Arriving in Milwaukee after a full day of running errands, Curmudgeon and I were a bit late as we pulled in at sometime around 1715. We met up and exchanged pleasantries with the first part of our party and, once we got Lady Chaos and Ya Wot Evar piled into the Expedition with us, were guided deeper into the heart of Milwaukee to get a bite to eat at the Comet Cafe before we went down to the show. Corvar joined us not long after the four of us arrived and thus began the speculation as to how one makes "vegan meatloaf" or "vegetarian rib niblets." I guess the restaurant is catering to an increasingly vegetarian-oriented crowd in the neighborhood and have adopted a "slow food" philosophy, so they do quite a lot with locally-grown and seasonal foods. It's a hell of a place and while I didn't sample any of the vegetarian fare I did greatly enjoy the meal I ordered (a turkey with bacon and pepperjack cheese creation called a "Turkenstein"). Everyone else seemed to like their dishes as well, except for poor Lady Chaos, who was a bit disappointed with her plate. The irony is that she was the one who put together the timeline and made the executive decision that everyone would eat at the cafe.
After we ate we drove further into Milwaukee to hit the concert hall. One thing I never expected for the night was to be caught behind a horse-drawn carriage in downtown Milwaukee -- yet somehow I managed to achieve it. Things plodded along for a few minutes that way before a break in traffic was afforded to me and I passed the anachronism. I'm decidedly uncertain how to feel about this; one one hand I was frustrated by being "caught" behind this slow-moving obstacle. On the other hand the farmboy (and lover of all things antiquated) in me was pleased to see that horse-drawn carriages are still sometimes hired by new couples for romantic tours of a very scenic city. Though I'm not sure how romantic it is to be caught in a late-afternoon rush of traffic...
Without much fanfare we found a parking lot and made our way into the Rave. I have to say that The Rave is one of the most interesting venues I've been to in a long time. Interesting in a good way, no less -- this gigantic multi-level building is home to something like three individual stages and a grand ballroom! As I looked around one thought kept echoing in my mind: Hell of a place to play, I figured. The accoustics are going to suck in a place that's steel and concrete with 22 foot ceilings and exposed I-beams. Again, I was going to be proven wrong in a most pleasantly surprising way.
The five of us grabbed our share of over-priced concert drinks (rail gin and tonic cost me a wretched $7! This is why I primarily do my drinking at home... I'm much cheaper and as a bartender I'm more generous with the high-tension booze) and spent a few minutes chatting about various and sundry things. Curmudgeon bought a souvenier T-shirt and then we migrated into the main dance area in front of the stage. I wasn't sure what to make of what I saw up there... a few projection screens of a circular shape were mounted to the back wall, there were several keyboards and something that looked like a classical piano -- only it had no piano parts and seemed to be made out of plexiglass. I could see in the reflection of the "lid" that there was a Macintosh workstation of some type underneat, the screensave was clearly one written by jwz and that meant Mac OS X or some other UNIX variant. Since I saw a PowerBook laptop plugged in at the sound engineer's mixing board I figured it was a safe bet OS X was what was running. But I digress! The stage also had a number of stands for electronic keyboards and sound cabinets, as well as some other equipment I couldn't immediately identify. I noticed rather quickly there didn't seem to be much instrumentation for a band. What was going on here?
About 5 minutes after the show was scheduled to start a somewhat bedraggled woman appeared on stage. The crowd went nuts, so I surmised that this would be Imogen Heap herself. I was correct! Once a small glitch with the microphone was sorted out we were greeted and enticed to show our maximum enthusiasm for her opening acts. Not just one act, but two. I was a bit surprised at this but curious to see who would open for a lady who crosses or outright defies boundaries.
First up was Levi Weaver, who was something of a one-man band. He made use of a looping machine to build vocals and samples of rhythm and his guitar... prefacing the opening song with "I hope you don't mind if I use a metronome... I'm not a very good musician." Lies and pictures of also lies! What he was doing was setting the beat for his song, which he built further and further with every verse until it sounded as if he had an entire band backing him with vocals and everything. I was very impressed by this and, as my little clique observed during the show, it must be terribly trying to be the only one in your ensemble -- but it also limits the potential for creative differences in the band when you are the band. Unless of course you have multiple personality disorder an sue yourself for control of the copyrights...
Levi was very folks-y, something I'm not as fond of as I used to be, but I recognized he was very talented at what he did. Using varying techniques he played his guitar for the entirety of his set, doing a number of samples and loops to build harmonies and cadence. For one song he also used some sort of mouth-keyboard, something I've never witnessed before. He blew into one end, played a few notes on the keyboard as he was blowing, sampled it and looped it up for the rest of the song. You don't expect a "folk" singer to use technology nearly as heavily as he was doing... but he certainly knew how to make it work for himself. When his set finished on a very personal song he bid everyone a good night and retreated off stage... and shortly after Imogen was back in the spotlight. She introduced the next opening act in a most memorable way by stating that the next act was something else entirely as she had "never seen a man who could so so much with his mouth," and of course the crowd got a good laugh. "With his mouth and a loop machine! You didn't let me finish," she said. And that's when we were introduced to Kid Beyond.
Wow. Just wow. If pressed for a single sentence description I'd end up with something akin to "Tall bald man who amazed me using live looped beatboxing mixed with killer vocals." This guy did everything using just his voice and the sample/loop machines. Nothing was pre-recorded. I don't know how he did it without falling over from hyperventilation. Perhaps even more amazing is that, using his voice and the loops, he was able to produce a steadily-increasing bass line that simply pounded on one's senses. I am not exaggerating when I say that at various points his voice-as-bassline made my shirt ripple. It felt like I was being slammed by a wall of sound! It was impossible to stand still during this set because the man's energy was downright infectious and you were constantly in awe of what he was able to do. I took a two minute break during the middle of his set to slide back to the T-shirt stand to sign up for his mailing list, buy two copies of his album and an Imogen Heap shirt for myself. Then I hurried back to the floor so I could watch more of the set. The final song was an homage Iraq War activist Marla Ruzicka, a track that was powerful and emotionally moving as well as compelling to the body's sense of rhythm.
