Category Archives: music

An Evening at the Music Tapes’ Roving Circus: The Traveling Imaginary

The Music Tapes

You close your eyes and imagine walking in a forest to a tent, and inside the tent is a present, and inside the present is… what? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, as you kind of have to be at a Music Tapes performance to really appreciate their ability to immerse fully grown adults in worlds of childlike fantasies, although fantasies which are tinged with something dark that lurks just outside the red and yellow walls of their pop-up circus tent. That darkness comes from their haunting lyrics over a deceptively simple layering of instruments that the Music Tapes, led by former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster (who’d actually sold his Neutral Milk Hotel Aeroplane Over the Sea banjo to fund the circus tent tour), along with Elephant 6 collective member Robbie Cucchiaro (who also sometimes played with Jeff Mangum’s band), have perfected. They’ve been a part of the Elephant 6 group since the 1990s and sound a bit like if you had an orchestra that suddenly found themselves with only a handful of members and a pile of instruments like saws and singing televisions to try to rebuild their music.

Paris in Bells

Throwing Pennies

Earlier this month on February 2, I went to the Music Tapes’ “Traveling Imaginary,” their current roving performance/storytelling event supporting their new album Mary’s Voice, at the Church for All Nations in Manhattan, presented by Wordless Music. On entering the church we immediately saw a circus tent taking up much of the space, and were all encouraged to try our luck throwing a penny (while blindfolded) at a bell. If you won, you got a prize (like an old key). Julian Koster also gave a solo performance on his saw atop a rolling piano before we finally all crowded into the tent. Then they set off on a rambling set mixed with stories about a mysterious game called “Evening” that you play in your sleep as a child, and a poor clown and cow performing in a circus. It all sounds kind of silly, but the band is so committed to the whimsy that you end up falling for it, too, cheering for a fellow audience member to guide a snowman’s hand to throw a snowball through the moon (I’m not making any of this up and, no, there weren’t drugs involved). A seven-foot-tall metronome even backed the band, and an automaton-organist played along.

Traveling Imaginary

Circus Tent

I’d seen the Music Tapes before when they opened for Jeff Mangum at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a performance that made me fall in love with their music, the giant set pieces and creative instruments somehow not feeling like gimmicks and their scrappy sound being as engaging musically as it was endearing. I have a ticket to see Jeff Mangum this coming Friday, and I hope to make it and see the Music Tapes open for him again, although seeing them in their own environment of the circus tent was something special. When we left the venue a soft snow was falling on the New York streets, and the fragments of lyrics from their song “Takeshi and Elijah” came into my head: “somehow we all played in musical bands/that toured through the lands/oh, they will wake you/and cover your form with old clothes/oh, they will take you into their arms/tell them the secret to snowing,” and I thought about the fake snowy glitter that had fallen in the tent and tried to evoke for us the same magic.

From another performance of the Music Tapes’ in another of their favorite venues: a stranger’s living room near Christmas:

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Favorite Concerts of 2012

The year is coming to a close and I thought I would look back at some of the incredible concerts I attended during 2012. I got to see so many of my favorite performers that it’s almost absurd, with so many beautiful moments that it’s hard to believe it all happened within the span of 12 months on the islands of New York City. I’ve included a link to videos from each so you can check it out yourselves.

[Previously: My Favorite Concerts of 2011]

Antony & the Johnsons | Radio City Music Hall | 01.26.12

Antony & the Johnsons

The concert that most made me a sniffling mess was totally Antony & the Johnsons’ Swanlights performance at Radio City. A commission by MoMA, Antony Hegarty, dressed in a flowing white robe, sang in his haunting and gorgeous voice beneath a crystal-like chandelier with lasers crossing the stage while a full orchestra played behind a screen (the revealing of which still gives me goosebumps even in memory). The cavernous Radio City only made the lone figure of Antony on the center of the busy stage more powerful, whereas I can easily imagine just about anyone else become lost in the lasers and looming art installation. But it was just beautiful and gave me a serious case of Stendhal Syndrome (and watery eyes) to listen to that otherworldly voice. At the end, well, I’ve never heard so much endless applause. Hands down my absolute favorite concert of the year, maybe of all time. [Blog recap]

Watch: “Salt Silver Oxygen” and “Crazy in Love (Beyonce Cover)”

(image via Pitchfork)

