Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Positive Aura of Renewing, Refreshing and Blooming again: Anathallo in Boston, MA

Although a two hour delay on the commuter train from Providence to Boston made me get to the Middle East Nightclub about 45 minutes after doors opened, I still had to wait in line in order to get in. Waiting, I suddenly became highly aware of my age. Most people who stood ahead and behind me had already purchased their tickets, and with that, their “over 21” bracelets that openly distinguished them from the younger crowd who had large Xs drawn on their hands with permanent marker. After getting my hands “X”ed by a 20 something year old guy with large thick black-rimmed glasses, I walked up a few steps that led “Upstairs.” The place was small and packed and the opening band was already on the stage. I squeezed through towards the “merch table” and waited. It was about 9:45 pm and the show was just about to get started.

The Middle East in Cambridge is a popular and well-known club/restaurant that is divided in 4 parts: The Corner, where they host belly dancing shows and music over food; Zu Zu, a restaurant/bar that also offers music; Downstairs, a larger venue with a larger bar that hosts better known bands; and Upstairs, a smaller venue for smaller bands. I had been Downstairs before, once for a Drum and Bass concert and another time for a pop-rock indie concert (which shows the variety of bands that play there). This, though, was my first time Upstairs and I was surprised by its small size. It was dark and stuffy; the stage was raised but low. Anathallo, a band that for lack of better terminology I will label as indie-pop-experimental, and Sam Amidon, a folk singer-song writer who plays the banjo, were performing that night.

The band that started playing (I unfortunately couldn’t catch their name) was a sort of generic indie-rock band who was not touring with the rest of the lineup. They were probably local and booked by the venue itself. They only played for about 30 minutes and the crowd seemed to enjoy it even though most were not completely focused on the stage at this time.
The crowd was more varied than other shows I’ve attended. Since it was a Tuesday night and it was an 18+ show, it was composed of college students, or a recently graduated mid 20-year-olds. As I looked around at people’s wrists to see if they carried bracelets or Xs, I noticed most of the people were over 21, but the underage crowd wasn’t small either. The Middle East is well known on making sure IDs are real, so I’m sure that those who had bracelets were actually old enough to have them. There was not a noticeable pattern in fashion between the concertgoers, although there was a scattered group of hipsters, many of whom appeared to either have some contact with the bands or with the venue, or that were photographing the show. I do remember seeing a tall guy with a large patch on his black hoodie that had a bible passage on it; I wondered if this had to do with the fact that Anathallo started as an openly Christian band with spiritual lyrics. The male and female ratio seemed about the same, but the crowd was mostly white. Nevertheless, on average the scene looked as diverse as one that you might randomly see at a college lecture.

Sam Amidon took the stage next, sat on a stool with his banjo, tuned it, and almost immediately started to play. Before many of his songs, he told the story of what his song were supposedly about. Amidon made the crowd laugh with these nonsensical anecdotes. For example, he said that one of his songs was about a toy dinosaur in the future that came to life when you clapped and was so real that the way to stop it from killing you was by physically chocking it first. He said the song was about the feeling of guilt of having killed something that wasn’t really alive in the first place, that then is reborn when someone slammed a door. In one of his songs, he suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence and told us about a dream he just remembered having about chasing his mother who was really small and made funny sounds as she ran. After finishing his story he went back to playing his song as if nothing had happened. In his last song he invited the crowd to sing with him “a crazy song with lies” that talked about the war being over. He finished his set in about 45 minutes and left a cheerful crowd.

Anathallo was up next. I struggled to get upfront as I wanted to get a closer look on the performance itself. A friendly guy (over 21, American Apparel hoodie, beard, lip ring) noticed I was having trouble getting a good view and told me to get in front of him, as he was taller than me. We had a conversation on how he went to school with 2 of the band members in Chicago and felt like home when he listened to them play and asked me about my experience with their music. Anathallo (meaning “to renew, refresh or bloom again”) currently has seven band members, one of them female, whom almost all change and trade instruments throughout their performance while five of them sing. I’ve overheard that some members used to be part of a ska band, which would explain their consistent use of brass instruments. Other instruments and objects used throughout the performance included bells, pieces of wood, xylophones, big drums, drum set, guitars, bass, piano, synthesizer, recorded loops, and their hands as they occasionally clapped.

Most of the songs they played came from their latest record “Canopy Glow” which was released late 2008, some were off their previous record “Floating World” (2006), and only one was older than that. In all of their records, their music changes significantly, staying true to their name, yet at the same time keeping the same experimental art attitude. Their sound, although not necessarily what one would easily describe as danceable, made many listeners move and dance, clap and stomp their feet. It is hard to describe the music itself as it is very experimental, but it is mostly cheerful sounding, full of instruments and alternative beat patterns, many vocals and harmonies and vocal parts that did not include lyrics, just sounds. The mood was still as casual as with Amidon; in one of the songs the main singer stopped the song and claimed he had forgotten he actually needed to play the guitar as he “was just jamming and having a good time”, and then started again without any negative response from the crowd. When he started saying, “This song is about…” a concertgoer interrupted with “partying all night long” to which the singer agreed and laughed.

I believe most of the crowd felt free to dance and move around because Anathallo’s attitude on stage was to do the same: they closed their eyes, smiled as they sang, danced and laughed, clearly having a great time. It was impossible for this sort of positive energy to not be transmitted to the concertgoers, who, even if they were standing still, still had a smile on their face as they listened. The show ended at 12:30 am, which means I missed my train back home. Although I had arrived at the show in a bad mood because of my extensive delay, this new train problem did not bring me down; I had gained some great positive energy that would not go away for a while. I’m sure many fellow crowd members felt the same way.

I did not take this video, but this is of the show I attended. The song isn't complete, but it will give you an idea of how the show was.

(Word Count: 1292)
Photo: from Anathallo's myspace page

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Critical Review #4: Hayes

In Hayes' study of relocated rap by white non-urban youth, he focuses on a town right outside of Toronto called Scottsville. The town is prominently white, and the high school that the youth that were interview attended, had no black people in it. Most of Hayes' study focused on non-urban whites that liked rap and its associated subculture. Apparently, even though these youths admired the genre and culture that surrounded it, because of their lack of contact with black youth and their reality, these youths created a pretty homogeneous definition of what it meant to be black. These definitions were drawn from clues seen on MTV and other music sites that presented only a small percentage of African Americans that are a part of this subculture. On the other side of the spectrum, Hayes also interviewed whites who did not like rap music. They, like their rap-liking peers, also created the same stereotypes when describing why they didn't like rap music. Both rap fans and non rap fans seemed to have a fear of the "black world". Rap fans especially, although completely fascinated by the perceived danger of this black world, were both jealous of those who could participate in it, and glad that they lived in a "safer place". Hayes concludes by saying that if these non-black rap fans were able to put their interest in this culture to above the superficial liking of the music and the misguided description of what they believed as black taken from mass-media, real political changes on how blacks are seen and treated could happen.

We recently discussed a case that could be seen as the opposite of this: afropunk. Afropunk developed into a movement. Do you think the same would be possible in this case? Why or why not? And if not, what are the major differences between African Americans joining the white dominant punk sub-culture and non-urban whites joining the black dominant rap subculture?