When Kid Beyond left the stage I realized that nearly two hours had elapsed since the show's opening acts began -- that was pretty impressive. There was a brief intermission of maybe five to seven minutes before the main show began, during which Curmudgeon and I retreated to the side seating area for a rest of legs and spines. I looked like I was maybe three months pregnant because the shirt and albums I had bought were tucked at my belly, snugly secured in place by the flannel I was wearing over my t-shirt for warmth. We'd really just settled in to rest when the crowd went wild, which was our cue to get back over to the stage floor for the main show. Just as we arrived another whoop went up from the folks around us and music that was distinctly different from the intermission fare started to swell, something that sounded vaguely like a repeating vocal and some sort of harmony done with humming. Curmudgeon and I took our spots alongside our friends and suddenly a spotlight circle lanced into the crowd at our left, revealing Imogen as she emerged from a side exit. She was in full costume, her hair done up with what was later termed a "fauxhawk," which was a sort of mohawk set in her hair that was clearly made from a feather boa. I was interested to see she too had electronic accoutrement -- in this case a wirelessly mic'd sample keyboard with quite a few knobs and switches. Parading through the crowd she quickly made her way onto stage and finished the introduction song.
Once she was settled she began to introduce her "band," which was primarily electronic. A synth, an electric piano, a laptop, a trigger keyboard and a sampler were just the few components I remember clearly. There were also some human elements to her band, a percussionist on drums and a fellow who played the stand-up bass and (later) horns. She puts on an excellent show because, right after the real "band" took the stage she also invited back Levi and Kid Beyond. Levi picked up his guitar and started strumming... Kid Beyond started beatboxing and looping himself and the whole ensemble launched into a new song. The crowd went wild.
I would be hard-pressed to name any of the songs that Imogen played. First and foremost I was immersed by how this lady made an incredible portion of the music all by herself using the technology that surrounded her. Also, there was a rather standard club/live venue mixing problem in that the sound engineer left her microphone a bit muted so that we could hear her talking but frequently couldn't make out distinct words amidst the overwhelming wall of sound that were the samples and instruments. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Imogen revealed during a very brief interlude that she'd made a "new and unpleasant discovery" in that she had come down with a case of Strep Throat. So maybe that contributed to how her voice was sometimes difficult to make out... or maybe it was just my ears having a hard time wading through her accent when it was being drowned out by the music she and the others were making. I don't know! But it doesn't matter because, as I said, she put on one hell of a show with lighting affects and parading around the stage.
Her set lasted nearly ninety minutes, though there was about a five minute interlude near the end when Kid and Levi were again on stage -- Imogen found that her trigger keyboard wasn't working as it needed more batteries. She handed the keyboard off to a stage hand who scampered off to get the batteries replaced. Kid Beyond, perhaps amused by this, started to beatbox and loop his version of the theme from Jeopardy to help pass the time. The crowd got into it and sort of hummed along. Imogen started to harmonize with him and the effect was overall very clever and energetic. I liked it because they were providing an excellent way to pass the time and keep the crowd engaged and happy while a technical glitch was resolved. They didn't panic and just rolled with problems in such a way that the crowd almost felt as if this unscheduled break was a scripted part of the show -- that's the sign of a true set of professionals.
When the stagehand returned with teh keyboard Imogen slung it over her shoulder like a guitar and asked Kid Beyond, "What was that we were just doing?" He answered honestly, "That's the theme from Jeopardy." When his reply garnered a friendly but somewhat confused stare I think he realized quickly that there was a bit of a cultural rift involved. While he and the audience were familiar with Jeopardy and the joke of using the theme when waiting for something, there is probably very little reason that a native of the U.K. would be familiar with this gag. Breaking into a grin Kid Beyon assured Imogen, "I'll explain it to you later. It's a U.S. thing." And then off they went into the next song.
The "final" song was performed around 23:15 and then the lights went out... but the cheering didn't stop. As Imogen promised, when the crowd had cheered for a few months the entire group came back on stage to perform an encore. They were all wearing sunglasses and Imogen assured the crowd, "You can tell that because we're wearing sunglasses... we're going to rock it even harder now!" Our circle of friends stayed through this song and, as she announced the true "final" song was about to play, we opted to follow the lead of Corvar and escape the venue before the real rush began after the show. As all of us had our souveniers and were feeling the effects of three and a half hours of standing in a crowded dance floor the escape seemed like a good idea and we made our way to the exit doors.
I've glossed over huge portions of this performance because it was just too vast an experience to write in one sitting and I've been working on this entry for almost three hours straight. For example, I've left out how profoundly talented Imogen is. I didn't write about how interesting it was for me from a technology and musical standpoint to witness her building songs "from scratch" by sampling and looping herself in a fashion similar (but not as "bare bones" simple) to Kid Beyond's. I couldn't give you a complete set list of the songs performed, just a couple of song titles from each individual artist. I've completely neglected to mention the generally positive way the crowd behaved, nor how Curmudgeon had to spend a number of songs on the floor because her back and legs just hurt too much from standing (amazing how desk jobs ruin the skills we perfect when working in retail).
I hope this incredibly long entry gives a sense of just what an immersive experience the show was. The show lasted three and a half hours! If you see that she's coming to town and can score tickets I strongly recommend you do so.
Don't you forget