Futures & Folly: BLITZEN TRAPPER & DAWES Live @ The Neptune [w/photoset]
Last month we posted a brief write-up, along with a ticket giveaway for The Belle Brigade, Dawes, and Blitzen Trapper show at the Neptune here in Seattle. The contest was super last minute and even more last minute was my decision to pop on over to the show and photograph it. My credentials came through that evening and I decided that, if I had a photo pass, it would probably be worth swinging down there for it. With a baby and a bunch of other shit going on, responsibility-wise, it’s not as easy to simply fly out the door on a moments notice anymore.
Blitzen Trapper was the obvious draw for me. I have their album, FURR and the Black River Killer EP and am familiar with the Wild Mountain Nation record that was released prior to those, but I never really listened to last year’s Destroyer of the Void or heard anything off of their newest release, American Goldwing, which came out in September. I remembered them being a fairly solid live act, but I hadn’t seen them since they played a free outdoor show by the Space Needle back in July of ’09. I expected to be guestlisted for last year’s show with Wye Oak at Seattle’s Showbox during City Arts Fest, but when it turned out that I wasn’t, I said “Fuck it!” and rolled up to the see fellow SUBPOP label-mates, The Vaselines again for their overlapping festival stop at Neumos; a decision that I didn’t regret. The Blitzen Trapper fans that I know didn’t seem too impressed with Destroyer and even BT frontman, Eric Earley who “cobbled together“ the album referred to it as “a patchwork of songs from (his) past and present which hung together like a house of cards.” American Goldwing, on the other hand, was created out of inspiration and, for all intents and purposes, was finished before the tour for Destroyer of the Void ever began. While the group promoted the latter in front of the largest audiences of their careers (festivals, TV appearances, etc.), Earley concedes that, throughout that entire time, he knew “that this new record (he’d) recorded was the real record, the Blitzen Trapper record to come.“ Of course, that never did anything to prevent fans from defending Destroyer to death in the comment sections under any review that was less than high praise.
Even more vocal have been DAWES fans in the comment sections under reviews regarding their opening slot at this recent Seattle show. The event itself was advertised as part of a “co-headlining” tour for DAWES and Blitzen Trapper, with the Belle Brigade operating as their opener. I was mostly unfamiliar with The Belle Brigade, aside from random advertisements for the duo that had previously graced this site, a random late night appearance that I caught, and a YouTube video of the brother and sister team sitting in a bathtub while performing an acoustic rendition of their biggest hit, “Losers.” I missed their set entirely, but the reviews have been generally favorable. When I arrived, DAWES had already started playing. I worked my way down towards the front and a lady touched me on the shoulder, in an effort to direct me as to where I should be standing to get a good photograph. No, she didn’t work there or anything; she was just some random woman with her husband, but I guess that she just figured that we were all good friends at the show that night and that she was being helpful. [No thanks, I think that I should be able to figure this one out for myself.]
It’s not surprising to discover that DAWES had been part of the touring Dave Matthews Band Caravan festival this year, because the crowd looked like they followed them directly from a DMB show… or maybe a Jack Johnson / Ben Harper performance or, dare I suggest it, a Jason Mraz gig. I snapped off a couple of shots from where I was standing and then moved to the other side of the crowd, which found me surrounded by young, early-twenties college kids who seemed to know all of the lyrics. Frontman, Taylor Goldsmith has just enough scruff to be the guy with the guitar at the party -looking rugged but not ragged- and the set, which had an equivalent vibe, simply fell flat for me. They’ve been described as having that “Laurel Canyon” folk sound, which makes sense, because they actually did record their debut album, North Hills, in Laurel Canyon. [Zappa lived there too, but that's, obviously, not the sound that they're being compared to.] That album spawned the track “When My Time Comes” which you may have heard soundtracking the History Channel’s recent Pawn Stars/American Pickers promo. It’s a well enough written song which, if you only heard that track alone, could place Dawes on the fence between, “Hey, I bet these guys probably have a solid collection of nicely constructed folk tunes” and “This is some contrived, emotionless Hollywood singer songwriter jive turkey bullshit.” The fact that the official video was a tribute to Cool Hand Luke was encouraging and had me hoping that they were a little more Neil Young and less VH1. Unfortunately, their other big song, “Time Spent in Los Angeles” seemed to suggest that they were, in fact, very much of the Video Hits folk variety and that they wouldn’t likely be venturing too deep into any John Prine or Heartworn Highways territories. Their set had the energy of an award show performance and the solos were as clean and uninteresting as could be expected. The show ended just as their fanbase must have hoped, with both of the aforementioned hits played back to back. In other words, without any surprises.
