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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: September 30-October 4, 2003

Friday, October 3, 2003:

I'm mostly feeling better now. I think my head is violating some law of thermodynamics by continuing to create buckets and buckets of mucus seemingly out of thin air, but apart from that, my cold has been KO'd by proper diet and lots of rest. (And by "proper diet," I mean "pitchers full of coffee." And by "lots of rest," I mean "staying up till all hours of the night watching Oz." Come to think of it, it's a miracle I'm not in intensive care at this point.) So let's catch up:

Last Sunday, Jon and I went to see R.E.M. and Sparklehorse at the Palace of Auburn Hills. I'd never been to a concert there before, but it's a basketball arena where many of your larger acts play, particularly during the non-summer months when the outdoor venues are closed. Before the show, Jon and his boyfriend, Paul, invited me over to their place for burritos, which was fun despite the fact that Jon and I had both caught the same illness from work and were moving in slow-motion for most of the evening. Paul showed me his impressive turntable set-up, and I got to see Jon's art studio, which was really cool. Their friendly dog, Koko, most likely weighs more than I do, and knocked me over when she jumped on me.

We arrived at the Palace way too early, because my dangerously underdeveloped sense of geography had resulted in me confusing the Palace with Pine Knob (a concert venue somewhat farther north). Our seats were located in the upper bowl of the arena, and we were so far to the left of the stage that we had what I imagine to be a similar viewpoint to that of someone waiting in the wings to appear before the crowd. Not bad seats, but still pretty far away. After spending some time critiquing the fashion sense of people in the lower bowl, Jon and I decided to buy some T-shirts to kill time. I blunderingly attempted to purchase a women's Sparklehorse shirt, and then made the extremely patient souvenir woman bring me several, consecutively smaller versions of a blue shirt with a red horse on it until I settled on a size that wouldn't look as though I'd wrapped my puny frame in a couch slipcover. Jon got a cool, gray R.E.M. shirt with pictures of old-timey drive-in signs on it, and the same Sparklehorse shirt. "We'll have to be careful not to be twins at work," he said.

Soon after we returned to our seats, we were approached by a Palace worker monkey who asked if we'd like to exchange our tickets, straight-up, for much better seats in the lower bowl. Apparently, the concert was far from sold-out, and it wouldn't look good for anyone if the seats closest to the stage were sparsely populated. Our new seats (a $60 value, I think) were pretty much ideal. We were ten rows up from the main floor, to the very right of the stage this time, but at an angle that afforded us an unobstructed view of all the on-stage doings and happenings. Lucky us!

Sparklehorse played a short but great set that was heavy on the sort of energetic, rocky material that Mark Linkous hasn't much indulged in since Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, split mostly between songs from that album and new stuff, along with two songs from Good Morning Spider (a transfixing "Painbirds" and a rendition of "Happy Man" that exhumed the melody from the layers of snow in which the studio version is buried). I was slightly disappointed that he didn't play any songs from It's a Wonderful Life, but that's really an album of tiny songs that would probably not translate well to an arena crowd, so I think he made the right decision. I'd like to see them again, however, in a more intimate place. But anyway, I really enjoyed their performance, and the rest of the crowd gave it up for them too.

Speaking of the crowd, they were actually pretty cool for the most part. This one guy sitting behind us yammered through the latter half of R.E.M.'s set, but he wasn't shouting in my ear like that couple at the Radiohead show, and I've come to accept that I'm going to get the urge to cap a fellow audience member at every single concert I attend, so he wasn't too bad. I think because R.E.M. isn't touring in support of a new studio album (they have a serviceable greatest hits compilation coming out on the 28th), the concert was mostly free from neophytes who decided to attend the show on a whim after hearing the new single or whatever. Most of the crowd seemed to be R.E.M. die-hards, which was a marked change from the crowd I encountered on the Up tour, where people cheered wildly for "Everybody Hurts" and "Losing My Religion," but couldn't care less about the older songs or non-singles. In fact, I scanned the audience during "The One I Love," and couldn't spy one young couple who were misguidedly gazing into one another's eyes, having deemed it "their song"!

And these die-hards were rewarded. Free from the constraints of touring to support a new album- and therefore having to play a bunch of new tracks that they'd just spent months recording and reworking and would probably be sick of by now- R.E.M. were simply having a blast running through their back catalog, energetically hitting at least one song from every single one of their 12 albums. In fact, nearly half the show was made up of specific song requests that people had e-mailed to the band, which resulted in some great surprises like "Driver 8," "Find the River," and "Shaking Through"(!). Michael Stipe was in great voice, and the rest of the band was in a playful enough mood to launch into a full verse of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" after Stipe self-consciously asked if his angular, mid-song dances looked too much like Steven Tyler.

