what effect fame has on their music and performance, if any. When I first started listening to SoaIF, I noticed that none of their press ever mentioned Miller’s fame. It seems odd, and dishonest, to not address the elephant of our collective consciousness. Doesn’t it matter? It has to matter. Everything goes into the music of the Sons. When they play, the whole world around them gets poured in. Doesn’t this, this silent fame, get poured in too?

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While we ride the train, we eat Chex-Mix and talk too loudly. People stare at us—one of us is incandescent in black velvet that absorbs the light, another is stark and smiling with hair that’s been freshly dyed black, and I am wearing gold lipstick. I get chip-dust stuck in the corners of my mouth, and I make hiccupping sounds when I laugh. We wonder what the Sons will look like. I have never actually been in an enclosed space with celebrity, although I have served some of the chosen few as a waitress, and I waved at Kevin Bacon once. I question my ability to behave like a normal human, a talent that I struggle with even when I’m not giddy. This is how you inhale. This is how you wipe the corners of your mouth. Those are the things that I know, but I can feel myself forgetting how to look at people correctly. I look at my friend’s ears instead of their eyes. I stare at strangers for a beat too long.  The elephant is affecting me, although I can’t speak for my friends or the Sons themselves.

We arrive half an hour early, expecting that the music we’ve listened to joined with the power of celebrity and the lure of an all-ages show will bring out the masses. It’s possible we have overestimated a great deal of things. There are roughly ten people, and the crowd gradually grows to thirty. The room is beautiful and precisely what I would imagine, with fairy lights and a mandala of sorts painted on the brick wall. The air smells like every punk boy I’ve ever met- clean, and still stale, with whiffs of weed and sex and a tee shirt that’s been worn for a week. We’re so early that we get to witness Larson, Miller, and Aubin form a circle and dance, giggling, as they flap their arms like vultures. It’s delightful. Although we are aware of Ezra Miller’s face, my friends and I are Not That Type of Fan. We’re above that. We’re here for the music. We turn our backs when the band walks in the room, because we have to act with equity- to acknowledge the elephant would be an insult to everyone. We are the embodiment of Play it Cool.

We’re expecting Sons to play last, but they go on first, and the small crowd quickly shuts up with the first notes of their sound-check. They are all fully comfortable onstage. Aubin’s fingers root immediately and happily into his keyboard. They are a unit even in preparation.

Of all of the live shows I’ve been to, Sons stands out. Sons of an Illustrious Father hit me like a brick. Perhaps it’s because I set myself up as Not That Type of Fan, or perhaps it’s because I actually was That Type of Fan right up until they started playing. Perhaps because they told me I’d been lying to myself about the nature of my particular brand of fan. But I know the reason: the reason is their music. So many bands strive to be “about the music”; Sons of an Illustrious Father are about the music. Who cares about fame? They play towards each other. I watch, delighted, at the sheepish and charming roll of Aubin and Larson’s shoulders as they send each other cues. They are talking. It is like witnessing a confession, or a soldier’s homecoming. We are invited, but it does not matter if we show up.

The Sons opened with Aubin’s vocals, the thunder (I’m sorry- there’s no other word) of Miller’s drums, and Larson’s guitar, which she is absolutely shredding. Larson’s voice is surprisingly sweet live, and I blush hard when I make eye contact with her. I quickly lost track of who was singing, and who the focus was supposed to be on. They don’t have a front-person, really. They just have a front- a wall of shuddering drums and lilting vocals. They scream a lot. It’s not grindcore-affected screaming. It’s purely emotional. It’s abrasive all the way through. Whatever preconceptions I have are beaten away by the leaden thud of Miller’s drums. They chase away everything but wormholes that pull you right back to the room where you stand, the room where your heart beats as a pulse in your ear, the room where you shake and Josh Aubin and Lilah Larson are harmonizing.

