Massive Energy from Kitten

It’s pretty amazing to see such a tiny performer take the stage with such force and energy, and right in the middle of the week. If a Wednesday night show might be sticking point for general audiences, it must act as some sort of filter, keeping out the less serious and undermotivated of fans. I say this because nearly everyone was just as excited to see Kitten  in Chicago as Kitten was to perform; people were screaming and jumping and crying tears of joy  at this stunningly explosive and equally expressive group at their show last night at Beat Kitchen.

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TokiMonsta Welcome Back!

It’s been roughly two years since I last saw TOKiMONSTA in Chicago, and this time the fans are definitely ready for her. The problem last time, I felt, was that the fans at the show weren’t as in touch with her and weren’t as familiar with their music as they should have been. Either that or they were all youngsters exhibiting the cold Chicago stare, which seems to be common at some shows around Chicago, like when I went to see Sylvan Esso. I find it beyond annoying, but audiences, in an attempt to appear cool, show little enthusiasm even if it’s an artist they love. Pure thrill and excitement, may be displayed as a gentle sway back and and forth, rather than the jumping and shouting that is seen by normal audiences.

The friendly and eager chatter, hours before the show was to begin, was assurance that this would not be the Toki show from two years ago. Fans were very early for the show, and they were all talking with one another, the energy in the room thick with excitement. I talked to two fellow photographers, who were just here to enjoy the show. One of them, Eric, had drove over two hours from Bloomington, IL to see Jennifer Lee’s set. As the first opener started, the crowd was ready to dance, albeit still nervous in typical “high school dance” fashion: people gradually moved to the front by the stage, save for a wide patch right in front of the stage, which was completely void of people. Slowly, a few brave souls danced solo in the middle and wandered back. One person in the crowd was showing off incredible moves, doing handstands and flips and making it look easy. He was cheered on by everyone, and soon, people started to join and fill in the area in front of the stage.

The openers did a great job, and there was good variety. The first act was more house style and chill step, and the second act was a hip hop group with a jazzy and soulful feel. The crowd was very excited and followed all the MC’s commands with cheer. Alas, TOKiMONSTA took the stage and the crowd went wild. Jennifer is always blushing and grinning on stage during her performances, but I’m pretty sure she was feeling especially gleeful during this one just based on the overwhelming energy from the crowd. Her humility and appreciation for her fans is so natural for her and she genuinely feels it. Through every jam, the crowd just went wilder and wilder. Everyone was engaged and jamming to the beats. I had to leave the front of the stage to go to the restrooms a few times, and each time felt like it would be an impossible feat to make it back up. That’s how tightly packed people were and how much they wanted to be as close to the music as possible.

She played several of her well known hits, like 2 On, Realla and Steal My Attention, along with few remixes from Midnight Menu. The setlist was very fresh and I honestly didn’t explicitly recognize which songs they were, so I’m guessing she was playing newish mixes, or perhaps, just mixes I had never heard.

The visual display behind her was very satisfying to watch, and I give props to the designer who put together those graphics. They add a mysterious and mesmerizing quality to the show, and staring at it long enough dead on, can bring you to your own world of fantasy. The sound quality was also very noteworthy, perhaps the only venue I’ve been to (I haven’t been to them ALL but I’m getting there) that is better than Concord Music Hall. The quality of the bass was very resonant without being too boomy; powerful yet pure.

After her final encore, everyone struggled to make their way out. Determined to get another picture with her like I did the last time I saw her, I plotted out potential sighting points. I knew she wouldn’t be hanging around the merch table, just given setup, and I didn’t feel like she was going to be over there. Also, she would be bombarded with little room for escape. Wandering outside, I noticed her tour bus waiting for her on the sidewalk, along with a few smokers and a handful of fans pacing and looking around. Bingo. Settled on this as my waiting point, I made some conversation with some of the other fans. We wondered why there weren’t more people who had figured out this is where Jennifer would most likely be, by her tour bus! Finally, the moment came and the door from the venue opened, and there she was! Holding a container of mixed fruits and a Lara bar, I gently approached her with a tamed intensity. In typical fanboy fashion, I foolishly tried to quickly show her the photo of us from two years ago, she looked at my phone kind of confused and I realized the mistake I was making, wasting precious moments of my time with her and wasting her patience for everyone who was going to ask for a photo. I quickly backtracked and just asked for a photo and she took a wonderful photo, very happy confident and appreciative for us all. There were just a few more photos, including a group shot and then Jennifer politely excused herself and boarded her bus. I could tell she was wiped from the show and likely from traveling and just wanted to eat her fruitarian meal and go to bed. But she stayed for the very end and made sure her fans were satisfied. Well she made this fan very happy!




