Winter and Summer– Finally, the Twain Shall Meet in Carey’s Cold Spring

Carey’s Cold Spring can be found and purchased here.

The first winds of Carey’s Cold Spring blew without warning. Save for those who compulsively check Carey Mercer’s Twitter profile for updates on his many musical and literary projects few were aware that, after three years, a new Frog Eyes album was in the works much less completed. While Mercer fans have been spoiled by the recent proliferation of releases under his Blackout Beach moniker, Mercer’s return to Frog Eyes comes as a pleasant surprise… for the most part.

First, the bad news. Much like albums such as In Utero, and From A Basement on the Hill before it, Carey’s Cold Spring risks being coloured and even interpreted by significant biographical circumstance. The album’s very title unequivocally invokes its Singer, a surprising move for Mercer whose lyrics, even at their most personal, are cryptic— often shrouded by obscure mythological and literary references. Further, in the lengthy statement accompanying his album on the Frog Eyes’ Bandcamp page, Mercer reveals that the record’s final mix was completed just two days prior to his diagnosis with cancer of the throat: “Carey’s Cold Spring” indeed.

We only know about Mercer’s diagnosis, of course, because he chooses to disclose: according to Mercer, it was not a decision he took lightly. He states that he’s “been really hesitant about including this […] but [has] decided to include this information: illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is a big thing, a thing that impacts a life and forces changes on the way, for example, a songwriter releases her or his product.” Which brings us to our next unfortunate surprise.

Carey’s Cold Spring is Frog Eyes’ first independent release: the album will not be available on vinyl, and we will not see it in record stores. The fact that this record is an internet-exclusive affair, which is bound to limit the album’s potential distribution, is unfortunate. In Mercer’s own words, “a person who who doesn’t go on the internet, and gets his or her music solely based on the recommendation of a record store employee […] will likely miss out on this record.” It is too bad that Carey’s Cold Spring is destined to be relinquished to an inherently limiting digital format, as it is undoubtedly Frog Eyes’ finest moment.

Mercer makes a well reasoned argument for the digital medium as a worthy alternative to vinyl in purely aural terms. In an era abounding with self-ascribed “audiophiles” and poseurs alike singing vinyl’s praises, Mercer offers an interesting counterpoint: “[It’s] true that vinyl sounds really good, when played on a good record player, with a new needle, into a good receiver, and out of excellent speakers. [But] mostly, I suspect that the vinyl we listen to gets compromised by our systems. We all are music-lovers, but few of us have the dough or time to assemble and maintain a top-spec system, the kind of system that people are talking about when they say ‘vinyl is superior.'” Mercer’s caveat to vinyl-worship couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

Ultimately, Mercer’s decision to release the album independently is due to his reluctance to guarantee a tour to support the record. Current musician/record label relationships dictate that if an artist releases an album with a label, said artist is beholden to his/her label. Given these circumstances, Mercer couldn’t possibly release the record on a label because, “then I am beholden to them. I am still sick. I can’t be beholden to anyone but that ‘spirit force’ within me that demands a constant production of music. I’ve got to get the music out quicker, and being the owner of my music allows me to do this. Songs turn toxic within you if you leave them in there too long.” Carey’s Cold Spring was released just in time: as opposed to previous Frog Eyes recordings, there’s not the slightest trace of toxicity on any of this album’s nine tracks.

Carey’s Cold Spring is a radical departure for Frog Eyes. Mercer is the only band member to return from 2010’s Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph. Further, Carey’s Cold Spring is the first Frog Eyes recording not to feature Melanie Campbell’s idiosyncratic percussion-work. The album’s vastly different flavour proves that Campbell’s role in Frog Eyes has been every bit as foundational to the band’s “sound” as Mercer’s gigantic yawp: from her dinger-laden contributions to The Folded Palm to her subtle mastery of symbols on tracks such as “Styled By Dr. Roberts” from Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, Campbell’s absence on Carey’s Cold Spring is disarming– haunting, even.