On paper it would almost make sense to mash Blitzen Trapper and Dawes onto the same bill. Now that BT recently switched their management to Big Hassle (same as Dawes) I can see someone thinking, “Hey, these are our two folky rock outfits and, if we put them together, this would be a match made in heaven. Plus, they could fill out the bill for each other, depending on what town they’re in.” In Seattle, Portland-based Blitzen Trapper was the headliner. In other city’s I’m sure this was switched up. Dawes plays Dave Mathews festivals and BT plays festivals like Pitchfork. They could both converge at something like Sasquatch!, but tonight it would be at the Neptune Theatre in the University District.
Since the last time that I saw them, Blitzen Trapper has lost keyboardist, Drew Laughery, effectively making them a quintet. Adjusting to this, they began the set with a Nord set up in front of Eric Earley for the first couple of songs. If you haven’t seen the group before, it’s important to note that some of the members will move around between instruments during their sets. Earley plays both acoustic and electric guitars, the keys, and occasionally breaks out the harmonica “bridle” around the neck. Erik Menteer will pause his lead guitar duties to man another Nord, or even to smash the shit out of a tambourine. Marty Marquis might be on keys, then shift to guitar, or even melodica. Brian Adrian Koch, even took a moment to man the melodica at this show, between his drumming and vocal duties and, at one point, I even noticed that bassist, Michael VanPelt had some sort of whistle-like contraption jammed in his mouth like a pacifier while he played. Drew’s absence didn’t seem to affect them too much and they have adapted seamlessly.
Whether their entire set was really that good or simply appeared tobe great in contrast to the band before them, BT had a ton of energy and it came through incredibly natural and didn’t feel forced at all. They began with “Sleepy Time in the Western World,” the lead off track from FURR and then went immediately into “Astronaut” from American Goldwing, before following it up with the album’s title track. The set consisted of a healthy chunk from the new release and, as someone who was previously unfamiliar with any of that material, they were able to retain my attention completely. The new tracks merged in with the older material effortlessly, but still managed to lead the performance into new and interesting directions. There were a handful of cuts from Furr, a couple of tracks from Wild Mountain Nation, and even one (technically, 2) song(s) from the Black River Killer EP. There was only one from Destroyer of the Void.
The set breathed up and down and expanded outward, but the shifts didn’t necessarily come strictly from song to song, but rather moment to moment, as well. Every thing meshed and transitioned well from one tune to the next and the guys really steamrolled through once they got rolling; accelerating, slowing down, dropping through loops, and zipping up and around the walls like a TYCO Niteglow electric slot car race-track. I spent the majority of the show in front of Menteer, watching him viciously chop away at his guitar and drain the life-force from his keyboard, while Koch pummeled away at the drumkit behind him. During a few select moments, the typically more composed, Earley haphazardly flung himself across the stage, showcasing his ability to strangle out shrieking guitar solos of his own. They encored with “Fire and Fast Bullets” before dropping into an immediately recognizable Zeppelin riff and ending the night with “Good Times, Bad Times.”
