Features | Concerts

The Unicorns / Pretty Girls Make Graves / RJD2

By Amir Nezar | 5 February 2004

For the Unicorns to actually play at something like the Fest Full of Rock, they have to deal with two disadvantages; first, that a lot of the crowd hasn't heard their particular brand of rock (I won't call it "quirky," because the band coolly dismiss it as an alien term to their pink-wearing selves) and might not respond to it; and second, that they are surrounded by acts that are far more concert-amenable (let's face it, "low-fi" artists are not going to have the same stage presence as a five-piece, established band).

That said, the three members of the Unicorns (they took on a third since they put up their darling website) did a fine job when they gained some momentum and were able to energize the crowd. This took some time; two douche-bags in the crowd saw fit to heckle them; luckily Nick, whose mop of hair could be, and was, used for covering his entire face, responded quickly and glibly to the heckling with a tirade of dry insults that got the crowd on his side.

The coup-de-grace, however, came just as (fifteen or so minutes into the show) the set was threatening to bomb - Nick and Alden, urging the crowd to dance, jumped up on the rafters and monkey-barred their way over the crowd, whereupon Nick was crowd-surfed back to the stage (Nick, if Mr. Aman and I touched your ass, we're sorry…no we're not). From then on, it was pure enthusiasm and remarkable skill; the Unicorns not only excelled on the instruments they started with, they switched them around with cool abandon. At one point Jamie, the drummer of the group and the last member to join the group, had both a bass guitar in his hands and a drum kit in front of him. Playing everything from brilliant closer "Ready to Die," to their Microphones-esque, downtempo "Ghost Mountain" (the group apparently had no idea who the Microphones were, but, then again, they're pathological liars), they managed to bring the initially skeptical crowd around to rousing cheers.

Two things did hamper the performance beyond those first disadvantages - the first was the group's habit of switching around instruments, which, while impressive technically, was momentum-wise a source of lag, costing them time and creating a few awkward gaps. The other was the banter in between skits, which, while sometimes a source for hilarity, was at other times overextended, with one particular set piece taking more time than the group could really afford given their one-hour time limit. Nonetheless, when they did have to leave the stage, the crowd was crestfallen, for their enthusiasm had rubbed off, and the off-beat nature of their performance had charmed everyone. No worries, though - everyone was soon brutalized by Hopesfall, who managed with their neu-metal-hardcore to absolutely obliterate anybody's brain cells who were still longing for the Unicorns. Then again, most of the crowd had already fled by then, though all through their interview the Unicorns themselves insisted that I was keeping them from their "favorite band." Hell, I don't even know that half of that interview was serious or not. And that's the point. It doesn't translate perfectly in concert, though.

While the Unicorns had (stoner) personality in spades during their show, but not as much fluidity, Pretty Girls Make Grave suffered from so much polish on their live show that personality was somewhat lost in the mix. Naturally, given the immense technical proficiency of the members of the band, it's a small complaint; just watching the guitar fingerwork, rippingly good bass lines, and DeWitt's phenomenally creative drumming was worth the price of admission ($10 for the entire show, including at least four indie rock gods!).

I'll get all of the faults with the show out of the way right now: 1) the bass volume and intensity was jacked so far up that it threatened, all show long, to drown out the band's two stellar guitarists, and 2) the bass was overwhelmingly loud. I list this single fault twice because it was excruciatingly frustrating to initially miss out on some of the most impressive inter-guitar dynamic in all of rock. Eventually, though, I was able to tune my ears more precisely to the guitars so that I did get all of the beautiful fighting and harmonizing that was exchanged across stage. Basically, the only fault with the show had to do with sound production. Basically, the band itself was really damn good.

If any band can throw down a blazingly intense live show, it's PGMG. Pauses between songs was restricted to a couple dozen seconds at most, before the band would kick into another of their devastating assaults. Concert highlights included one of their most dynamic songs to date, The New Romance's "Something Bigger, Something Brighter," and Good Health's "Speakers Push the Air," which served as their rollicking, crowd-electrifying closer. Also featured was the excellent "Grandmother Wolf," with its killer bass hook and excellent inter-guitar texture, and one of The New Romance's major highlights, "All Medicated Geniuses" - the technical skill of which was mind-blowing when seen live, dual guitars complementing each other and taking center stage one at a time while the bass leapt to the foreground at intervals. It is still perhaps the best thing I've ever heard them record, and it flattened the crowd like an earthquake, causing moshing to break out to the chagrin of myself, who was trying to mentally capture every second of brilliant skill up on stage.

And here's where Pretty Girls Make Graves succeeded so brilliantly in their live set: they looked like they were having a good time. A great time, in fact. And the crowd felt it, and responded, giving their set a livewire enthusiasm that made everyone in the room feel fantastic, myself included. Next time these guys show up to your town, show up and get ready to be knocked flat. Oh, and before I mention it later, I'll say it now - The New Romance is one of the best albums of 2003, though I neglected to listen to it until the beginning of this year.

Then there was RJD2. I was worried for RJ (I can abbreviate his name because he's my buddy, so nneh!). That is, before I saw him set up. Because while I was a big fan of Deadringer, the album never really seized me, viscerally; the lack of deep bass disturbed me because I wanted to shake my booty. Then the news came to me by way of Unicorns drummer Jamie, who informed me, with more excitement than I expected any of the members to possibly have, that this crazy, small man was going to have four (FOUR!) decks up, and two (TWO!) mixers as well. It was madness, as far as I was concerned. Then the man himself showed up to ask us with dry wit why we were there to see him rather than going to our school's fraternity bid night to go get pissed on in a basement. My sentiments exactly, RJ. So while the tools of the frat and sororo-whore world were doing precisely…nothing, I was getting ready to be blown away by the best mixer and sampler around.

And oh my God. It was Beautiful. Yep, capitalized B. Despite the fine job done by the Unicorns, and the expansively powerful show from PGMG, RJ absolutely took the house. He took the house, and with his thin, precise hands, shook it up and down like a motherfucking rollicking soul train. I was torn half the time between shaking my ass uncontrollably (come on, you dumb indies he's mixing fucking JAMES BROWN), and watching the guy work.

Not only did he replicate the most rousing moments of Deadringer, but then, about halfway through, he threw away any semblance of pre-made ideas, and freestyled like whoa. I mean, like WHOA. The bouncers were gleeful. The policeman in the back had a shit-eating grin on his face. And me? I was on funk-planet-extraordinaire, ass moving like I needed to make some money. Transitioning seamlessly and frenetically through all the old-school funk and hip-hop and soul that you can imagine, this little man got the entire crowd moving, a feat I previously thought impossible. Switching records around, scratching and then reversing records, RJ moved with so much focus and skill that it was positively mesmerizing. He even made '80s funk cheese sound like glorious aural revelation. Mr. Aman and I were in seventh heaven.

Then, in a final bit of closing genius, RJ pumped all of his four decks up, and had a killer crescendo going, before cutting them all out, and then scratched and warping for a few quiet seconds before cranking them all back up into an explosion of funk/hip-hop epiphany. Let's just say this L my pants from the night are currently undergoing some heavy cleaning the washer.

By far the highlight of the show, and one of the most amazing sets I have seen in my lifetime, period. If anyone sees copies of this live set put onto CD, let me know, because by God I will have it. And it all was only $10. With ridiculously good returns like this, it's no wonder the Fest always sees a packed house. Todd and I left with our heads spinning.