Luckily, Mercer recruited Matt Skillings in Campbell’s stead. Skillings, whose contributions to Chet and The Lily Fawn Band exemplify his virtuosic take on percussion, an approach which favours rhythmic texture over hard hitting. Skillings makes his presence felt immediately with a series of drum rolls on album opener, “The Road is Long”. Along with Shyla Seller, Mercer, and former Wolf Parade bassist Dante DeCaro, Skillings comprises an updated incarnation of Frog Eyes which results in a much different and more immediately palatable record than we are used to hearing from Frog Eyes. Some of these songs, most notably “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans” and “Claxxon’s Lament”, might even stand a chance on mainstream radio in spite of their un-radio-friendly titles.

Frog Eyes’ newfound palatable-ness owes much to Mercer’s refined approach to singing. While Mercer’s vocals have historically been been described as eccentric and have been compared to “a dying boar in a tar pit”, Mercer’s beast moan baritones are noticeably mostly absent from most of Carey’s Cold Spring. When the beast does surface on songs such as “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordan’s”, he is buried deep in the mix: Mercer’s roar is transformed into a whisper. His refined approach to vocal delivery, an approach hinted at on Blackout Beach’s Fuck Death, bears testament to Mercer’s increasing vocal restraint– Mercer’s voice on Carey’s Cold Spring is strangely beautiful, even operatic at times.

A new and understated approach to vocals finally fully showcases Mercer’s lyrical savvy: it’s always been there, of course, but listeners are now less dependent on the liner notes to decode the lyrical litanies he spits. Mercer’s more consistent enunciation makes for a more successful fusion of what he says and how he says it. Carey’s Cold Spring, which focusses on mortality (amongst many other things), is often sung in a distinctively elegiac tone: Mercer sounds like an old man, looking back to “nights so long”— last nights spent at the bedside of one’s dying father.

Mercer is somewhat dismissive of the cohesiveness of Carey’s Cold Spring, stating that it is “not a conceptual work; [there is] no over-arching theme or conceptual thread that runs through [it]”. The past three years have been full of inspiration for Mercer, including “riots, occupy, revolutions, storms, floods, melodramatic gestures, leftist factions, mass marches in the streets, the sheer and shocking crookedness of our political and economic system, fear of the right, fear of torture, of murder, of future firing squads, of the consequences of idealism, of the consequences of having no ideals or ideas”. Indeed, an entire host of current events informs this album, a record that references “red Air Jordan’s” and “Major Tom” in the same raspy breath: this, a musical tapestry containing many threads, is a musical answer to Roberto Bolano’s sprawling final opus, 2666: avenues for potential critique are seemingly limitless.

Given this review’s attention to how format informs content, I will choose only one of Carey’s Cold Spring’s many thematic threads to interrogate for this review. Furthermore, I will limit this critical interrogation to only two of the album’s songs, though I encourage you all to give the entirety of Carey’s Cold Spring not one, but many listens: this record reveals itself slowly, rewarding its listener many epiphanies with each listen. For this review, I will closely read “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans” and “Claxxon’s Lament”, as these songs, with their respective tone and lyricism, dwell on the theme of loss which is so pervasively and delicately handled on this recording.

Nonnie first. What a strange name for a song, especially for a band so long-considered to be on the fringes of cultural reference. A song about shoes? Not likely. Instead, we discover that this Jordan breathes a different air; that this man is in fact an entire town— “Wild-man comes from the caves with air-salt from Jordan”. With a re-defined meaning of “Jordan”, from sports iconoclast to ancient town, we experience a kick to the eye, a complete re-imagining of a word which has been appropriated and re-appropriated throughout history. Mercer plays magician here, but, more importantly, he manages to follow through, wringing nouminous feelings from common-place goods.

The tone of the song is so elegiac, so gloriously sad! “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans” evokes a feeling of a hurt so deep it manages to recall singers such as Bill Faye who straddle the past and the present tense, whose influence has stood the test of time’s rapidly ticking clock, but who have somehow managed to slip into obscurity. Shyla Seller’s organ is especially noticeable here, grinding notes so slow and so cold they must come from under six feet deep. These notes provide a staid foundation for our collective deep, yet disturbing craving for “a night so slow”, imagined in this song.