I had planned my coverage for this show -if any- to be a photo set, at best. I generally keep to myself at shows, but I wound up talking to a young intern who was shooting for the Seattle Weekly that night and, while editing through my photos, I decided to bounce around and see if I could find whatever images other photographers at the show came away with. Whether it was the Weekly, The Seattle P.I./Blogcritics.org, or the website Sound on the Sound, I began to recognize a pattern, as well as a mind boggling anomaly, throughout: for the most part, I actually agreed with them. It was pretty clear to everyone that Dawes fell flat on the stage, while Blitzen Trapper put on an engaging and high energy show for their greatly deserved headlining spot. Another defining thread between the reviews were the comments by Dawes supporters under them, which ranged from overly defensive statements to responses as simple and minimal as “Wrong.” One person even inaccurately claimed, “Jeez – That’s the first review from this tour that had anything bad to say about Dawes.” Perhaps, but it definitely wasn’t the last and I couldn’t find another one regarding this particular show that felt any different. However, as stated before, the Belle Brigade set that I missed, was met with fairly positive responses, prompting some to insist that they outdid the supposed “co-headliner.”
It’s true that there shouldn’t be any real need to compare Blitzen Trapper and Dawes or to pit them against each other, but when you advertise something as weird as a “co-headlining tour” and the sets are so lopsided, it’s hard not to imagine how off it would have seemed if their performance orders had been switched. Another thing that I began to notice was that Dawes‘ latest release, Nothing Is Wrong was continuing to gain some hype and being suggested as one of the best albums of 2011 (Paste, Rolling Stone, a guy I know, etc). I found a video of the song “A Little Bit of Everything” from the album, which Dawes played right before their other 2 hits that ended their set. In this version, Taylor Goldsmith was performing solo acoustic on a radio show and it was still being referred to as a “new song.” The fucked up thing about it was that it actually sounded fairly credible and a hell of a lot better than when I saw it live. The vocal delivery was direct and understated, as was his delicate guitar work. There was an emotional quality to it that I hadn’t experienced at the show and his intention and ability to create a story with his lyrics were commendable enough. I still wasn’t in love, but I understood the appeal a bit more and it showcased some promise for Goldsmith as a songwriter/lyricist. From there I found a video of him performing the song with nothing but piano accompaniment. It was generally the same version, except that it was slightly worse. Whereas the lyrics had floated over gentle plucking of the strings prior, the piano was now making it less subtle by emphasizing the cadence in the verses, and the guitar work, which was the highlight of the last version, had devolved into nothing but a strum. Finally, I found a recent live video that demonstrated the “evolution” of the track and it mirrored what I had experienced in Seattle. The song begins with the frontman mussing up the back of his hair, while the piano, drums, and bass come in. By now he has abandoned the acoustic, altogether, in favor of an electric guitar that’s simply hanging around his neck without him even playing it. There’s a smirk on his face, because he knows that people know the lyrics now, so he begins to perform the track to the audience, making it more about the idea that they’re playing it, than about what they’re actually playing. Everything that made the original sound authentic was gone; the drums have little military-style snare hits here and there and Taylor is accentuating the lyrics, both with his vocal delivery and by pantomiming stupid shit along to them. The cheesiest parts of the lyrics, which were just barely overlooked in the stripped down version, are now said much louder, “It’s the death of my first dog!” “So, pile on those mash potatoes and an extra chicken wing!” He bellows these to the audience, but with more of a matter-of-fact talking voice, as if to say “How about that guys?” He’s attempting to overtly turn it into more of a “story” and failing. Sure, Neil Diamond can pull that shit off, but this guy can’t. He’s no Ol’ Blue Eyes-style crooner. He’s more of an Adam Duritz type and, when showing the video to my girlfriend Kim, she thought that it reminded her of the yelped out songs by an even more emotionally inauthentic Adam: Sandler. It didn’t help that the song that I saw them perform right before it, “Coming Back To A Man,” has an almost identical cadence to its verses, causing it to feel even more stale.
Blitzen Trapper, on the other hand, are at their best when they allow shit to get weird. While their critics and/or Dawes fans might complain that they are unfocused, I’ve witnessed the Portland crew’s penchant of drifting into otherwise conflicting musical territories pay off handsomely and this night was no exception. With a set sprinkled so heavily with new material, they sounded surprisingly cohesive, while managing to make even the older work sound like it was advancing forward. Their abilities as musicians and as a collective skilled at venturing out into heavier moments of distortion and experimentation actually work as a benefit, allowing them breathe and come to life, like they were summoning a mammoth hoof-swinging beast from the underworld. Earley starts by crafting a foundation of solid tracks and, from there, the rest of the band can fill in the sound or help give it legs to move around. For example, take the title track from “American Goldwing.” It’s a good song, but it’s Marty Marquis‘ work on the keys and the little guitar riffs by Erik Menteer that contribute those perfect little accents to make it feel like a truly well-rounded effort. Everyone in BT is extremely talented and, when it works, they operate as a unit to create beautiful tightly woven blankets of sound.