Basically, I was blown away by the whole thing. The older songs transported me back to a point in my life before it all went wrong (i.e., in middle school, when I'd contentedly sit at the coffee table in the living room, listening to Reckoning or Eponymous on my parents' stereo as I did my homework, singing nonsensical phonetic approximations of Stipe's unintelligible lyrics: "Meya shiff songwoo, listerar bad/There's a splinter in your eye, etreez, rehab! Harrrrrborcoat!"). The more recent songs, like "At My Most Beautiful," more than held their own against the classics, if anyone had accused the band of slowing down in the quality department. And they even made "Losing My Religion" sound fresh, after surely having played it about a million times. If you get the opportunity to see them on this tour, I recommend you jump at the chance, or at least call Ticketmaster and get discouraged by the prices.

So that was R.E.M. And last night, Erica, Jess, and I went to see The Polyphonic Spree and the Starlight Mints at the Shelter in Detroit, which is that same converted church basement where Jess and I saw Hem not too long ago. Our friend Tim was actually supposed to go with Jess and me, but he had a class last night that he couldn't get out of, so we invited Erica to use the extra ticket, since she'd never been to an indie-rock show before. Incidentally, at work yesterday, Aimee started kidding on the square about how she was upset about me not inviting her, because she "love[s]" The Polyphonic Spree. So the night had an added layer of guilt. Even though I had only one extra ticket, and when I'd mentioned the band to her at Tower Records two weeks ago, she acted like she'd never heard of them.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon, Erica and I met up at a gas station in Sterling Heights, and drove to Royal Oak from there to meet Jessi. As Erica drove, she compulsively flipped through radio stations, because she insisted that I need to hear the new Outkast song, "Hey Ya!" (Likewise, Rich IM'd me the other night with the message, "New Outkast single = weirdest/best song EVER!" So I was excited to check it out.) Remarkably for a city whose radio stations all play the same four songs on a 20-minute loop, we didn't hear it. Instead, we were hit with a full-force gale of John Mayer. It hurt.

Once we met Jess, we decided to eat at Como's in Ferndale, where we ordered a pizza with mushrooms on half of it, and plain cheese on the other half. A remarkably quick ordering decision for three picky vegetarians, I might add. (The fact that we received a pizza that was entirely covered in mushrooms doesn't mean it's any less impressive a consensus.) At the table next to us, a five-year-old kid hopped down from his chair and began doing a funny interpretive dance for no reason. The young woman sitting with him- presumably his older sister or aunt, because she was our age- laughed along with the three of us, and then asked him, "But where's the Dance of Seduction?" This remark sent the kid into a hilarious frenzy of hip thrusts that started Erica cackling.

After dinner, we still had an hour until we had to head to the Shelter, so we decided to go browsing at Record Time. As we arrived there, Erica and Jess both got bafflingly excited when they realized the record store is located right next to an F&M pharmacy. For those who don't live in metro Detroit, F&M is an incredibly crappy chain of pharmacies that's literally the poor man's version of CVS or Walgreen's. Most of them have closed down by this point, and this particular store was having a "going out of business" sale, which just made my companions even more delighted.

"We have to go!" Jess said.

"Cheap tampons!" Erica squealed happily.

"I'm gonna stock up on clearance douchebags!" Jess responded, and we all laughed.

Erica then turned to me and said, "You know most girls don't do that, right?"

Erica wound up buying a ton of makeup at something like 60% off, while Jess and I wandered the aisles playing Ghost World: looking for tacky things that would be funny to buy. Alas, the potentially kitschy items were pretty much picked over, leaving little that wasn't just flat-out sad. Sweatshirts with cartoon sheep on them, accompanying bad puns. That sort of thing. Stuff that made me seriously want to cry in response to its sheer cluelessness. Jess was going to buy a Charleston Chew, but thought better of it.

At Record Time, I bought Black Cherry by Goldfrapp and What Would the Community Think? by Cat Power, for eight bucks each. Jess bought some album by a band named Mekon, but they refused to take a check from her, because the check's number was less than 400. And it turned out not to be the album she wanted anyway, after she charged it and we listened to it on the way to the concert. (We also griped about the stupidity of naming your band "Mekon" when the hugely influential band The Mekons has been around since 1976.)

We parked in a pay lot across the street from the Shelter, and when the parking attendant approached Erica's window to ask for seven dollars, she pointed to me and said, "My husband will take care of it."