While they scream, they sing a lot about love. They scream a lot about love. It’s unclear who is singing, and its unclear who they’re singing to. Is it lost-love? Is it girl-love? Is it love at all? But it doesn’t matter, the gender or specifics of who they’re singing about. Does it matter? It does, doesn’t it, obviously it does, but when someone is walking toward you and they’re holding a hatchet and they have blood on their neck, you do not pause to ask for specifics. When you have flayed your voice open out of love, you do not worry too much about who you’re loving. They don’t have a heart of their band- they just have a heart. (We’re all just trying to be worthy of each other’s love// oh I want to see blood)

There are many words to describe what I saw, but I’m going to choose to go with “raw” as the primary one.  Raw can be an overused dialect of poets, or the rasp of a radical skateboard. SoaIF are not that type of raw. They are raw like sticky meat. They are fat stuck under your fingernails. They are love that eats lungs whole. They are peace that tortures itself. They need their suffering (When I’m crucified you will adore me// Oh, I need my suffering). They are barren fields of wheat and Georgia sky.

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An Examination of Intimacy: Kishi Bashi at the Palace of Fine Arts

Photo copyright flickr user Kmeron
Did you know that every Friday night in San Francisco there’s a group of people who put on helmets and neon glowsticks and tiny flashing lights and go rollerskating all over town? I didn’t either, until I saw them at the Palace of Fine Arts last Friday as I was coming out of a concert. There wasn’t much of a crowd — just a few figures circling the smooth marble floor underneath the rotunda’s colossal dome, weaving and ducking, their wheels clacking along to the tinny 70s funk coming from someone’s radio. It was a still night, and beyond the shadowy columns and archways of the rotunda lay the pond, darkly glimmering. If the rollerskaters hadn’t been there the whole tableau would have felt mystic, solemn, occult in that harsh Hellenistic way — all stone and consequence. But there they were, in Velcro wristguards and reflective tape, unbearably small and unbearably human, gliding their way through the night.

It seems too pat to say this, too easy a leap from visual to metaphorical truth, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Kishi Bashi than “neon rollerskater against a classical backdrop.” Billed as a “beatboxing violinist,” Kishi Bashi is the stage name of Kaoru Ishibashi, an engineering-school dropout turned lowkey indie star who’s worked alongside the likes of Regina Spektor and Of Montreal. You’ve probably heard his solo work, even if you don’t realize it. It’s in that Windows 8 commercial, and also that Sony commercial, and probably some other ones — honestly his music is perfect for commercials, and that’s not an insult, because like how difficult is it to produce an emotional atmosphere so dense and vivid it can make you feel something in thirty seconds or less?

Ordinarily, Kishi Bashi works alone, creating lush arrangements with only a violin, a set of pedals, and a voice that swoops easily from clear baritone to bright falsetto. On this particular night, he was joined by a full string quartet as well as Elizabeth Ziman (of opening band Elizabeth and the Catapult, sweetly weird singer-songwriter pop) and Mark Savino (of Tall Tall Trees, whose website cites a headline that reads “Bearded man sings songs, violates banjo” — frankly I don’t feel the need to expand upon that description). Since I haven’t seen Kishi Bashi’s solo shows at any point, I can’t credibly make any distinction from a typical performance, but from the moment he stepped onstage and drew a conductor’s baton from his mauve waistcoat, I knew I was in for something really tremendous.

Although I don’t know enough about the technical side of music to gauge whether or not he’s a good conductor, I do know how it feels to watch someone do something like they mean it, and that’s what happened all night. The string players were impeccable (is there another word for string players, so straightbacked and elegant?); Savino beat his banjo with a drumstick and howled through his copious beard; Ziman crooned. Kishi Bashi himself occupied a space somewhere between seasoned professional performativity and raw nerves — “I’m really nervous tonight,” he said at one point, and then, “I think it’s because this is my favorite city to play. You guys are — what do they call it? My target market.”

Kishi Bashi’s music is made for dreamers. It’s the kind that makes your mind wander, the sort that spirals out and out until the air shimmers with it, almost thick enough to touch. The sounds wrap you up and take you away until you hardly forget where you are or what you’re really listening to. At one point, as the stage lights deepened to moody pink, I found myself fixated on his showy corsage — what a nice thing it is, I thought, to wear a corsage; how strange and lovely that we pin flowers on ourselves on days when we are important, and it happens so often, so many people have pinned flowers on so many others for so many reasons, and we’ve gone walking around feeling the whole universe open up for us.  And then the song was over, and there was a new song, and it began anew, four or five minutes more, another rhapsody.

