Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: The New Jonathan Coulton

So, last night I went to see Jonathan Coulton fronting a new band, playing new music, and with a new opening act. It was... disappointing.

First, the good:

-- Mark Phirman, the opening act and 1/2 of Hard and Phirm, a.k.a "The West-Coast Paul and Storm", was excellent. His standup was funny, if rather scattershot (it's clear that he's an "alternative" comedian, that is that his idea of comedy is to stand and tell a bunch of jokes, as opposed to Louie CK or Janeane Garofalo who have jokes throughout a themed set with a throughline tying everything together), and his music is quite good if a little gimmicky. It's clear that he has much talent in both comedy and music, and I'd love to see him in longer form. In fact, I'm probably going to get tickets to "Nerds and Music" so I can see him again, this time with Paul and Storm.

-- The New Music was pretty good. There are some issues with it, which I'll cover in a later point, but on the whole it has the quirkiness and intelligence and subversive tone of earlier work, without feeling derivative or repetitive. The new backup band is integrated well in the new music, and it's clear that the skill in the musicians is present and will drive success to a wider, perhaps less nerdy audience.

-- The Old Stuff was also nice to hear. It's clear that while I might make "nerd hipster" jokes about it, JoCo hasn't forgotten his roots, and it was nice to see some of the "big" numbers played and celebrated, while also throwing in some more of his historically obscure work.

-- The Venue was excellent, as always. The Aladdin is a great space for performers and for the audience, as it's really hard to find a bad seat. This time I sat in the balcony and had possibly a better view of the stage than I did when sitting on the floor. They'd also moved out some seats to make room for a dance floor, leading to the experience of watching a Nerd Mosh Pit, which resembles a line for a unisex bathroom: a bunch of people standing alone, some jumping up and down, and frequent apologies for bumping into one another.

Now the bad stuff:

-- The Audience, at least on the balcony, was AWFUL. There were at least half a dozen people who *would not shut up*. Now, talking during the gaps between songs, I have no problem with. But who the hell talks *through* the songs? Especially when the volume levels make it a requirement that they shout in order to be heard by the person next to them (and therefore heard by pretty much everyone surrounding them)? The folk in the dance area / mosh pit looked like they were at least quieter, but they were also significantly younger... as in, there were plenty of kids whom I sure had *grade school* the next day. I have no complaints about them being there, but it made for an audience that I wasn't particularly enthused to be a part of. Not because they shouldn't like JoCo, but because I'm fundamentally uncomfortable around children.

-- The Plug-In was, in my opinion, not a great idea. Yes, I'm having a Dylan Moment here. The switch from acoustic to electric guitar has, in my humble opinion, done a great deal to lessen the cleverness of the musical portion of the work JoCo does. The lyrics for both new and old music are just as clever and insightful and impressive as ever, but the switch to electric has necessarily taken some of the smoothness and, well, intelligence I guess out of the melodies. In addition, the drive to electric has increased both the pace and the volume of the music to the point where a significant portion of the craft seems lost to me in the decibels. The guitar solo for ShopVac, for instance, is fun to listen to on an audio track or play on Rock Band, but in concert it just gets completely washed out. This, btw, is the point I said I'd make earlier. I'll not hesitate to buy his new record when it drops (and wow is that an archaic piece of language there), but I sincerely hope that the quality of the musicianship is greater on the album than it is in a live show.

-- The Humour was also something that rather hit me from the outfield. It turns out, in my perception of the experience, that JoCo comes off as not liking his fans much. Now, I know that's not the case; he's consistently said great things about his followers on a number of occasions. But for whatever reason, without the self-deprecating influence of Paul and Storm, JoCo, at least to me, came off as a bit of an asshole during the show. I know that there are lots of people who find that sort of vaguely insulting comedy funny, but my personal tastes prefer that if there's a joke being made it's about the speaker, not another target. I'm happy to make myself the butt of my own jokes, but I get uncomfortable if someone else makes jokes about me, or for that matter if someone I'm with makes a joke at a third-party's expense. It's entirely possible that that particular note has always been there, and I've just never seen it, or that this was a new development, or that it's entirely in my own head. But for whatever reason, I just didn't enjoy it.

I rush to say that JoCo and his band are probably very nice people and this one bad experience won't keep me from buying and listening to the new music (of which I hope there is much, much more in the years to come), and I certainly wouldn't want to take away from any of the success or growth of JoCo as a musician, celebrity, or entertainer. And it won't keep me from trying to see JoCo and The Band again in concert, especially if he again appears with Paul and Storm or Molly or for that matter Phirman and Hardwick (singly or in a pair). But it was significantly less enjoyable than my previous experiences, and all in all I'd have to say that I didn't, in fact, have a good time. Which is rather disappointing.