Sunday, July 27, 2008

Saturday Night in Prospect Park: Bear Hands, The Jealous Girlfriends & Ghostland Observatory at Celebrate Brooklyn

According to our 1988 diary, twenty years ago this weekend we were at Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell, watching a peformance by the Miami City Ballet under the direction of the great Edward Villella.

In those days we spent half the year in South Florida and the other half on the Upper West Side. We always used to like to watch the Miami City Ballet practicing, as you could see them through the wall-to-wall windows at their space in the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach.

That summer in Manhattan, we were taking classes at Teachers College and preparing, thanks to an award from the New York State Council on the Arts, for a fall gig as writer-in-residence at the Rockland Center for the Arts in West Nyack, attempting to replace the irreplaceable Terry McMillan.

That was then, this is now. Last night we were blissed out by a great evening featuring two tasty up-and-coming Brooklyn bands and Austin-based Ghostland Observatory, whom we discovered years ago via NPR. On his MySpace blog last August, a Williamsburg writer said,
The L Magazine practically told readers to avoid the last McCarren Pool Sunday concert of the summer because of what it called "the retarded electro-pop sounds" of Ghostland Observatory, but I'm just an old man so what do I know? I stood in the rain (under an umbrella, but still got wet) for over an hour blissfully enjoying Ghostland Observatory's sound, which practically compels you to start dancing, or at least swaying.


A large posse of us got off the last couple of cars of the G train last night, and at times we felt we were the chaperones of some hipster tour group. Getting out of the subway across from the we-haven't-set-foot-in-there-since-the-1970s-and-we're-glad-Pavilion-Theater, the crowd dispersed into those who like to go in the Prospect Park Southwest corner entrance and those who like to enter the park further north. "You can go either way," we said to a couple of girls who stood frozen and looked confused; they nodded and followed us, glad our unsolicited advice was not misinterpreted.

The exciting Bear Hands had just started playing as we grabbed a seat way up front, on the aisle. There were lots of seats, and till about 8:45 p.m. we were alone in our row except for a middle-aged woman at the other end. The crowd was predictably young, but there were a surprising number of individual-and-couple over-40s. Maybe we just seek out our own kind.

We recall a terrific Robert Krulwich piece on NPR a few years ago in which he spoke to a scientist who said most people's musical tastes get frozen, if we recall right, at about age 22 or 23. We also recall, around the same time, in the stodgy U.S. News & World Report a list for people over 50 of 50 things they could do to keep their minds young. One was listen to the music young people are listening to.

Bear Hands -- well, they are proof that The L Magazine sometimes got it right last summer, namely when they named Bear Hands the last of their "8 New York Bands You Need to Hear":
Of all the bands appearing in this feature, there are perhaps none with less experience than Bear Hands. They’ve managed to keep a pretty low profile around the city, which is understandable, since they’ve been together for well under a year...but I can’t help getting over-the-moon excited about their infectious, complex take on what I think can best be described as post-punk. It reminds us of how Steve Malkmus and Pavement loved the Fall, but used country, folk and (sadly) prog influences to cover it up just enough so that they were never easily pigeonholed. Bear Hands does something similar, combining the punchy, slightly aggressive tone of post-punk with a heaviness and borderline dissonance that actually reminds me quite a bit of the Archers of Loaf and — don’t hate me for this — a band called Braid, who were among the best of the mid-90s emo bands everyone called “angular.” More important than any of that, though, and what I hope they don’t lose sight of after they’ve been around for a little longer, is that they seem to be as excited to be playing their music as we are to be listening.

They still seem to be excited. Our negative criticisms are minor:
1. It wasn't necessary to say "We're called Bear Hands" that many times during the set -- though we guess people were walking in the middle and may have been confused as to which band they were watching.
2. It's OK to push the stuff you're selling but don't be presumptuous in saying "See, we're capitalistic just like you guys." We socialists also buy T-shirts of bands we like.
3. Much as we've never been in the habit of telling shirtless young men to put on some more clothes...oh, never mind. Vocalist/guitarist Dylan Rau's sound is beautiful anyway. But the burgundy boxer-briefs were too much visual info - for us alter kockers anyway.