With Dawes, Goldsmith is actually weakening his own music by not recognizing where it’s strengths lie. Trying to gain credibility for rootsy Americana while embracing more and more polished approaches to production is not serving him well artistically, even if it is doing wonders for his pocketbook. He’d be better off playing some of that shit acoustic and not trying to work in weak arrangements with his younger brother and two other dudes, because the extra bodies actually seem to equal less life. It’s clear that he prides himself on becoming a great singer/songwriter, but even in that respect, he’s not quite there. It’s a tricky game, trying to tell a story about (often fictional) characters, while infusion them with powerful emotion. Blitzen Trapper craft those type of story-based tracks, as well, and, to be honest, neither of these groups are writing “Sam Stone” or “Pancho and Lefty” quite yet. Most artists will never ever find a lyrical voice that is as incomparable, unique, subtle, and powerful as Prine Van Zandt or contemporaries like a David Berman or Bill Callahan; it’s an incredibly rare gift to have such poetry spill out of your head and a skill that develops over time. But that’s not really the point with BT, because the lyrical content is only one aspect to their song development, not the entire selling point. One group is a full-on band and the other is just one guy, hoping to push a Jackson Browne vibe with a supporting cast that interact and feel more like studio musicians, even though he’s related to one of them. The irony is that, although BT are experimenting with areas that seem like they would conflict with the Americana aspects of their sound, they actually sound a hell of a lot more organic then their co-headliners that are trying to confine themselves to that bubble. When Earley‘s outfit launches into the space-rock or psych moments, it evokes those visuals that I’ve always imagined of the members of The Traveling Wilburys spun out on acid trips. I’m not saying that Dawes doesn’t have a Dylanesque vibe of their own, but it’s Jakob and the Wallflowers. They just don’t come to life off of the page for me, but that’s not saying that they won’t be successful, because I believe that they will be.
I believe that Dawes will continue to grow but, whether they become mainstream VH1 successful or simply gain some devoted fanbase that shitty bands like O.A.R. have managed to generate and maintain, I couldn’t say. It depends on what you want out of life and your career. Remember, The Black Eyed Peas‘ first 2 albums looked promising, with cameos by De La Soul and Mos Def, before they recruited a former Kids Incorporated/Wild Orchid songstress to piss herself live on television. Blitzen Trapper will probably never get huge. Most likely, the best that they could hope for would be to gradually gain a Wilco-like following in size and fervor. Even then, I don’t see Eric Earley becoming inflicted with an actual rock-star complex. But, for whatever my opinion’s worth, I’m actually interested in seeing what the quintet can pull off next and in delving into to American Goldwing to give it a chance. Even if the recorded material doesn’t draw me in, I know that they are still an act that’s worth making a trip to see live. As for Dawes? I’m not really interested in following their careers, but for those of you who have the desire to pick up and seduce young, idealistic, upper middle-class liberal arts co-eds, you might want to start bumping their jams in your Subaru on the way to the frisbee golf course. And, in the case that those references are outdated and are coming about a decade too late, Nothing is Wrong should still make an equally sufficient stocking stuffer for any of the soccer mom’s that those young women have turned into.
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Blitzen Trapper Setlist:
Sleepytime In The Western World
God And Suicide
Might Find It Cheap
Love & Hate
Love The Way You Walk Away
Black River Killer
Girl In A Coat
Miss Spiritual Tramp
Big Black Bird
Street Fightin’ Sun
Wild Mountain Nation
Fire And Fast Bullets
Good Times, Bad Times (Led Zeppelin cover)