Which brings us to the album’s centerpiece, “Claxxon’s Lament”. This song also speaks of long nights, here re-imagined as “nights too slow”. “Claxxon’s Lament”, is a dirge most familiar to Mercer fans. The song has been recorded by Carolyn Mark, Wolf Parade, and Mercer himself on a live Blackout Beach recording he chose to release on Bandcamp a while back. It’s an old song, but with Carey’s Cold Spring, it becomes new again.

At least part of the song’s ‘newness’ can be attributed to the biographical context Mercer ascribes to it with his accompanying essay. Here, we meet Mercer at the bedside of his dying father. In the sterile confines of a quiet hospice, Claxxon alone manages to break through: as Mercer explains:

I remembered “Claxxon’s Lament”, which I think is a good enough song to play while your dad passes out of life. So I sat by him and sang it; I sang it really well, of course, because I had the sense that it was the last song he would hear, not that there was any evidence he could actually hear, but still, it was the last song that went into his ears. I also sang it loud, because even though a hospice is supposed to be quiet, I wanted it to mean something, and sometimes volume creates its own meaning.

Song in the face of death! Light in the face of darkness! These are themes which pervade Carey’s Cold Spring: a season oft’ mistaken for Winter’s preface brings us to Summer’s soft feet– a full flowering of long dormant potential. Carey’s Cold Spring is indeed disorienting, it runs the risk of unsettling Frog Eyes fans who have traditionally exalted in the unequivocal darkness of despair, the band’s former muse. But Frog Eyes’ new invites more conventional listeners, people for whom beautiful and tasty textures trump overwhelming despair to listen in. Maybe, with Carey’s Cold Spring, Winter and Summer will at long last, finally collide.

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Victoria’s Beloved Green-space at Risk

This article is further to an incredible sample of the Times Colonist’s investigative journalism, which can be found here.

VICTORIA BC– Fall of 2013 has been a tumultuous time for Royal Athletic Park. The park was held captive for three entire days in early September by thousands of party crazed music lovers intent on ruining an otherwise beautiful weekend for the rest of the city, neigh, the island, with loud music. Some of this “music” even contained swear words.

Rifflandia Music Festival took its toll on the beautiful grasses of Royal Athletic Park. The park’s lawn literally buckled under the collective devastation of thousands of pairs of flip flops and, in some cases, even “chucks”. Recent estimates indicate an average of two feet for every festival goer. Unsurprisingly, the field is now a complete write off.

Unfortunately, however, the worst is still to come for the city’s beloved green space. A recent phenomenon, generally known as “sprots” is set to be unleashed upon the already devastated grounds.

Sprots comes in many forms, the most popular being foodtball. In this sprot, large men (women are not allowed on most sprots fields) attempt to hurt one another while stealing odd shaped balls from one another. Sounds harmless enough, right? Think again.

The players of sprots such as foodtball are usually clad in an invasive form of footwear, commonly known as “cleats”. As players conduct their strange rituals on fields such as Royal Athletic Park, these cleats tear up the grass, much to the delight of sproting spectators who guzzle beer and often fight amongst themselves due to conflicting tribal allegiances.

We spoke to one such sprot fan and part time player, Jacy Catlin, who made a compelling case for sproting events.

“Why yes I am a sporting athlete”. says Catlin, pointing to at jersey that says ‘sprots’ as he dribbles foodtball, trips in oversized cleats, and falls screaming ‘Sports!”‘

There has been speculation that many Victorians are planning a march on City Hall to raise awareness about the environmental impact of sprots on the city’s green space. In the meantime, however, many of us will just have to wait to see what sproting events Spring brings.

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Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience

This book review was originally published by Monday Magazine.

The novel begins with a scary encounter. We first meet Tilly in familiar territory– an Edenic summer day in Kelowna with the lingering aroma of ripe fruit and the sounds of tourists en route to their cabins on the lake. Tilly, the very picture of innocence, skips alongside her mother, pigtails bouncing rhythmically as she searches for ice cream. Tilly’s innocence is soon cut short, however, as an encounter with a stranger literally knocks her to the ground. She struggles to breathe as the stranger spits slurs at her mother: paradise is irrevocably lost for Tilly, her fledgling, unformed identity framed by shame at the novel’s very outset.