The Shelter was much more crowded than the last time Jess and I were there, and although we managed to snag the table in the corner to chat before the first act came on, the three of us wound up standing to the very right of the stage throughout the night, right next to a gigantic stack of amps and behind some guy wearing one of those stupid "cord crusher" hats that always fill me with a curious amount of rage. So we didn't have the best view of the show- especially since, as I've mentioned before, Jess and I combined are maybe as tall as a minivan.

The first act was Corn Mo, a really interesting guy who looked like your average Magic: The Gathering aficionado and played an accordion while singing in an impressive shriek that would've made him a millionaire if he'd been in an '80s metal band like Winger. To his credit, though, Corn Mo was more interested in playing fun, catchy little songs about German hitchhikers, "a really shitty mall in Texas," and Timecop. At one point, he launched into a great cover of Queen's "We Are the Champions," only to interrupt it by playing one note for about five minutes as he told an inspirational and hilarious story about how he got where he is, and why you should follow your dreams, by which point he had the audience in the palm of his hand. In spite of the accordion and the elements borrowed from bad hard rock, his set was too earnest to be compared with, say, Weird Al or Tenacious D; Jess said she thought he'd fit in well with the "outsider artists" that she and I are enamored of, like Shooby Taylor and Wesley Willis. He didn't play it straight, exactly, but he wasn't a comedy act either... basically, he needs to be seen to be believed.

Oh- and Corn Mo also had a drumstick attached to his shoe, with which he'd periodically hit a cymbal that was lying on the ground. I was really happy that this was Erica's first indie-rock experience, because when he got off the stage, she was grinning like she'd seen something both completely inexplicable and utterly amazing. As we all had, I think.

The Starlight Mints were up next and ran through a high-octane set that encompassed just about every song I was hoping to hear from their two albums. They managed to keep their arrangements fairly true to the silly-string-coated studio versions- even though the cello came out only for "Jimmy Cricket," Marian Nunez employed a sampler to re-create the pizzicato plunks of "Pages" and grand violin intro to "Submarine #3"- while upping their Pixies-esque two-guitar antics to electrifying effect. During their set, I decided that I wish my hair looked like frontman Allan Vest's. Not that it's anything unusual or spectacular; it's just really straight, which I would enjoy, I think.

During the next break, Erica handed me her denim jacket and sweater ("Why did I dress in layers? I hate layers!") when she needed to use the restroom and said, "Here ya go, coatrack."

"That's not the reason I got that nickname," I replied, and she hit me.

Then The Polyphonic Spree took the stage. And oh man. I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't tremendously impressed with their debut, The Beginning Stages Of... and was a little skeptical as a result. Even though Rich had told me, that he, too, found himself unmoved by the album's collection of optimistic but underwritten Flaming Lips rip-offs, and yet their live show had left him speechless, I wasn't convinced. Not that I don't trust Rich's judgement- though his possession of the entire Prince discography does give me pause- but I just didn't hear much substance in the Spree's songs that could be built upon in any meaningful way.

Well, I was wrong. As at least twenty band members filed onto the tiny stage, each clad in baptismal robes, and then sprang into action, it became clear that the star of the show was not going to be the songs at all, but the sheer unbridled enthusiasm with which these guys rocketed through their songs of hope and love. By "enthusiasm," I mean not just the overwhelming wall of sound that was created by the band (including a flute, a trombone, a trumpet, a French horn, a harp, a small choir, and a theramin!), but the fact that the entire collective was jumping, singing, waving their arms, swinging from the pipes above the stage, and falling into spastic, faith-healer-style contortions. The theramin player, who was directly in front of us, for example, picked up a tambourine and began shaking it wildly on the songs that didn't call for a theramin. Even though the tambourine wasn't miked and there's no way it could be heard over the din, I got the impression that this guy simply needed to join in. Hell, I got the impression that he would've been doing that even if he didn't have a tambourine handy; he'd just stand there and shake. Now imagine that times twenty, and you've got some idea of the concentrated energy of their set.

Two songs in, Jess leaned over, cupped her hand to my ear so I could hear her, and yelled, "This has kind of a Godspell element to it!"

I leaned back and added, "...As imagined by Sid and Marty Krofft!" and she laughed.

As the show progressed, the band let their own energy settle back ever so slightly, as the audience's grew. Even though I haven't listened to the album enough times to know the songs by heart, I found myself shouting along as the crowd chanted, "I found my soldier girl! She's so far away! She makes my head spin around!" as soon as I figured out what they were saying. At one point, frontman Tim DeLaughter leapt from the stage to hug some guy, but mostly, he ran around as much as he could, waving his arms, lifting them above his head, and pointing enthusiastically into the crowd, like a crazed conductor who signals for a crescendo and then wants to keep upping it louder and louder, and with more and more intensity, for an hour. In fact, do you remember that one Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs is out to punish this opera singer for some reason, so he poses as a conductor and signals for the poor sap to hold one breathless note for several minutes until his face turns a million different colors and the whole opera house collapses around him? That was pretty much Tim DeLaughter's role last night.

