All posts by Tony Vorell

Sideshow by the Lakeshore: Luna’s Triumphant Return to Cleveland

Until the Grog booked Luna for last night’s show — their first time back to Cleveland in about 12 years — I honestly hadn’t listened to their records since 2009. They were lost in the CD-selling purges of my thirties. But conveniently, Spotify has a Best of Luna playlist to refresh my memory. Side note — they’re playlists now, not albums. That’s not to say they have any record I dislike; it’s just they get filed away in the drawer of really catchy indie rock songs.

Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson

Music fans like myself compare and contrast bands against their peers. My favorite game to play as a contrarian is to state the greater band is the one with the better catalog. Yo La Tengo are a better band than My Bloody Valentine. Is Loveless a great album? Sure, why not. But Yo La Tengo have plain old done more and therefore reached greater heights, so they’re the better band. People who worship at the altar of meteoric bands miss true greatness.

Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson 
Dean Wareham of Luna by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson

This is the point where writing about Luna gets tricky. They are both timeless and of a very specific time. Who exactly are their peers? The depth of music knowledge on stage last night went clear back to the Platters or Duane Eddy or my beloved Beach Boys. I like record collector rock. Dean Wareham seems like the kind of guy who has walls and walls full of obscure but totally great vinyl albums. But comparing Luna to either their own heroes or part of a revival is short sighted. It’s not revivalist; it’s syntheist.  

Luna by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson

Conversely, trying to place Luna alongside their contemporaries in the 1990s “alt-rock” doesn’t quite line up either. Pavement, Superchunk, Sonic Youth got up at the same time on the same stages, but everyone sounds more like each other than Luna sounds like anyone — a loser contradiction their lyrics often hint at. Luna aimed for a different target and hit it. Their success was on their own terms.

Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson
Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson 

So what happened on stage? For one, the guitars sounded amazing. I’m not a gearhead, but a quick look at the stuff wasn’t complicated, but rather the stack of a band who dialed in their sound. The guitars sounded rich and full, with beautiful overtones and carefully sculpted reverb. The shimmering sound I heard probably sounds identical in every room they play. The economy of sound extended into the playing. The solos were similar to their records, and they were written right the first time, so a brief guitar solo (and one bass solo) kept the songs moving. For a band that prides themselves on the consistent dynamics of the rhythm section, the songs moved great.

Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson
Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson
Luna band by Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson

When I was bullshitting online the day of the show, my friend Pete posted he found the first grey hairs in his beard, even though he’s been balding for years. I saw him later that night, and at age 32, he was one of the youngest people in the room. Luna are not minting new fans, and their setlist played liked it. Hits like Pup Tent, Chinatown, Bewitched. We joked about waiting around for the Velvet Underground cover, but it never came, although they did throw in a Cure cover. Their catalog is enshrined in the memories of their fans, and their fans know their influences well enough that all they had to do was run through the hits, have fun doing it, and everyone walked away happy. BTW Pete’s single.

Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson

Do you know the difference between classic rock and oldies? I do, and I bet you do too. Now, if you happen to be a Luna fan, ask yourself where do they fit in? Not do they sound like The Champs vs The Eagles, but are Luna part of a culture that has endured against the ebb and flow of fashion, or are they part of an emerging industry of keeping musicians employed, on the road and somewhat happy? Luna fans have been waiting a decade to see this show, a reasonable amount of time for side projects and time off, and not subject to the diminishing returns of the Pixies reunion. They walked off the stage happy, and their fans felt the same.

Luna band by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Luna by Mara Robinson

See more photos here

Share

Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour Review

No one knew David Bowie was dying. When he assembled Tony Visconti and jazz saxophonist Danny McCaslin in 2015 to work on the album Blackstar, he kept his growing cancer a secret from his band. He insisted on recording live with the full band. His mouth opened up with the now classic lyric from Lazarus: “Look up here/I’m in heaven,” and the band played on. Whatever doubts, questions, regrets or fears he felt as cancer shut down his liver, he expressed as he said everything in his life through music. Mystery and excitement were the hallmarks of a wide and varied recorded and performance output. But then, within days of Blackstar’s release, the unavoidable happened to the surprise of friends, fans and collaborators.

No one who has seen Brian Wilson on this most recent tour will be surprised.

Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson by Mara Robinson

This was my sixth time in the last twenty years seeing Brian Wilson in concert, hereafter referred to affectionately by just his first name. Brian, the sad, chubby guy at the piano, singing about surfing for half a century. Brian, with melodies and harmonies that came straight from God. Brian, who when he looks in the mirror, sees his late brothers every day. Brian, whose songs have dug themselves into my heart since birth. My parents were fans, and played his music often growing up. His expression of innocence is my own innocence. I like “Fun, Fun, Fun.” I’ve covered Surfer Girl with my band. Caroline, No hit me right as I discovered girls could be sad.

Brian Wilson, Al Jardine by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson, Al Jardine by Mara Robinson

I include these things in the preface to draw out a distinction between Brian and pretty much every other artist in existence. You listen to Brian with your heart. Sure, in attendance last week were those old rich people who will see any live act to cross them off a bucket list. They were listening with their wallets. Also, there were maybe a couple of nerdy music students who can parse out every harmonic interval and key change, and appreciate them for the innovations that he brought to early 1960s 1-4-5 pop music. They listen to Brian with their well-trained ears.

But I think Brian really lives in the hearts of people who love his songs. I think of my mom, who when she hears the intro to I Get Around starts waving her hands to the beat and start singing, even if she can’t get up to dance any more. There is a purity in her joy that grew from the seed Brian planted. Being my mother’s son on many different levels, I can’t say I reacted any differently last week, dancing in my seat, and bringing an embarrassed smile to my wife. I love these songs, and his band is able to execute them in such a way that hits that button reliably, year after year. There’s a lot of people like my mom out there.

She couldn’t make it this time. My mom has been sick for a while, and in all honesty, will probably be this sick until she dies. I wheeled her to that 2012 Beach Boys reunion show at Blossom, and she couldn’t stay the full time, so we left early. Even in the parking lot, she could hear the distant strains of Do You Wanna Dance? and thought about staying a little longer. I told her I was going to this show last week, and some part of her thinks maybe she could have managed to go, somehow, someway, but decided against it.

Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson by Mara Robinson

Brian had to be walked out to his piano. I’m pretty certain he didn’t actually play the thing. He often started songs, with a voice pure but short, and then handed off the second verse to a younger singer. He’s sick. Any armchair doctor could suggest possible diagnoses, but who cares? He can’t walk, he can barely sing. He’s going to die.

The disconnect between Brian’s sadness and the sunniness of the Beach Boys sound is a turning point. When you unlock that mystery, the world opens up a little more; it’s a little fuller, more real. The program was a complete performance of his 1966 album Pet Sounds with its aching centerpiece I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. He mostly spoke the lyrics, but his heart was heavy. He’s waited fifty more years, and it’s still not his time. It’s important to note the distinction between “sadness” and “darkness.” Another great legend of song who left us last year, Leonard Cohen, said until the very end “You want it darker.” That’s never true for Brian. As sad as he can be, confronted with abuse and drugs and death, he never let darkness pull him. His music continues to be filled with love and joy.

Brian Wilson live in concert Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour
Brian Wilson by Mara Robinson

Is Brian being exploited? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leonard Cohen resumed touring in the 2010s because bad managers left him broke and touring was the best source of income. Brian’s struggles with managers, starting with his own father Murray and continuing on to Eugene Landy, are also well known. Under his wife Melinda’s guidance, he appears to be financially stable, but there might be more people with their livelihoods tied to the Brian Wilson touring industry.

I bring this up because I think the answer hints at why this show last week was so great. I think Brian was up there not to make money but because he loves us. I can clearly see the scene in my mind. Brian gets some bad health news, and he says to his family “I think people want to hear these songs one more time, and if I can give to them, I should do it.” He knows it’s going to be hard. He knows his voice isn’t what it used to be. But he’s a giver, and when faced with hard times, he does what he knows he can do.

Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson by Mara Robinson

The only reason this works is because whatever Brian has given us, has given me, we’ve all repaid him more. What hope exists in this man? What faith? To launch his sadness into the void with just some pretty chords and harmonies. But it’s worked every time. His voice has landed on my fertile ears, who return not just the adoration of a rock star, but true genuine love.

The set last week closed with Love and Mercy, the title of a recent biopic, but the song is from the 1980s. He’s closed with it the last few times I’ve seen him, and I think that’s by his design. It’s a piano ballad about a dopey man going through his day, watching movies and getting dinner and trying to make people happy. Brian has always put himself openly and completely in everything he’s done, but this is Brian 2017. “Love and Mercy to you and your friends tonight.”

Al Jardine (The Beach Boys) by Mara Robinson
Al Jardine by Mara Robinson
Al Jardine live in concert
Al Jardine by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 2017 by Mara Robinson
Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017
Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson live in concert
Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson live in concert
Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017 by Mara Robinson
Share