Jeff Mangum & the Music Tapes | Brooklyn Academy of Music | 01.21.12

Jeff Mangum

How crazy is it that two years in a row I can put someone on my concerts list who I thought I would never once get to see? (In fact, I’m rather sure the above photo is from last year’s show, but media-shy Jeff Mangum tends to have the same uniform/set-up.) This time, it was from the second row of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and being that close just made hearing all those old Neutral Milk Hotels more intense. I fell in love with openers the Music Tapes with their giant metronome, and the whole band marching on stage for “The Fool” will forever be one of my favorite concert moments. One of their members, Julian Koster, played the saw for many of Neutral Milk Hotel’s songs and it was so amazing to see him and Mangum play together again. I actually just bought a ticket to see Jeff Mangum this year, assuming I can get myself to Poughkeepsie for it, so apparently this once reclusive musician is staying with us for a while. Thank god. [Blog recap]

Watch: “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (you may see someone familiar in this totally ruining the shot.)

(Image via Pitchfork)

The Flaming Lips & Yoko Ono | Bricktown Events Center | 12.31.12/01.01.12

Flaming Lips, Yoko Ono, & Sean Lennon

Okay, so much of this New Year’s Eve concert took place in 2011, but the nearly 20 minute cover of “She’s So Heavy” definitely started my 2012. You probably know that I love the Flaming Lips and have spent many NYE with them, but seeing them in such a small venue as the Bricktown Events Center in Oklahoma City with Yoko Ono & the Plastic Ono Band (including Sean Lennon), with an opening performance from Phantogram, all beneath a disco ball that I’m 99% sure was salvaged from the old UFO, made it extra wonderful. From Yoko Ono’s surprisingly enjoyable screaming freaking out the Okie audience, to the Lips’ usual freaking out antics with confetti and balloons and the scratchy new songs, it was the best way to start what turned out to be a fantastic year. I guarantee there will never be a more earnest performance of “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” than the one I heard performed that night. [Blog recap]

Watch: “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”; “Strawberry Fields Forever”; “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”

(image via Yoko Ono/Flickr)

Sigur Rós | Prospect Park | 07.31.12

Sigur Ros

On a lovely summer night, Sigur Rós filled the Brooklyn air with their ethereal music for a two hour concert that floated by like a dream. It was my first time to see the longstanding Icelandic band live and it was a breathtaking performance, led by Jónsi’s oddly enchanting voice with the densely layered band. This was their first time to tour in about four years, but I hope I don’t have to wait another four to see them again. [Blog recap]

Watch: “Popplagið” and “Saeglopur”

(Image via NPR)

The Mountain Goats | Music Hall of Williamsburg/Bowery Ballroom | 10.14-16.12

The Mountain Goats

So this was something I’d never done before: see the same band three nights in a row. But there are few bands I like as much as the Mountain Goats, and that I can rely upon to be an absolutely brilliant concert experience every time, so I did it. And did not regret it. While all three nights focused on their new release, “Transcendental Youth,” there were plenty of unexpected moments each evening, with the cover of Wye Oak’s “Civilian” (chills!) sticking out in my mind, as well as the digging up of older songs like “You Were Cool,” “Sax Rohmer #1,” and “Pure Milk,” and a seemingly extra energy driven into some of my favorites like “See America Right” and “Broom People.” I’ve lost track of how many times total I’ve seen the Mountain Goats, and every concert has totally gripped me in some way, but they somehow just seem to be getting better.

Watch: “Civilian (Wye Oak Cover)”

(Image via paperblog)

The Mountain Goats & Anonymous 4 | Ecstatic Music Fest | 03.24.12

Anonymous 4 & the Mountain Goats

I actually saw the Mountain Goats earlier in the year as well, although a version condensed down from the full band to John Darnielle playing with the medieval acapella group Anonymous 4 (with some help from the talented Owen Pallett). An unlikely pairing? Sure, but it ended up working with surprising success, with Darnielle’s intense Mountain Goats songs that seem bled out of scars biting against the spiritual layers of voice that would sound more in place in an abbey, striking in an unexpected balance. I love when artists take risks.

Watch: “Spent Gladiator II” and “Night Light”

(Image via NPR)

Efterklang | Metropolitan Museum of Art | 09.28.12


As Efterklang themselves pointed out, it seemed appropriate they were giving the American premiere of their new album Piramida just outside the Met’s Egyptian galleries. The Danish art-rockers’ performance with the Wordless Music Orchestra was gracefully done, and if all bands I like start doing sit-down concerts in museums with arrangements with orchestras, I’ll be thrilled.

Watch: The whole concert!!!!