We had to leave a few songs before the end of their show, because Jess had to work in the morning, but we'd gotten the point by then anyway. If you've heard The Beginning Stages Of... and even if you enjoy it, it simply cannot prepare you for the full-on love assault that awaits you at one of their concerts. A Polyphonic Spree show lets you enjoy all the fun, camaraderie, and overwhelming bliss of being in a cult, without the brainwashing or having to drink the poison Kool-Aid.

On the way back to Royal Oak, Erica continued her mad flipping through radio stations in search of "Hey Ya!" At one point, Sean Paul's "Get Busy" showed up, and I approvingly said, "Oh- hey!" because Erica introduced that song to me a few months ago as one of her favorites, and I've become addicted to it.

"Oh, I hate that song now!" she said.

As I laughed in disbelief, Jess said, "The beauty of being a top 40 fan."

And then, as we hurtled down I-75, the Clear Channel gods smiled upon us and capped off our night by playing Outkast's "Hey Ya!" not once, but twice. And this marks an instance where Rich Bunnell was proven right twice in the same night, because that is one bizarre, infectious single. I'd have to hear it a few more times before I could start to describe it, but it's not really hip-hop at all. It's just... odd. And I love it. iTunes, here I come!

Hee! Gotcha. "iTunes."

CURRENT MUSIC: A mix Adrienne made for me last year. She designs really great covers for CDs, and this one is adorned with the great Aaron Copland quotation, "If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong." I've always taken that as her clever way of puncturing my music critic pretensions, which makes me smile.
She has built a nest out of the toys on the top of her cage, and has discovered that it's fun to shriek like the jungle birds you hear in the background in cartoons. She does not like Radiohead.
11:53 PM.

Doot? | |

Tuesday, September 30, 2003:

I'm sick and I feel like crap. I've blown my nose so often that the Kleenex are soaking up blood more than any other fluid. (Is the plural of "Kleenex" still just "Kleenex"? Like "sheep" or "fish"? Seems like it should be. Although "Kleeneces" does have a certain amusing ring to it... At any rate, I'm sure the Kleenex manufacturers would rather I just said "tissues" there- or, better yet, "Kleenex brand tissues"- but they're fighting a losing battle to keep their brand name from becoming generic and I frankly have very little sympathy. Jell-O, Kleenex, Xerox, Band-Aid, Post-It, Rollerblade: there are certain prices that must be paid when you corner the market so thoroughly on a product. And no number of advertisements in Writer's Digest will change the parlance of our times.)

The Oasis CD manufacturers called me last week and informed me- in a very friendly and polite fashion- that all the artwork for my album shows up at far too low a resolution for them to print in good conscience. I scanned all the pictures at 350 dpi, per their instructions, but I'm willing to believe that my scanner is messed up. So I paid $40 for Kinko's to re-scan everything at the highest resolution possible. It's horribly disappointing, though, to think you're done with the stupid friggin' CD and then be slammed with another setback. I hate The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss at this point, and if it weren't my sole hope for the future of my financial security, would disown it entirely because it's caused me so much trouble and heartache and probably a flare-up of the ulcer I contracted in middle school. Perhaps alcohol would heighten the healing effects of DayQuil...

Ah yes. And some guy took a dump on the floor at Barnes & Noble today. Poor Vince had to clean it up. He said that it was not a little kid who did it. This is not the world I signed up for.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Beginner's Guide to Bollywood, disc one. Which inexplicably does not contain "Jaan Pehechaan Ho" by Mohammed Rafi, despite the fact that he shows up at least three times. Thanks to Ghost World, isn't that probably the most recognizable Bollywood song in the USA? (Though I don't have the date of this CD set handy.)
CURRENT MOOD: Depressed that I will never be half the writer that Heathen from Television Without Pity is. But also psyched, in that Bridgette from work lent the first two seasons of Oz to me, and watching that is about all the activity I can handle as a wussy recipient of a cold. Why didn't anyone tell me how great this show is? (Unless Rich did, and I've already forgotten.)
Oleg Sobolev, who is eternally rule, writes, "Eh, Europe is rather a third-wave heavy-metal band than a second-wave prog-rock band." Since I trust Oleg to know these things much better than I do- I couldn't name a single Europe song besides "The Final Countdown"- I stand corrected. I also may have been thinking of Styx when I initially labeled them. "The Final Countdown" doesn't strike me as a metal song, honestly, but I'm not one to splice hairs as far as genres are concerned.
5:25 PM.

Doot? | |

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