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Lana Del Rey Shatters Expectations at Red Rocks

Shockingly, against all odds, the weather was calm and dry; only moderate cool winds that were just a minor annoyance.  The median age appeared to be about 16, with flower crowns, acid-wash short shorts and American flags aplenty. The atmosphere amongst the crowd was akin to a sugar rush, the kind only seen in post trick-or-treat Halloween pillages. A brief frenzy erupted as the gates finally opened and fans were being let in. We all burst past security to see the beauty and grandeur of Red Rocks, some of us, for the first time. On a mission to find a good spot, I weaved and leapt my way through until I found a narrow spot that was about twenty rows from the center stage. Shocked that I could even find a seat, I took notice of giant symmetrical flat rocks protruding up on both sides of the audience, the signature two “red rocks” of the acclaimed venue. At the stage, the sound setup appeared fairly moderate if not minimal for the size of the venue, given how many hundreds of people continued to pour into the many rows behind me. I figured that this was likely due the acoustics of the venue: the two outward-angled flat rocks combined with the gradual bell-shaped ascending slope of the audience seats serve to contribute to the venue’s impressive sound.  

Key differences between Red Rocks and many other venues I’ve been to certainly include the seats and the stage, and especially the sound. The seats were concrete and wood, which were far more comfortable than they sound, with space underneath for stowing drinks, backpacks, small children and otherwise made for a relaxed open-air experience. Some outdoor venues attempt to maximize the seating arrangement for economy, squeezing patrons together at the expense of comfort. I felt unusually relaxed and humbled in my spacious seat, maybe it was the open Colorado skies above, or maybe it was a calming effect of sitting in an ancient rock formation or both. While those were possibilities, it might have also been due to the recreational marijuana being enjoyed around me, in copious amounts.

Courtney Love opened for a rather distracted crowd. Well aware of the generational divide she faced, Courtney had fun with her performance, teasing the crowd and ironically jesting that they scream for Lana like she was N’Sync. Nevertheless, her set was very entertaining even for those of us unfamiliar with her music; mentions of drugs, slurred words and an overeager stage hand made us all chuckle. As her set came to a close, I took the opportunity to visit the merchandise table, which was very pleasantly well-stocked with a variety of LDR must-haves: lighters, bracelets, hats, tank tops along with Endless Summer t-shirts, all well-designed with themes to be expected of Lana Del Rey merchandise. I was actually very impressed at the quality of the designs, and how closely they matched the style of her album covers and CD inserts. Normally I find it hard to like the offerings at the merchandise tables at concerts. But who was I kidding, this was Lana Del Rey, of course I would love what they had. And I did. Among the items available for sale was a deep sky blue Endless Summer tour shirt, and something that no true Lana fan could ever resist purchasing: the Lana Del Rey Lyric book, aka “The Lana Bible”. After flipping through it and having a small heart attack at the glossy pages and artwork, I bought it immediately. Almost on cue, as I swipe my credit card, I hear a bubbling roar from the crowd, signaling only one thing: Lana is here.

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Opening with Cruel World, also the opening track on her latest album, Ultraviolence, she then returned to two of her classics Cola and then Blue Jeans, followed by another hit from her new album. She would later go on to perform 5 songs from Ultraviolence, and 6 songs from Born to Die/Paradise. The other 4 songs were bonus songs, either unreleased tracks destined for Honeymoon or covers she just likes to perform and were her must-haves for the Endless Summer Tour set list.

Lana Del Rey Set List 2 May 12 2015 at Red Rocks

Even distribution of songs across her last two albums, and possibly from her next.

Perhaps the most exciting surprise was the performance of her unreleased track Us Against the World, along with Serial Killer. Is this a sign that she may be recording these for her upcoming album, Honeymoon? Both songs have deep similarities in their mysterious noir-ish chords, an unusually groovy tempo with signature love-motivated bad girl lyrics. Further evidence for these being the first on the next album is that she hasn’t been known to sing unreleased tracks during her concerts. And we do know that she wants to explore the noir style much more deeply for her next album.

Serial Killer has a fully-produced style that is to be expected from Lana by now, with swelling strings all underneath a fine layer of dusty crackles to give an antique feel. If I were to guess, I would say this track comes from longtime producer Rick Nowels, who has laid down other noir-ish gems such as Body Electric and Shades of Cool. Reminders of its actual place in time include the zooming synth hits that abruptly ramp in rather ominously.

Much like Metro in Chicago, the vocal and instrumental clarity that can be heard from the audience is strikingly rich and precise. Every breath, shrill and whisper uttered from the stage can be heard across all 10,000 seats. This is owed in part to the wonderful acoustics of the venue and to the fine detail with which the venue’s sound equipment was set up. It takes a very special combination of these two factors, natural acoustics and proper equipment, to achieve the kind of performance capabilities that Red Rocks has.

