UnderCover SF presents Kid A
February 24, 2013
Better than: That Stereogum Kid A mixtape; reading the Kid A 33 ⅓ book while listening to Kid A.
There's an Internet-famous Chuck Klosterman essay about cover bands. The crux of it: if artists become artists to express themselves, why devote time and energy to the expressions of someone else? This is an over-simplification.
Part of being an artist is also performance, sharing your passion and ability with a live audience. For this, covers are a classic case of high risk, high reward. Stay too loyal to the original, and you risk being overshadowed by it. Stray a bit too far away, and a song can become unrecognizable (especially if the new arrangement isn't working). And with a band like Radiohead -- one the most influential groups of our time, with diehard fans who can spot a rhythm guitar part that's slightly off -- the stakes are only raised.
Given the parameters of this weekend's UnderCoverSF shows -- a large group of local musicians each covering one song from this classic album -- die-hard fans could be forgiven for approaching it with some concern. But there was no cause: Sunday's performance ranks among the best concerts we've seen in the Bay Area so far this year.
The evening is performed in order of the tracklist, so "How to Disappear Completely" comes early. It's performed by UnderCover's guest music director Elizabeth Setzer and La Tania (described as a "Flamenco/Balkan Fusion" performance in the program). The original is the closest thing to a traditional ballad on Kid A, with Thom Yorke wallowing ("I'm not here, this isn't happening") over a creepy, repeating violin glissando. Flamenco depends on a rhythm of sharp guitar patterns and a combination of taps, claps, and percussion. La Tania speeds up the music just slightly so a constant beat can lay underneath the beautiful, classical vocals from Setzer. Two background singers act as the glissando.
Right when you think the song is over, the entire thing is driven into double time by guitar and dance taps. It's an instrumental interlude with precision so perfect it's hard to believe in person. Every step from the flamenco dancer, in addition to being an incredible display of athleticism and coordination, is flush -- the tonation is constant like only the best marching snare or drumset players are capable of. The audience watches in stunned silence -- or perhaps they're just confused at how we got from emo Thom Yorke to this. From the second that last tap hits and final poses are taken, the place erupts. If everyone wasn't already standing, they are now. The applause is so full that Setzer has to take the mic to acknowledge it and the band has to leave the stage for things to die down and the show to continue. If you attend live shows hoping for moments of unexpected brilliance, the price of admission has been justified.
The night would've been worth it on the merits of "How To Disappear Completely" alone, even if all nine other songs were mediocre or sub-par. But the crazy thing is this moment was nearly matched during a performance on the album's B-side. "Idioteque" may be the most iconic song on Kid A -- whether for its Bush-era "we're not scaremongering" lyrics or the feel-good story of Paul Lansky's four-note sample. Kid Beyond, along with LL Aspect (a DJ) and Classical Revolution (a string quartet) set out to interpret it as an "Electronic/String Chamber" number. That description doesn't do justice to what these musicians put together.
Kid Beyond proves to be an exceptional beatboxer. The electronic beat of "Idioteque" suddenly transforms into him channeling tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus -- utilizing merely his vocals and a loop pedal to somehow accurately create a synthesized drum beat. The Lansky sample (it's the classical-sounding four-note electronic pattern in the background) is mimicked by the electronic string quartet with an assist from LL Aspect's turntables. The performance is largely a loyal one to start, but vocals are percussion, strings are electronics, a DJ underlies everything. And at a certain point, these new instrumentations need to be shown off.
When the musicians arrive at the song's percussion break, a beat battle breaks out between Kid Beyond and LL Aspect. At times, it's genuinely hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. And, staying true to the song again, when the sample is supposed to re-enter, Kid Beyond turns his abilities towards Classical Revolution. He begins trading riffs with the lead violinist, each creating the same patterns and remarkably matching each other as they increase to a breakneck pace (the rest of Classical Revolution keeps the sample in tempo the entire time). If La Tania has already won the evening at this point -- deservedly so -- part of it is the fact they simply went first. Kid Beyond and his colleagues make their case as 1B of UnderCover SF's Kid A.