With Tilly’s loss of innocence comes truth’s tremendous burden. Canada’s dark history is illuminated, and extends into Tilly’s current reality; Tilly inherits the legacy of Canada’s darkest hour, a grievous weight rests upon the shoulders of a young child. Tilly learns that her mother is from the Cree Nation, and was stolen away from her family as a child, instigating a rupture in the continuation of her people’s language and culture. She learns the reasons behind her mother’s extended bouts of impenetrable silence, times when even cooking becomes difficult. For the rest of the novel, Tilly tries to come to terms with a reality too grim to understand.

Tilly’s story is at once specific and universal. While many of us don’t have to struggle with the fact that our own culture was systematically targeted for destruction by an imperialist Canadian Government, all of us, much like Tilly, can remember a time when our conception of the world was forever changed, when strangers hated us without even taking the time to get to know us. Like Tilly, many of us took solace in destructive elixirs such as alcohol which at first helped to numb a pain so deep we often mistook it for ourselves, but ultimately only took us further down destruction’s dark trail. We mourn Tilly’s loss of innocence along with our own.

While Monique Gray Smith’s expertly told semi-autobiographical tale explores darkness and despair unflinchingly, her’s, as the book’s subtitle suggests, is ultimately a story of hope and resilience. For Tilly, healing comes as she embraces her own identity, rather than running from it. The wisdom of the Ancestors, most notably Tilly’s grandmother, guides Tilly throughout the novel, helping her overcome her shame, and ultimately restoring her to health. Tilly’s resilience is all the more compelling in the context of her times of complete despair: her story gives us all hope.

Monique Gray Smith’s debut novel comes as a much welcome addition to a post-post-modern literary climate. Whereas many contemporary writers dwell on fracture, offering us the world in chaos-ridden fragments, Tilly seeks connection. If we allow Tilly’s truly holistic approach to healing inform our own journey, we will all be better off for it as we look forward to reading Gray Smith’s next work.

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Edinburgh, 1929

This story was written by Isobel Maher, and can be found on her blog.  

Picture a small, white-washed cottage nestled in Scotland near Edinburgh. 

My mother was lying in bed in labour.  The midwife was standing, pleading with my mother to push harder.  Mother screamed and pushed with all her might and I finally emerged, a fourteen pound baby girl born on December 29, 1929.  With the grace of God, we survived the ordeal.

My father was a stretcher bearer in the first World War.  He rescued the soldiers from fields ridden with gas bombs.  He later received a war medal for his bravery, but died at age forty due to his exposure to the gas bombs.  The widow’s pension from the army was only 4 shillings a week, which was hardly enough to put food on the table.

My mother opened a sweet shop in the cottage which helped us survive the hard times.  I longed for adventure, but I was too young to enlist in the war declared against Hitler.  The bombs were dropped in England.  On the way back to Germany, the planes passed over head and were illuminated by searchlights.

Churchill was a strong leader.  He kept our spirits up during the war.  Saying we would never be defeated.

The war ended when I was 19.  I decided I would immigrate to Canada in 1949.  My mother and sister came to the Liverpool dock to see me off.  I climbed aboard a freighter bound for Montreal with 12 other passengers on board: the sea was rough and stormy. 

Meals were served in the dining room where plates were anchored down.  After dinner, I made my way down to the cabin at the bottom of the ship.  I looked out the porthole remembering a story that was published in the newspaper where a girl was murdered and her body thrown through the porthole.  I shuddered, then went to my bunk.  The sea was rough.  I rocked back and forth as the ship crashed through the high waves.

Suddenly, there were heavy breathing sounds in the darkness.  A figure moved toward me: I could not tell who it was.  Stron arms were around me, ripping my nightdress from my shoulders.  My fear was so great, I could not scream.   Then it came.  A piecing scream.  The man released me and fled.

I spent the remainder of the voyage terrified.  I did not know who he was and was too ashamed to report the incident.  I was 19 and a virgin: thank God I was saved.

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Orpheus Emerges: Neko Case in Vancouver

This review was originally published by Monday Magazine.