Joy permeates Kishi Bashi’s sound — some of it is even upbeat enough to dance to, as demonstrated during a three-song stretch when audiences were urged to rise from their seats and bop along to bouncy crowdpleasers like “Carry On Phenomenon” and “The Ballad of Mr Steak.” But often that joy is cut through with a weird delicate sorrow, a note here or a word there that pushes a song from chintzy quirk into something fucked up and believable. Often it’s about love, because I mean, what isn’t, but also just as much about not-love, or what could have been love. Oh in the desert you sucked my finger, goes “Atticus in the Desert,” and then ­— it wasn’t meant to be, it was like water from leather. “Once Upon A Dreaming (in Afrikaans),” from the newest album Lighght, gets to the heart of things in two lines: I need to know this love is real / I want to feel the sadness.

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The word intimate is overused to describe concert experiences — usually as shorthand for watching a solo artist perform in a cramped venue — but it is the word I keep returning to, the only word that feels like it gets at everything I saw and felt last Friday. Intimate is what it is when someone admits to you they’re nervous. Intimate is someone telling you “this song is about vampires,” “this song is about my own idea of a creation myth where the universe was created by cosmic lovers,” “this song is about a dream I had where I was dying.” Intimate is when someone insists on turning the lights on — which happened, partway through the show, when Kishi Bashi said “Can you bring up the house lights? I want to see who I’m playing to — it’s so dark out there it could be anyone. It could be a pack of lions.”

During the show, we lions bore witness to two improvised pieces. First, our fearless headliner alone with his violin, bowing and warping and looping until the air filled with a high twittering noise that sounded like garbled, eerie fey laughter above our heads. “This is really cool,” he said, and then, withdrawing an iPhone from his pocket, “Actually, you know what, I’m gonna record this. God, sorry, this is really unprofessional! I wouldn’t normally do this. This is how I write most of my songs though.” He joked that we could hear it again on the new album, and a ripple of excitement ran through the audience (intimate is hearing something no one has ever heard before). The second improvisation came during the encore, when everyone filed back onstage and stood right at the edge of it, almost too close to the audience, unprotected by chairs or mics or space. “This is gonna be an acoustic set,” Kishi Bashi said, his unamplified voice swallowed up by the room. Gently at first, he began to play, and one at a time his cohort joined in, looking to him for cues. The sounds clashed, skewed, overlapped with one another in a sloppy mishmash of eight notes and sudden high screeches. It wasn’t something anyone would want to record. It was, objectively, bad. But there is something so freeing and delightful and important about watching people who are good at the thing the do as they do something objectively bad, something purposefully messy and weird and unplanned, just for the sake of doing it. Each of them looked careful, concentrating; each person was so visibly trying, so visibly working, without any of the usual polish of performance, that it felt difficult to look at them. And at the same time, it was, ostensibly, a performance for the audience. We were there to look. We were there for them. Intimate is how it feels when you watch someone try, how it feels to look at someone who has asked you to look at them.

At last they segued into the song that is Kishi Bashi’s closest approximation to a smash hit — “Bright Lights” — and the intensity lessened, the whole room relaxed. And again, I cannot find a word other than intimate to describe the feeling of watching a group of people, small and bright under the vast proscenium, play as they might have played in rehearsals: clustered in a ragged semicircle, loose and easy and grinning. The breathlessness of the improvisation still hung over us, and we in the audience mostly stood quiet for fear of overpowering the bare music that floated out into the velvety dark. But there were moments we couldn’t contain ourselves from singing alone, when a kind of deep hum rose up ­— the sort of noise that is felt in the chest rather than heard — and everything seemed to be blending at the edges, air spilling into sound spilling into velvet curtains and violin strings and other humans. That’s intimacy, I think. It really is.