Because of this, not just any artist can or should play at Red Rocks: it’s just too risky for beginning artists or those who aren’t well-trained enough for a live show of this nature. Such a high level of stage clarity makes for a very unforgiving medium for the untrained – and equally as rewarding for the exceptionally talented. Naturally, at the opening of her US tour, an abundantly vibrant and energetic Lizzie lit up the stage and brought a euphoric joy over the audience. Many fans were disappointed that she didn’t do her signature moan during Serial Killer, but it seemed to me, the sight of 10,000 fans roaring against a starry night sky might have been a bit overwhelming, plus it was only her second time performing it on tour this year. She gave from what I could tell, an exact replication of studio work, with no perceivable difference between the show and the studio tracks, save for the occasional giggles, ad-libbed lyrics or extended vocal runs. Only interrupting herself a handful of times, bursting into laughter mid-verse, or pausing to look upward and inhale in gratitude, Lana gave a performance that will remain in fans’ hearts and memories, probably till the end of time.

Watch the entire show below:

Sylvan Esso Performs at Metro Chicago

Nick Sanborn  photo credit:

Nick Sanborn. Photo credit:

It is rare to have such a unified crowd for an inaugural tour, for any artist. The audience at Sylvan Esso’s March 14 show at Metro Chicago was a sound example of just that kind of crowd: wildly excited, grateful, warm and enthusiastic. Perhaps everyone was still feeling overly cheery from St. Patrick’s day celebrations earlier in the day. Maybe there was some kind of cosmic vibration from it being Super Pi Day. No one was pushing each other for better viewing angles, everyone just seemed to be generally pleased to be at the show. Even the two girls behind me didn’t care that I was blocking their view, they just giddily sang to every song, dancing with each other throughout, celebrating the moment. It might be the kind of crowd that Sylvan Esso attracts, or the effect of their performance and energy, or some combination of both. Talking to another fan, who said she’s seen the duo four times, I was assured that the audience is always this way. Soloist opener Flock of Dimes warmed the crowd with ease with her charming persona and uniquely uplifting synth-infused rhythms.

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To be part of the crowd was definitely quite a treat and despite the unusually overactive fans blasting high-speed air over the crowd, it was easy to become hypnotized by the wonderfully simple and effective light show. The use of the LED lighting was superb, with rhythmic pulses of color bursting through the foggy stage. The combination of Nick Sanborn’s and Amelia Heath’s confident personalities were key to such a well-executed performance. Although their first time at Metro, and early into their very first tour, they played with a dominance that is usually seen in seasoned touring musicians. Heath’s powerful stage presence and effortlessly delivered vocal performance was accented well by her own improvised dance moves, and fiery cool personality. She was complimented well by Sanborn, whose own amped, party-ready energy was fully backed by consistently well-timed grooves.

Metro is beginning to be a new favorite venue in Chicago, especially for pop/mid-tempo vocal heavy artists like Sylvan Esso and recent performer FKA Twigs. It’s well-balanced between being spacious and intimate, so much that every spot is a good one. Adding to this, is the sound quality that repeatedly exceeds expectations. This show was no exception: vocals were crisp, present and nearly unaltered, with supporting rhythms tight and well-represented yet not overpowering. Combining this venue with a group composed of a highly talented and strong vocalist over punchy, dance-inducing beats like Sylvan Esso is surefire recipe for an unforgettable performance.

Watch the full performance below:

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Song Review: Taylor Swift – Blank Space

Taylor Swift hits us again with the wonderful “Blank Space”

What starts off with a lonely 808 snare hit with a small synth in an echoing chamber blossoms into a flourish of instruments, complete with acoustic guitar, a nice thick pad and even sleigh bells. Yes, sleigh bells have made it into T-Swizzle’s latest hit and contrary to my initial assumption when I first heard it on the radio in November, I assumed it was just a holiday mix only for radio. I was proven wrong after listening to the album version on 1989, which has the same cheerful sleigh bells, arguably my favorite part about this arrangement.

Over the next verse, Swift paints a picture of a lusty girl’s inner monologue as she contemplates her next romantic escapade, prepared for the equal chances for heartbreak or magic that could ensue. Boys, romance and the emotional turmoil that can come from dating is a source of endless inspiration for Swift. It feels natural, thanks in part to the full throttle nature in which she seems to enter her relationships: at high speed, fearless and eventually slamming into a brick wall of heart ache. She doesn’t care, and probably does it each time out of complete optimism and hope, the lure of a spectacular thrill just around the corner. Fully comfortable with this storytelling style of songwriting and singing, Swift makes the track shine with her playful delivery punctuated with full-stops and whispers, such as when she first promises, “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend” and then more casually threatening, “‘Cause, darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.”  It all works so well for Swift, we are familiar with her style and love her for it.

A radio-ready hit like Blank Space is a bold new direction for Swift, but one that fans already saw coming, after her departure from pure country since Red in 2010. This track is definitely proof of the success Taylor Swift has had and should continue to have in the glimmering world of pop.

Blank Space (YouTube)