live: the dutchess and the duke, the end of the world, emmy the great; pianos, 10.25.08 / the end of the world; glasslands, 10.25.08

Back upstairs at Pianos on Saturday afternoon, for a day party booked by Bowery Presents.

I’ve now seen The Dutchess and the Duke five times in 2008, in spaces ranging from basements to mid-sized theaters, playing guitars electric and acoustic. The sound I found so bracing initially has only gotten tighter — there’s a force to Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison’s vocals in tandem that’s powerfully compelling, and each show I hear turns up more nuances, whether grim lyrical humor or interweaving melodies. They pretty much killed it, playing with far more intensity than you might expect from a Saturday afternoon party with a fairly laid-back crowd.

Up next were The End of the World, playing the first of three Saturday sets. I might have to reconsider my earlier assertion that the group seems to be evolving in a more conventionally rock direction: despite the fullness of their guitar sound and the added presence of pedal steel, what made both the Pianos set and a later one at Glasslands compelling was how certain traditional elements were recombined. You have vocals, drums, bass, guitar — sure. The guitars get loud, the vocals build, the pedal steel accentuates. But the payoffs happen in different places; despite familiar elements, they’re not necessarily a verse/chorus/verse-oriented group. At Pianos, playing on a borrowed drum kit that encountered some problems, the results were solid. At Glasslands, their sound became more resonant, fuller —

Following The End of the World at Pianos was Emmy the Great. Brooklyn Vegan had a quick blurb up on her music that I’d seen pre-festival which strikes me as relatively spot-on. One of the first bits of banter to be heard during the set mentioned a Lightspeed Champion set later that night, and I picked up a similar lyrical sensibility here: self-aware, hyper-literate, and fairly charming. Musically, I was reminded of late-80s Billy Bragg (see also: the autopsy-level examinations of relationships), and one song invoked Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a la Okkervil River’s incorporations of “Sloop John B” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”. (I know Okkervil River weren’t the first to do this, but that’s what’s freshest in my mind right now.) All of it was done well, though at times the lyrical style veered a little closely into clever territory for my tastes.

live: the dutchess and the duke, james jackson toth; union hall, 09.01.08

Union Hall is around four blocks from Gorilla Coffee in Park Slope, and on nights when my supply of coffee is low and I find myself bound for the venue in question, I’ll generally make a stop beforehand for a freshly ground pack. And so on nights when I find myself standing in Union Hall’s performance space without company, as I was this evening, it leads to a strange sensation: an overpowering smell of coffee even as you drink your beer.

The show began with the usual, a pre-show mix of assorted songs-of-the-moment from the last year or so. On one of the benches lining a wall, a fellow in a blue shirt warbled along with the Dirty Projectors, his girlfriend amused or appalled. It was hard to tell whether he sang out of devotion to the group in question or ironic contempt. (Ah, Brooklyn.) The lights dimmed slowly, leaving the stage barely illuminated. That wasn’t where the first of two bands was headed, though — The Dutchess and The Duke walked to the area just in front of the stage, picked up their instruments, and began to play.

The unamplified set isn’t something you see all that often. I was towards the front of the crowd, and I suspect that Union Hall is about the largest possible venue where this could work with even those towards the back of the room having no difficulty hearing the set. In contrast with the directness I’d seen the last time I saw the group, this set was more laid-back. Though every nuance of Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison’s playing was audible, the duo (along with Shayde Sartin, from Toth’s band, on percussion) occasionally laughed, dispensed “bless you”s to audience members who sneezed, and came close to cracking each other up more than once.

“I Am Just a Ghost” may have been the highlight: Lortz began the song singing just above a whisper and ended it kneeling, face pointed upwards, at a volume just below a shout. And “Scorpio”, from a seven inch on hoZac Records, may be the prettiest song the group has written to date. Throughout, with a few brief exceptions, the crowd was silent — not an easy feat to accomplish around these parts.

It might have been the contrast in styles, but when James Jackson Toth and band began to play, the roar of notes through speakers sounded huge. The last time I’d seen Toth play was a few years earlier, opening for John Vanderslice and still using the Wooden Wand alias. That set was acoustic and abundant with fire and brimstone; this set brought with it a different kind of haze. Toth’s Waiting In Vain is full of segues to paranoia, to smoke-filled rooms and uncertain memories. (It’s not far removed from The Gutter Twins’ Saturnalia — well-written, ecstatically played rock records that document aspects of life I’d rather avoid if at all possible.) The five-piece setup roared throughout the set, and with four of the five contributing vocals, the layered arrangements heard on Waiting translated to the live setting much more closely than I had expected. And while the maddeningly ecstatic “Beulah The Good” wasn’t on the evening’s set list, I left impressed.