The rest of the evening may not reach those heights, but these performances are no slouches. Bang Data turns "Optimistic" into an Ozomatli-style party, complete with rap breakdowns in Spanish, chorus singalongs, and the singer getting onto the crest of the crowd. Gamelan X probably takes the most liberty with any track, using a gamelan (a set of table-top bells, played with mallets, spanning four people) to create a dark turn on "Kid A." The gamelan itself isn't a dark instrument -- tonally, it actually sounds like the electronic voicings representing the alien's theme on the original -- but the band used it to create its own melody. Gamelan X also utilizes a drummer well-versed in heavy metal techniques and a singer capable of deep, breathy baritone work. It's redolent of Godsmack, right down to the red mood lighting, but the performance deserves a more positive connotation.
Whether or not you're the ultimate Radiohead fan, this particular UnderCover SF is worth a ticket if you can find one (the third and final performance happens Monday, Feb. 25, at Rickshaw). Radiohead is experimental enough to lend itself to jazz trios, flamenco dancers, beatboxers, and likely the only gamelan performance you've seen to this point. It's great to relive the brilliance of Kid A for a night, but it's even better to remind yourself how exceptional the Bay Area is for musicians. With all the high level acts that come through, it's easy to go long stretches without ever seeing or even knowing about any of the performers on the UnderCover bill. You may not recognize the names, you may not even recognize the songs. But there are some performances you'll be talking about for the entire year.
A peek inside the mind of front-row groupies: A group of three walks in late, two men and a woman, and beelines for the front of the stage. They're met by a woman who warns them that she's a superfan and needs her space. (She has been dancing through the entirety of the show setup.) The female of new group gets in there, and within minutes they broker a peace, sealed with a hug. The woman from the new group then explains her own superfandom to her colleagues:
"You don't have a band you're like that for? I'm that girl who is front-row, like (motions, does a dance remarkable similar to head-to-toe material woman). I almost showed Thom Yorke my tits once. I was up front, he was looking at me, I saw him look at me. It's weird how that impulse plays out: let me show you my tits?"
There is a wait: The UnderCover SF site advertises the show for 7:30p, but if you show up around that time you'll see the longest line for the Rickshaw in recent memory (easily spanning around the corner at Fell and Franklin). When you have 10 acts -- some of which encompass 10 players with as many instruments -- there is a lot of stage changeover and preparation to be done. The average wait time between songs for the night: 7 minutes and 55 seconds -- and that may be generous.
The organizers do their best to keep it feeling fresh throughout. The bar is always open, a DJ spins Radiohead covers in between sets, and a projection screen plays pre-taped interviews with the acts moments before they take the stage. But you will stand as long in between songs and you dance during them. It's part of the challenge of an endeavour like UnderCover SF. (You will also get a digital download of each performance pre-recorded in a studio, however).
One music nerd nitpick: In college, I took a two-week seminar on the music of Radiohead, and Kid A is my favorite of their albums. Knowing I was going to see an evening of covers worried me, because I might get hung up on miniscule details that I love being slightly off or forgotten entirely.
These details: the Lansky sample in "Idioteque" (brilliantly saved); the symbolism of the instrumentation in "Everything in Its Right Place" (where everything hits together on the downbeat only when Yorke sings "place" -- mostly there in this interpretation); and the baritone sax riff in "The National Anthem." That last one is sadly forgotten this evening. DRMS may have the top billing on the site -- and their lead singer, Emily Ritz, has pretty pipes when used -- but they seemed to lose the central riff to the song, and took a very free-jazz-meets-electronic approach. Very little vocal work, no consistent interpretation of that infamous bass riff and, sadly, no bari sax.
Straight from the program, including style descriptions
1) Everything in Its Right Place - Rob Ewing's Disappear Incompletely (New Electro-Jazz)
2) Kid A - Gamelan X (Gamelan Fusion/Bali)
3) The National Anthem - DRMS (Noir Pop)
4) How to Disappear Completely - Elizabeth Setzer and La Tania (Flamenco/Balkan Fusion)
5) Treefingers - Gojogo (Classical Fusion/Modern Jazz)
6) Optimistic - Bang Data (Latin Hip-Hop Fusion)
7) In Limbo - Battlehooch (Shapeshifting Orchestral Rock)
8) Idioteque - Kid Beyond ft. LL Aspect, ghostNOTES + Classical Revolution (Electronic/String Chamber)
9) Morning Bell - The Hurd Ensemble (Classical Meets Electronic)
10) Motion Picture Soundtrack - Bells Atlas (Afro Indie Soul)