Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson
Outland on Liberty, Columbus, May 17
by Matt Slaybaugh

Outland is a really strange venue. It looks like a Glee producer’s idea of what a dance club for gothy runaways (which it kind of is) should look like. Which is my way of saying it was kind of perfect for this half folk, half rap show. There were a lot of records being promoted, including the debut from Hail Mary Mallon (Aesop Rock + Rob Sonic + DJ Biz Wiz), Kimya Dawson’s soon-to-be-released Thunder Thighs, and an as yet untitled side-project featuring the unlikely pairing of Aesop and Kimya. So the mix of tunes for the night was eclectic to say the least.

First, Dawson took the stage with Aesop Rock to reveal a couple of their collaborations. These essentially sounded like Kimya Dawson songs with Aesop rocking over her acoustic guitar for a few minutes at the end. Their styles clashed pleasantly in this context, and Aesop adapted his delivery to the acoustic bounce of the songs. Then Ace Rock left the stage and Kimya played a short set of her own material. Despite some lyrical highlights, I got frustrated when it started to blend together after a while. I was smugly satisfied that the selection from her children’s album didn’t really significantly differ from the rest of her set. Fewer drug references maybe. She was an engagingly raw performer, though, incorporating her mistakes and the audience’s quips into the tunes without even trying not to miss a beat. She would stumble, then as her set closer, “Loose Lips,” suggests, “start again and just pretend that nothing ever happened.” The very last song of her first appearance of the night was another duet with Aesop Rock. “Walk Like Thunder” is lurking somewhere on Aesop’s website, and it’s worth the download. It’s a long song, made up of a pair of emotional stories about close friends taken by cancer. Even in a live setting, with the impatient audience chattering away throughout, the piece had a powerful impact.

The crowd was full of Aesop loyalists; they rapped every word and were ready for the audience participation cues in the “Night Light/Day Light” medley. It was the type of group that tends to be hostile to an over-abundance of new material, but luckily the Hail Mary Mallon tracks packed enough palpable, syncopated punch (not to mention ridiculous choruses about parking meter feeders and the Poconos) to get the crowd involved from the get-go. On those songs, Aesop slowed his hyperactive, polyrhythmic flow to make room for partner Rob Sonic’s more rough ’n’ tumble articulation. Of course, that just made space for more words, exactly as Ace Rock prefers it. The pair delivered a few highs from their upcoming release (available digitally now) with straightforward shout-alongs like “Grubstake” and “Breakdance Beach,” probably the most lighthearted song Ace has ever recorded. Hip-hop shows are notorious for presenting unintelligible vocals, but even at Outland’s intense volumes, and even at the speed of classics like “No Regrets,” you could actually understand most of Aesop’s words. (And that’s been the case when I’ve seen him in other larger venues.) I don’t know how he accomplishes that, if he’s got classically trained enunciation or what, but I certainly wouldn’t mind it if a few other touring rappers asked him for some tips. Of course, the show wouldn’t have been complete without the bookending of Kimya Dawson’s appearances. She took to the stage sans guitar to sing on what, at first, just sounded like a couple of standard Aesop Rock songs with beats by Big Wiz. On the second song, though, Dawson took a couple of verses herself and her sing-songy delivery sometimes veered dangerously close to actual rapping. Aesop cites Dawson as a long-term influence on his writing, and suddenly it seemed like the influence was coming full circle as the love of rhythm and words that she and Ace Rock share came startlingly into focus. If the rest of their collaboration finds its way closer to that mark, it could be a new peak for both of their recorded catalogs.

NYCB Theatre, Westbury, May 18
by Stephen Slaybaugh

While some may consider the suburbs of Long Island to be the tenth layer of Hell, Westbury, New York, isn’t the first place you’d expect to find demon crooner Glenn Danzig and his eponymous horde. Indeed, upon entering the NYCB Theatre (a theatre-in-the-round), I overheard one headbanger comment that it is where “like Peter Frampton usually plays.”

The other noticeable oddity were the signs on the doors to the venue stating that no cameras of any kind would be allowed in tonight. The possible reason behind Danzig’s photography ban became obvious when the singer emerged from behind a curtain sporting the band’s famed skull logo. The frontman had obviously put on weight and his horned belt buckle was hoisting up a gut and not just the evil swelling within his belly. It, of course, wouldn’t be a big deal, but the 56-year-old has been showing off his shirtless muscular physique for years and has continued to preach about treating one’s body as a temple (to Satan, of course), so it’s odd to see him looking kind of chubby.

But regardless of whether or not his evil overlord requires alms from Frito-Lay, Danzig proved that he hadn’t gone soft where it counts once he opened his mouth. After taking the stage to “Wotans Procession,” the band launched into “Skincarver,” and Glenn belted out the song’s refrains in that Morrison-cum-Presley growl of his. “Twist of Cain,” from the band’s self-titled debut followed, and while other classics like “Her Black Wings” and “How the Gods Kill” also stood out, songs from the band’s most recent album, Deth Red Sabaoth, proved to be some of the most potent of the night. “Deth Red Moon,” ”Hammer of the Gods” and “Rebel Spirits” were marked by spitfire, and “Ju Ju Bone” showed that Danzig’s soul may have been left at the same crossroads where Robert Johnson bargained with Beelzebub decades earlier.

The only hamper on the evening was the venue itself, which had been sectioned off into a more traditional set-up. Still, the contours of the seating made it so there was a gulf between the band and the audience, and Danzig kept remarking on how strange it felt to be so far away from his minions. Nonetheless, everyone in attendance was on their feet with fists in the air for “Mother,” which closed the set. Danzig re-emerged for an encore of “Dirty Black Summer” and “Tired of Being Alive,” both of which were equally fierce. The performance was barely over an hour and also lacked the extremities I was kind of expecting (no fire, no virgins sacrificed), so maybe Danzig is indeed only human. Be that as it may, he still possesses extraordinary powers onstage.

The Antlers
Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, May 19
by Stephen Slaybaugh

The poignant appeal of the Antlers’ last two records, 2009’s Hospice and the recently released Burst Apart, is impossible to deny. Led by singer and guitarist Peter Silberman, the band has crafted depictions of life’s most fragile moments into sonorous songs exhilarating as they are heartrending. As such, one would expect such material to translate to transcendental live shows, with the audience and band swept up in the shared emotional experiences of the songs.

But did that happen at this, my first time witnessing the Antlers perform? Not so much. Things started off slowly with Burst Apart opener “I Don’t Want Love” and the cascading tones of “No Windows,” also from the new album. Some sound problems cut short what little momentum they had developed and kept the band distracted. Things clicked better on “Parentheses,” its bluesy guitar wails swelling to fill the confines of the Music Hall. Even better was “French Exit,” easily one of the new record’s highlights. Live the song’s oscillating synths were more rapturous, and tracks from Hospice like “Bear” also managed to inflate to larger stature. And “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” Burst’s sorrowful closer, closed the set with a haunting quietude.

Still I felt that the night never reached its full potential. I expected the Antlers’ songbook to become anthems for their fellowship of wounded souls, with the show continuing to peak in neverending moments of catharsis. That was not the case. Even when the band returned for a four-song encore that ended with “Two” and “Wake,” two of Hospice’s pinnacle moments, there was a certain amount of detachment from the material. The Antlers, while proficient, just aren’t compelling enough onstage to take their set —and the audience—to another level. Again, it’s hard to find fault with such stellar tracks being performed competently, but however unrealistically, I wanted so much more than I got.