On Friday night, The Orpheum’s ornate and vaulted ceiling caressed a voice so confounding in its unlikely alloy of strength and weakness, we were justified to believe that Orpheus himself had temporarily assumed the form of a red-headed goddess. Just as Orpheus charmed all living things and even the stones with his song long ago, Neko Case immediately transfixed a near capacity crowd with her timeless, curiously lyre-less, lyrical ballads: no doubt, even the building’s stone walls rejoiced.

The evening began with Case’s haunting rendition of “Where Did I Leave That Fire”, from her newest release, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. The song, featured in the album’s trailer, was even more haunting in its live skin, and set the tone for the rest of the evening by demonstrating Case’s unique ability to incite tears and laughter in a matter of minutes.

Flanked by her five piece band, Case betrayed not the slightest sign of illness though she later disclosed that a cold has plagued her from the very outset of her west coast tour. Songs such as “This Tornado Loves You”, “Margaret vs. Pauline” and “John Saw That Number” never sounded better even if, as Case suggested, they were filtered by phlegm’s semipermeable membrane.

Friday night’s concert also showcased the beautiful harmonies and acerbic wit of Case’s long time friend and collaborator Kelly Hogan. Hogan, who waxed poetic and comedic on a range of subjects from menopause to her “ladycop outfit”, kept the crowd entertained as Case tuned her four string guitar between songs. Hogan’s most recent release, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain, was one of last year’s most tragically under-appreciated records, and her pitch perfect harmonies continue to prove indispensable to Case’s sound.

Friday night was a homecoming of sorts for the notoriously transient Neko Case. Throughout the evening Case, who graduated from Emily Carr with a BFA in 1998, graciously thanked bandmates past and present for making her musical career possible. The seats were lined with such bandmates, including Dan Bejar and Kathryn Calder from the New Pornographers as well as fellow Corn Sister Carolyn Mark.

After an encore and two standing ovations, the house lights went up and Case disappeared into the rainy night. Her eastbound bus destined for New York via Philly, Case continues to live a reality so poetically described in “I’m From Nowhere”: “driving for twenty one days”, our nowhere woman leaves thousands of star-struck fans in her magical wake, proving that Orpheus continues to emerge in the rainiest of cities.

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Rob Garza Rifflandia Bio

This article was originally published in the Rifflandia 2013 Music Guide.

In 1984, a young Rob Garza signed up for a High School elective which would radically alter the trajectory of his life and, by extension, an entire musical genre. The course, simply called “Electronic Music”, provided Garza with his first exposure to then cutting edge equipment such as sequencers, drum machines, synthesizers and reel-to-reel tape, tools Garza eventually used to lay the important, albeit rudimentary, foundations of Electronic Music as we have come to know it.

Upon graduating High School, Garza’s musical tastes continued to grow along with his record collection which included a diversity of styles such as jazz, bossa nova, Indian Classical and Middle Eastern music. Garza frequented the clubs of Washington DC where he was introduced to the power of dub, and to his future long-time collaborator Eric Hilton: with these two fateful introductions, the seeds of Thievery Corporation were planted.

Hilton and Garza both recognized dub’s bone-rattling low end as a potential space for divergent sounds to breathe and flow, and quickly set to work introducing elements of Brazilian and Indian music to the mix. In the largely pre-internet world of 1996, Thievery Corporation’s debut 12″ recordings “Shaolin Satellite” and “2001: A Spliff Odyssey” reflect Garza and Hilton’s shared passion for diverse soundscapes as all the samples were culled directly from the duo’s respective record collections.

Thievery Corporation has gone through tremendous changes since its 1996 debut. Whereas Hilton and Garza started out painstakingly sampling records without the benefit of multi-tracks, playing sequences over and over before dropping them on DAT, technological advances such as Ableton, Logic Studio and Contact, now allow them to focus more on song writing.

Thievery Corporation has also become increasingly collaborative. 2002’s The Richest Man in Babylon features vocalists Emiliana Torrini, Pam Bricker and Loulou. In 2005, the dark and psychedelic sounds of The Cosmic Game featured Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and David Byrne.

Increased collaboration in the studio led to a larger stage presence. Thievery Corporation’s live set verges on the carnival-esque, featuring a touring band of over 20 musicians on instruments such as sitar, guitar and horns . The band’s success on an international level is undeniable, as they regularly sell out venues as large as the O2 in London, the Hollywood Bowl in California and the Theatro Vrahon Melina Merkouri in Athens.