(Image via NPR)

St. Vincent & David Byrne | Beacon Theatre | 09.26.12

David Byrne & St. Vincent

I have been wanting to see David Byrne perform for a long time, and while it was exciting to hear Talking Heads songs at this concert, the collaborations with the wonderful St. Vincent were highly enjoyable as well. And there was plenty of weird dancing (Byrne being stiffly emphatic, St. Vincent frenetically tottering around). I’m not totally in love with all of their album together, Love this Giant, but it definitely has some catchy material that really grew on me after seeing it live.

Watch: “This Must Be the Place”; “Road to Nowhere”; “Cruel/Burning Down the House”; and “Who.”

(Image via Brooklyn Vegan)

The Antlers | Glasslands | 07.31.12

The Antlers

This “secret” show featured new music from the Antlers’ Undersea, and at Glasslands with their intricate music reverberating through the small space with its surreal art installations, it sort of felt a bit like we were underwater. Amazing, mesmerizing, I never get tired of hearing their music and the live performance is always stunning.

Watch: “No Widows” and “Crest”

(Image via Stereogum)

Superchunk, the Hold Steady, & Clap Your Hands Say Yeah | CBGB Festival in Times Square | 07.07.12


What a weird place to hold a music festival: busy-as-hell Times Square in hotter-than-hell July. But I will apparently do anything for the bands I love, including watching Superchunk in over 100 degree heat. And it was definitely worth it. The Hold Steady were excellent summer music as well and I can’t say I ever expected to see droning, introspective Clap Your Hands Say Yeah play in the bustling center of Times Square with the advertising lights towering above them. Unknown to me then, it was actually their final show in their current version, so I’m so glad I braved the infernal heat.  [Blog post]

Watch: Superchunk’s “This Summer”; Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “In This Home on Ice”; The Hold Steady’s “Constructive Summer”

(Image via Spin)

Grizzly Bear, the Flaming Lips, Santigold, & Fun | The Intrepid | 08.10.12


Okay, so, this wasn’t exactly a concert in the usual sense, as the four groups were being filmed for Stephen Colbert’s “Colbchella.” However, I can’t leave out seeing the Flaming Lips on a freaking aircraft carrier. Plus, Grizzly Bear! (Who hadn’t played together in a couple of years.) I’m still not sold on Fun but they are undeniably catchy, and Santigold was fun herself with her umbrella-twirling dancers. But the highlight was both Wayne Coyne and Colbert climbing into the rolling balls and going over the crowd.

Watch: The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??”

(Image via the Village Voice)

Also Awesome But I’m Getting Tired:

Philip Glass’ Another Look at Harmony – Part IV | Park Avenue Armory | 02.26.12

Tibet House Benefit: Laurie Anderson, Antony Hegarty, James Blake, Das Racist, Tim Fain, Philip Glass, Stephin Merritt, Rahzel, Lou Reed, and Dechen Shak-Dagsay | Carnegie Hall | 02.13.12

Questlove’s Shuffle Culture | Brooklyn Academy of Music | 04.20.12

Craig Finn | Mercury Lounge | 02.29.12

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Beirut, Atlas Sound, and My Brightest Diamond | Brooklyn Academy of Music | 05.05.12

Maps and Atlases | Glasslands | 05.19.12

!!! | Lincoln Center | 08.09.12

Of Montreal, Jens Lekman, The GZA, and Dean & Britta | Northside Festival | 06.14-17.12

Reggie Watts | Bell House | 07.06.12

Thom Yorke | MoMA PS1 | 09.08.12

Patrick Wolf | Joe’s Pub | 09.20.12

I wish I could do write ups for all of these! And I know there are other concerts I am forgetting. Wow, when did I sleep this year?

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Sigur Rós in Prospect Park

Summer is winding down in NYC, and I’m thinking back on some of the wonderful outdoor concerts I’ve seen this year. The best would have to be Sigur Rós in Prospect Park. The ethereal, soaring music of the Icelandic band driven by Jónsi’s entrancing falsetto as he slashed away at his guitar with a cello bow was perfect for a mild summer evening in Brooklyn. They played against three screens of dreamy video on which the shadows of the band rose into towering shapes. This was the first time for Sigur Rós to be on tour in about four years, and they played an incredible two-hour set that mesmerized the  massive crowd, with many people sprawled in the grass outside the bandshell. You can listen to the whole performance through NPR, and here are some videos taken by some fellow concert goers to convey some of the beautiful concert: