You’re at an outdoor music festival. It’s the middle of the afternoon. Some synthpop group is playing on the closest stage. You’ve just met your buddy’s new partner and conversation is trumping music at this point. You decide to mosey off and check out something you’ve actually heard of. You never think about that synthpop group again the rest of your life.
OR DO YOU. What if your buddies stuck around and really dug that band. What if one of them shares an album with your wife and she falls head over heels for it. And then another buddy writes a rave review of the synthpop group’s Milwaukee show. And what if your wife then sees that the synthpop group is playing in Asheville, where two of your dearest friends live, and what if THEY already have tickets to see Mary Lattimore and Jon Mueller the same week. And what if you then come across some cheap airline tickets. What then?
You fly to Asheville, that’s what. The Grey Eagle is a cool venue, sort of comparable to the Empty Bottle in Chicago but with a taco joint built onto it. If I ever go back I might have to try the tacos ‘cause Asheville is a great food city and that’s really damn convenient. It was unseasonably gorgeous outside on Wednesday so we spent the opening set catching up out in the beer garden, where they had the gig running on a big tv too, another terrific idea because we could still hear and see Miss Grit’s whole performance, which was an engaging goth-tinged minimalist electropop affair with bursts of guitar frenzy ranging from St. Vincent-ish to downright Bucketheadian. Loved, would gladly check out again.
Based on their studio work, you might expect a similarly low-key presentation from the synthpop group aka Nation Of Language. It was anything but low-key, however. The duo of married couple Ian Richard Devaney and Aidan Noell (plus bassist Alex MacKay) were full of infectious joy, and Devaney in particular was bouncing off the walls. I found myself thrilled at their easy command of the audience and excited at the prospects for the band’s future. Right now they have a fully retro sound with occasional hints of modern psychedelic flourishes; however their performance suggested a greater potential for growth than I ever would’ve guessed, and the group’s songwriting skills and onstage chemistry already elevate them well above the indiepop average. It was group therapy through music and dance, like old-school warehouse DJs spun out of their minds type love and a reciprocal crowd. Most acts in this style are lucky to get heads bobbing.
The endless nostalgia cycle is an increasingly common gen-x conversation topic; we’re already seeing all our ’90s styles being repurposed, yet now the ’80s are looping back around AGAIN? One way to think of it is as a testament to pioneers like New Order and Depeche Mode for creating something so universally meaningful that each successive generation reclaims it for themselves. After all, Nation Of Language may be luring middle-aged music critics via pure nostalgia, but it’s young people going to the shows too; the songs are by and for THEM. Clearly there’s a nerve being hit upon, even if all it means is THEIR parents listened to too much Erasure when they were kids.
Fast-forward (NOTE: this is an archaic term referencing CASSETTES) to Friday. My heart was at a funeral in Janesville. The show, wouldn’t you know it, was at Eulogy, a brand new venue attached to Burial Brewing; its debut concert had been less than a week prior. Asheville also has an incredible beer scene and I wish I could’ve sampled at least a dozen of Burial’s tap options but it wasn’t that kind of night and I only tried one, Mystifying Endeavors For An Unintelligible Equilibrium (a double IPA, it was tasty). Jon Mueller played first. We’d just seen him six weeks prior in Milwaukee, performing what he CLAIMS was the exact same set. Now, some of the differences between that show and what we experienced in Asheville can be chalked up to radically different PA setup and acoustics; indeed, the cumulative effect of the ever-rising loop chorus was much more of a factor here than at [undisclosed venue]. Nevertheless I assure you that despite the predetermined nature of Mueller’s punishing drum/gong/voice/loop onslaught on this particular tour, there were other differences! I can’t help it if Jon doesn’t REMEMBER dropping grindcore beats. Even if the two sets HAD been identical, though, the experience was worth the flight; if you have not yet succumbed to this iteration of the Jon Mueller full-sensory percussion bath, get on it; the tour’s almost over and he’ll probably never play this piece again.
Next up was Topographies, or at least the San Francisco band’s frontman Justin Oronos, aka (only by me probably) Goth Weird Al (pictured). Here was another twentysomething artist who had dialed his songwriting and instrumental tones so precisely into early-’80s Robert Smith that you would almost call him a tribute act. Again, as someone who’s been listening to The Cure for 40-some years and considers Smith to be one of pop culture’s unassailable gods, of course I fucking love this, but young people MUST love it too, right? (Then again, as I found out later, maybe it’s just that Lol Tolhurst’s son Gray is IN THIS BAND?? Just not for this tour apparently…? Or was the rest of the band out sick tonight? Goth Weird Al may have given an explanation but his banter was impossible to decipher through the reverb.) On another night in another mindset, maybe it would’ve just bugged me how derivative this music was, but in this instance I simply felt a twinge of vindication, like there IS something intrinsically potent in those tones. It’s a nice fantasy.
When Mary Lattimore came onstage next, I assumed we must’ve missed the first act, another I’d never heard of. Lattimore is an Asheville native, even shouting out some childhood neighbors who’d made it out for the show; besides, who would want to play AFTER her? Previous times when I’d seen her perform, the rooms were decidedly more sterile and well-lit; Eulogy hasn’t existed long enough to develop a distinctive character, but the Red Lodge curtains behind the stage certainly lent a creepy atmosphere. Nevertheless, Lattimore’s gorgeous harp compositions were nothing short of angelic. Y’know, in an occasionally creepy way, like when she does that pitch-bending stuff, or the way she blends backward loops into a magical synergy with what she’s playing, er, forwards, or the insect-like percussive noises she comes up with. Mostly, though, pure spiritual uplift, a mass soul cleansing.
As she was wrapping up her set she mentioned that she was excited to see what Tashi had put together for the next set. Wha…?? Did she mean Dorji? Maybe I should’ve done some rudimentary googling before the show or maybe it was better this way; it turned out that ostensible headliners ”MANAS & E.M.M.” were…Tashi Dorji (another Ashevillan! who knew?) and Efrim Manuel Menuck from Godspeed You! Black Emperor? And they performed what I presume was a purely improvised set of guitar warfare/intercourse. It was only earsplitting noise for the first 10 or 15 minutes; after that it cycled through some relatively sonorous, vaguely rock-based push/pulls and culminated in a deeply psychedelic mindstew the structure of which was all in your mind. I could’ve stayed submerged in this for hours but it was over within a flash, a turbulent takeoff, a period of collecting tools and water droplets in zero G, then the gradual drift into catatonic bliss as the pressure drained away. (We’re all dead now.)
I can’t find any evidence of previous performances by MANAS & E.M.M.; did we just witness the first? I’m in a bit of a limbo these days; with google now useless and everyone having left twitter, I have no clue how to find information any more. If anyone has any leads, please reach out—unless it’s to suggest a different social media platform. I thought we all agreed they were bad for us? I can’t deny a twinge of e-loneliness, but I know it’s illusory and will go away. I’ve always sucked at the internet. Besides, it’s possible that I’ve already accumulated almost all of the information I’m ever going to need.
When we booked this trip I had no idea we were heading to a mini-Big Ears festival but that’s what Friday night felt like. And it was over with at 11. How do they get a crazy bill like this in a hippie/bluegrass town of 95,000 people?? If it weren’t for Acme Records and Sugar Maple we’d never see ANY of these artists in Milwaukee (except Mueller obviously because he’s from here). Maybe that’s part of Milwaukee’s charm, though; it’s got everything you NEED, but if you want to actually experience the finer points, you gotta get out of here once in a while. You never know what you might stumble upon.