Inevitably, Thievery Corporation’s ever-expanding line up has influenced their approach to songwriting. The band has strayed a bit from their electronic compositional roots in favor of an increasingly organic approach to the craft, prompting Garza to temporarily step aside from the Thievery Corporation in order to re-explore his more electronic oriented background. Trading massive stages for small clubs, Garza rediscovered what was happening musically in the electronic scene and it inspired him: he hasn’t looked back since.

Garza has since relocated from Washington DC to San Francisco, where he’s witnessed DJs taking influences from many different genres such as house, club, new wave and disco, putting them all together in an entirely new and original way. As for his own music, Garza has been focusing on Deep House and Nu-Disco while maintaining his patented pedigree of outer-national, groove oriented rhythms.

Garza has recently compiled an album of remixes (aptly called, “Remixes”) for artists such as Tycho, Gogol Bordello and Miguel Migs amongst a host of others. The compilation is a veritable showcase of Garza’s mastery as an electronic musician, featuring a vast array of sounds from around the world.

Longtime fans of Thievery Corporation may be a little surprised by the sounds Rob Garza brings to Rifflandia’s stage. Whereas Thievery Corporation is often associated with a more downtempo electronic music beat, Garza’s solo set focuses more on nu-disco and deep house, so the sound promises to be more upbeat and electronic. What we can rely on is that Garza will be bring a re-invigorated and truly inspired set by a true electronic pioneer: almost thirty years after taking an introductory high school course in Electronic Music, Garza remains at the top of his game.

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Rifflandia 6 review: Souls of Mischief at Phillips Brewery

Lovers of old school hip hop were spoiled by the sixth installment of Rifflandia. The festival featured a host of hip hop demi-Gods: from Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na to Sunday evening main-stager Big Boi, the nineties were alive and well in Victoria this weekend. On Saturday night, Philips Brewery hosted hip hop pioneers Souls of Mischief, whose stellar 1993 major label debut, aptly entitled ’93 Til Infinity, has been a mainstay in the CD players of hip hop connoisseurs for the past twenty years: the album sounds just as fresh now as it did upon its release, prompting an anniversary tour. Souls of Mischief’s Saturday set was among the most anticipated of the festival, as evidenced by a line-up that stretched around the block by 9:00 PM.

One would be hard pressed to imagine a better venue than Philips Backyard. Vats of beer, precious beer, tower over a stage which, by day, doubles as Philips Brewery’s loading dock. These vats exhale the powerfully aromatic scent of yeasty-fermentation, delightfully tickling the senses of all who enter. The recently expanded backyard can hold up to 2,000 people and was clearly at capacity by the time Souls of Mischief took the stage on Saturday night.

Dam-Funk warmed up the crowd for Souls of Mischief with a stellar set of funk-laced grooves. Known as Los Angeles’ “Ambassador of Boogie Funk”, Dam’s sound often recalled early Prince and Aurra as he got everyone dancing to the electronic sounds of his Keytar. At the end of his set, Dam grabbed a back pack full of records, tossing a fistful of copies of his newest album into the crowd: luckily, nobody was injured.

Souls of Mischief’s DJ LEX kept the party going, spinning classic tracks from the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and KRS-One, effectively transporting us back to the Clinton-era. Undoubtedly, many were surprised and somewhat disappointed when Souls of Mischief finally took the stage. The group was down to only two members on Saturday night due to, surprise, surprise, problems at the border. Indeed, border problems plagued Rifflandia this year, cancelling anticipated shows such as the Orb. This trend betrays our current Government’s quest to keep visiting artists out of our country: a rant I shall refrain from indulging here.

Souls of Mischief Lite were remarkably undeterred by the absence of half of their crew, delivering a set covering the entirety of their lengthy catalogue with an unbridled energy. While their newest material marks a return to form, the crowd was most piqued during track’s such as “Let ‘Em Know” and “Batting Practice” from ’93 Til Infinity: the album was the centerpiece of the show and will undoubtedly provide the soundtrack to my post-Riff week.

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