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A Week's Worth of Shows

Considering that I’d only attended one show this calendar year prior to May—Junius at Great Scott back in March—seeing four shows in eight days was a minor miracle. I would’ve seen five if I’d ponied up for Wye Oak at Great Scott, but after buying tickets for Polvo in June and Bottomless Pit in July, I felt like a night watching the San Jose Sharks’ hapless playoff plight might be a welcome respite for my wallet.

Stars of the Lid and Christopher Willits performed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, kicking off my week of concert-going. Aside from the middle-aged woman who sat next to me and chided me for taking non-flash photos of Willits’ set, it’s hard to imagine a better setting for both acts. I was unfamiliar with Christopher Willits’ work, but his heavily processed guitar work reminded me of the melodic micro-glitch of Accelera Deck’s Pop Polling. These detailed soundscapes coincided perfectly with Willits’ projected videos, particularly one focusing on weeds coming out of sidewalk cracks. The videos from his 2006 album Surf Boundaries emphasize a push into the processed shoegaze of Guitar’s Sunkissed and M83’s Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts, but Willits didn’t utilize anything beyond his guitar and laptop for this set.

Stars of the Lid came out with three string players and accompanying video projections from Luke Savisky. Much like their recorded material, it’s hard for me to relate what made Stars of the Lid’s live performance so awe-inspiring. On record, I’m astonished by how much emotional resonance they can create with such a reserved sonic footprint, but live this footprint was expanded significantly by the string trio, who interacted with and often surpassed the subtle drones created by Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride. Willits joined them for the set closer, which may or may not have been “Even If You’re Never Awake (Deuxieme),” and although his contributions were remarkably subtle, the song still swelled to a previously unforeseen breaking point. The video projection raced at a breakneck pace to mirror this fever pitch, but soon everything returned to calm. Stars of the Lid certainly deserved an encore, but clapping furiously for one seemed downright strange after the nature of their set. The band caved, playing my personal favorite from last year’s And Their Refinement of the Decline, “Tippy’s Demise,” a song tailor-made for their live line-up. I’m admittedly curious about how Stars of the Lid would have sounded at the Staerkel Planetarium back in Champaign, IL, but this performance gave little reason for jealousy.

The following Tuesday I caught Foals and The Ruby Suns at the Middle East Downstairs, narrowly missing local opener Pray for Polanski’s set. I hadn’t heard anything about The Ruby Suns, but watching them set up made me nervous; three people manning a stage full of instruments, including the ever-foreboding flute. The end result was a sunnier, less interesting version of the Berg Sans Nipple’s rhythmic pop. Whereas the Berg Sans Nipple derives from a Nebraska/France axis, the Ruby Suns claim both New Zealand and California as home. Despite all of the instrument-switching, most songs ended up sounding like they were comprised of vocals, a bass line, a heavily flanged keyboard or guitar part, and either faux-tribal drumming or electronic club beats. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Pitchfork loves this stuff, since it seems close enough to Animal Collective to merit their affections, but I don’t anticipate checking out their recorded material for comparison’s sake.

I had high hopes for Foals’ set after seeing a few live clips on YouTube and they did not disappoint. Playing most of their Sub Pop debut Antidotes (minus album closer and personal favorite “Tron”) and their pre-album singles “Hummer” and “Mathletics,” Foals did an excellent job mixing up the arrangements of these songs by adding extended intros and making up for missing production magic with more brute force. Prominently coifed singer/guitarist Yannis Philippakis had considerably more stage presence than anticipated, although some stage chatter veered toward Boston-oriented pandering. While I didn’t come away from the performance finally grasping why they’re routinely called a math-rock band—tricky high-end fretwork may be a prominent signifier, but there’s simply no math involved in their 4/4 signatures—it’s hard to deny that they’re certainly good at what they actually do: cosmopolitan dance-punk.

Local indie pop/rock group You Can Be a Wesley opened up The Acorn’s first Boston show the following night at Great Scott. I hadn’t heard of the band prior to seeing the bill, but their set showed promise, if not a fully realized whole. After the fashionably empty set from the Ruby Suns the night before, I was glad to hear something genuine. Vocalist Saara reminded Acorn bassist/guitarist Jeff DeButte of Joanna Newsom, a comparison I can only assume is accurate given my steadfast avoidance of that harpsichord-wielding singer/songwriter. The music itself would benefit from a bit of road-testing, since many of the songs were flush with extraneous parts and could use some paring down, but the vocal melodies were strong. Joanna Newsom fronting a Chapel Hill indie-pop band, maybe? Worth keeping an eye out.

I’d been looking forward to seeing The Acorn since I first heard that a Boston date was in the works for their spring tour. Glory Hope Mountain was one of last year’s best surprises and has remained close to my listening pile since its release. Unfortunately, The Acorn were out of the 2LP pressing of the album, so I’ll have to suck it up and order the vinyl from Paper Bag. As for their performance, the six members did an excellent job of fleshing out the details of their recorded work while bringing more “rock” elements to fundamentally folk songs. The highlight was “Flood Pt. 1,” as its choral exuberance and pounding rhythms were a perfect fit for the end of their main set. The up-tempo rock of “Spring Thaw” from their Tin Fist EP (which I got on my trip up to Montreal last winter) closed out the evening, just before the band were treated to tour-ending shots from the Great Scott. Unless you live in the Ottawa area, you’ll probably have to wait a while before the Acorn makes it to your town, but in the meantime heed my latest recommendation to check out Glory Hope Mountain.

The Night Marchers and the Dynamiters closed out my week of shows at the Middle East Upstairs. Montreal aggro-punks CPC Gangbangs were supposed to be on the bill, but they apparently had some problems getting into the country (I’d imagine there are very strict tariffs on importing gangbangs), so The Dynamiters were moved up the bill. I hadn’t realized that they featured members of the Selby Tigers, a band I was not particularly impressed by when they opened up for Sean Na Na in Chicago, but thankfully those members have found a better gig. The Dynamiters slightly recalled the more straightforward rock moments of John Reis’s previous work in Rocket from the Crypt, but their alternating vocal turns and garage rock riffs kept me from lingering on that comparison. Their relatively short set left me wanting more, particularly after a set close that ended after less than a minute.

I’ve listened to The Night Marchers’ debut LP See You in Magic a few times, but so far it hasn’t clicked on the level of past Reis efforts like Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, or Drive Like Jehu. Yet having seen RFTC and Hot Snakes, I figured that Speedo’s status as a consummate showman would surpass any of the weaker material, an assumption that didn’t quite come to fruition. “In Dead Sleep (I Snore Zzzz),” “Bad Bloods,” and “Jump in the Fire” throttled as well as Reis’s past bands, but passing on album highlight “I Keep Holding On” in favor of some of the 1950s-flavored mid-tempo numbers was downright curious. Reis’s stage presence was in classic form, but there just isn’t enough greatness on See You in Magic to stretch over a headliner’s set. Unless you’re a diehard Reis devotee, you may want to wait until the band releases a follow-up to help expand their set list.