But we liked the music a lot. Joining Rau are drummer and vocalist TJ Orschner, Ted Feldman on guitar and percussion, and Val Loper on bass and percussion -- the percussion included the maracas (always a good choice) and tambourine (ditto).

Our favorite Bear Hands song is the luscious "Bad Blood" with its wonderful opening:
I would rather bury you than marry you at sea
Swiftest current, darkest waves, we'd just fall asleep
And I would rather bury you than marry you at sea
Sharpest waters you can find from here on to the east...

They have a terrific Vietnam war song with trenchant lyrics too. Someone who knows a lot more than we do, writing at Entertainment Weekly, said:
For the past month, we've been telling everyone within earshot about Bear Hands, an unsigned up-and-comer out of Brooklyn that should be on the radar of every indie label.

We guess "mellow" is probably not a word used by anyone anymore, but Bear Hands got us feeling that 1971-ish way. As did the next band, The Jealous Girlfriends, another local Brooklyn band.

While The Jealous Girlfriends' amazing vocalist/guitarist Holly Miranda (who, lighted in a certain way, did resemble a sexy pirate) at one point said, "I totally smell reefer," we're certain our good feelings came from more than just a contact high. More like the pleasure of listening to an exquisitely tuneful song like their "The Pink Wig to My Salieri."

In addition to Holly Miranda, The Jealous Girlfriends are Josh Abbott on guitar, vocals and drums (he graciously thanked Bear Hands: "they were sick"); drummer Mike Fadem; and Alex Lipsen, amazing on keys (joined by Miranda for one song), bass, very cool synth and modules.

We would have detected the influences of BritPop even if it didn't say so in the program. And we agree with this characterization in The New York Times: "The Jealous Girlfriends float through soft and erotic clouds of guitar and keyboards that can turn grungy and turbulent." Yessss. When Alex Lipsen called last night's show "fucking awesome" and "the coolest show ever" from the band's POV, he was speaking for us and most of the rest of the growing crowd on that gorgeous, not-too-hot, not-too-humid, perfect night.

People stood up at the end of "The Pink Wig to My Salieri," but even better, for us at least, came next when Holly picked up the guitar and the band went into "I Quit." It was smooth and catchy, and we liked the more aggressive sound of a new song they played, too (we didn't catch the title). The band has a good stage presence and they were lighted really effectively, and there were great instrumental sequences, skillful guitar riffs and Holly and Josh can muffle their voices in the mics in a really cool way. As we said earlier, we were blissed out.

We were also very tired, having been up since 4 a.m. (yes, we were once 22 and used to go to sleep at that hour on Friday night/Saturday morning; now, 35 years later, that's when we awaken - on this day, to the sound of two 22-year-old relatives of Dumbo Books coming home and having trouble with the lock on the apartment door downstairs). So we stayed only for a couple of songs of the fabulous Ghostland Observatory. We're lucky because we got to see them last year, also outdoors in Brooklyn.

We thought we'd let other bloggers take over and we could excerpt their commentary. Here's Kevchino, who supplied the pic at the top of this post (please check out his other comments and reviews):
Austin, Texas's Ghostland Observatory brought their laser light show to Brooklyn's Prospect Park Bandshell. Frontman Aaron Behrens ran around the stage hyping up the crowd as Thomas Ross Turner wearing a cape controlled the drums and synthesizers.

And Pop Matters' comment is truer than true:
With axe-wielding front man Aaron Behrens simultaneously channeling Freddie Mercury, Bowie, and Gary Glitter against a backdrop of diabolical beats and a laser show that will melt your brain, Ghostland Observatory’s undeniably unique brand of electro-rock is as catchy as hepatitis at a Caribbean resort.

So, exactly 20 years after we saw the Miami City Ballet in a terrific performance, we were back in Prospect Park, older if not wiser, but still basically intact, last night. And all night, BPH notwithstanding, we managed to avoid the, um, somewhat unpleasant scene of the restroom and hold it in until we managed to walk to the Barnes & Noble on Seventh Avenue & Sixth Street! As Ghostland Observatory's Aaron Behrens sings:

Just keep on dancin'
You're dancing on my grave!

Isn't life wonderful!

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