A weekend of music at Carnegie Mellon
Touring bands and student acts play on campus for Carnival
Last year’s Carnival concert left students in the dumps; not only did the poor weather force the show into the disastrous-sounding Wiegand Gymnasium, but the two headlining acts disappointed students, who were hoping for a more college-appropriate show. This year, however, brought beautiful weather, allowing the Carnival concert to take place at its intended spot, the CFA lawn. On Friday night and throughout the weekend, students, alumni, and families flocked to musical happenings, ranging from student bands to the big momma show. Read on for a review of some of this weekend’s performances.
“The last time we came here, there were Bunsen burners on either side of us,” said Spoon lead singer and guitarist Britt Daniel. He was talking about Spoon’s performance at Carnegie Mellon several years earlier, when the band played in Doherty 2210, a lecture hall used mostly for engineering. It was clear on Friday night that the band has come a long way since then; Spoon’s gig at the CFA lawn was packed, filled with Carnegie Mellon students, eager high schoolers, and local fans from all over the city.
The diverse fan base shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since Spoon’s music is as simple as rock music gets. The band’s songs are often based around catchy grooves, basic chord changes, and poppy vocal melodies. On the show’s opener, “My Mathematical Mind,” bassist Rob Pope thumped away at an aggressive bass line as drummer Jim Eno laid down an edgy blues-rock groove. The heavy rhythm section quickly got the crowd dancing and head-bobbing.
But then something happened. Or really, nothing happened. Five minutes later, the groove to “My Mathematical Mind” had not changed, nor had the song structure been elaborated. There wasn’t even a chorus or bridge. Nothing! Finally, after a few verses, Daniel stepped forward to take a guitar solo. Bad idea, Mr. Daniel. Despite being a good-looking dude, this man simply cannot play guitar. His solo consisted of him twitching, hitting a few wrong notes, twitching again, and then cueing his band back to the verse.
The scenario was no different a few songs later when the band rocked through “I Turn My Camera On.” It’s a basic indie-rock song with simple drums, Strokes-y guitar licks and, needless to say, a dwindling vocal melody. The only difference here was keyboardist Eric Harvey, who took the noise-infested solo toward the end of the song, as opposed to Daniel. It was this sense of bloated mediocrity that irritated many a student. “The band didn’t have that much songwriting talent,” said sophomore Information Systems major Steve Hillaneus. “There was no innovation there; that bored the hell out of me.”
What Spoon did bring to the gig on Friday night was high energy and a good stage presence. And when you’re looking for a fun Carnival show, sometimes that’s the best formula. As the band broke into older tunes like “The Way We Get By” (from 2002’s Kill The Moonlight), fans jumped, sang along, chugged beers, and, of course, celebrated 4/20. “The good majority of people enjoyed themselves,” added Hillaneus. “They definitely did have energy.”
Although Spoon’s music is at times mind-numbingly boring, its upbeat energy, simple rock vamps, and catchy melodies are just right for an outdoor college concert. It looks like campus music snobs just have to suck it up.
Oakley Hall fit perfectly as the warm-up act for Spoon. Dressed in denim shirts and tight jeans, the group played through a set of mostly country rock tunes, appropriate for the outdoor weather and spring vibe. Although the group hails from Brooklyn, its sound has more of a relaxed, southern feel than it does hustle-bustle. It was a nice big-city-meets-cornfields mashup.
Like Spoon, Oakley Hall’s music wasn’t particularly progressive, but the band’s chemistry and well-crafted tunes made up for the lack of innovation. Rachel Cox, Oakley Hall’s backup singer and guitarist, added a nice color to the mix; her voice had a nice balance of smooth and grit that sat
nicely behind lead singer Patrick Sullivan’s relaxed singing style. The rhythm section of hipster-bassist Jesse Barnes and Greg Anderson made for a solid rock rhythm section. Although no bass lines or drums beats jumped out at you,
the two gelled well and got the crowd smiling and dancing.
Now opening for Bright Eyes on a nationwide tour, the band members of Oakley Hall are playing it safer than they probably should. They have good songwriting chops and even better chemistry. So, as their fan base starts to increase with this upcoming tour, they hopefully will push themselves as musicians and develop their slightly generic sound.
Surprising as it may sound, Weird Paul was the night’s most interesting act. Sure, he’s not going to sell any platinum records any time soon, but he was the only person who made art that was actually provocative. A pasty white guy from Pittsburgh, Paul Petroskey sang songs that spanned from the extraterrestrial “Robot Armor” to the high-cost-of-low-living qualms of everyday life in “I Got Drunk at Chuck E. Cheese.” His music is chock full of fuzzy guitars, cheesy drum loops, and really, really irritating synthesizers.
Besides the fact that his music is different, Petroskey’s appeal also comes from the contagious fact that he doesn’t take himself seriously. While Oakley Hall and Spoon acted like they were the saviors of rock music, Weird Paul just had fun. And so did everyone one else.
CMU 4:30 Jazz Ensemble
Taking up its annual performance at Spring Carnival, the Carnegie Mellon 4:30 jazz band flexed its muscles for family, alumni, and students on the main stage of Midway. “We’ve played at Carnival every year for the past six years; it’s a great opportunity for alumni to hear the band, since oftentimes they don’t get to see the concerts during the year,” said conductor and Director of Jazz Studies Dave Pellow. The group played older charts from the Basie era up through more contemporary pieces, including Charles Mingus’s “Nostalgia In Times Square.” Making the event extra special was the guest appearance of jazz faculty member Eric DeFade, who plays tenor saxophone.
Having been confined most of the semester to gigs at fraternities and other not-so-optimal locales, singer-songwriter Marian Mareba finally felt at home on Thursday night at her performance on the Side Stage of Midway. “Despite the hectic vibe of rides and games all around, the feeling [on stage] was much more upbeat,” said Mareba, a sophomore majoring in creative writing. “It’s different from the average show with the dark lights and quiet crowd.” The relaxed nature of the show gave her room to play new songs like “Burning Sky,” a dark but beautiful tune that showed immense maturation as both a performer and a songwriter. Other highlights included “Cells,” another original tune that Mareba recently recorded.
Whereas some performers during the weekend, including Jamais Vu and Tim Dimond, focused on original tunes, student band Tennessee Whiskey reeled in its audience with cover songs. Performing on the side stage, the group focused on classic rock, with tracks like The Who’s “Baba O’Reily,” but also dipped into more modern tracks like Sublime’s “What I Got.” “We’re trying to get away from the 1970’s influence,” said singer and guitarist first-year H&SS student Nathan Zoob. “But right now the best we can do is to get the crowd going, and we felt like those type of songs could really do that.” Interspersed between funky tracks like “Superstition” and crowd pleasers like “Hotel California” were original tunes that highlighted the chemistry within the band. Although instrumental and heavy in improvisation, Zoob said the group “composes small ideas” and uses these as frameworks for these jams. Although the group is still working on its repertoire, Tennessee Whiskey’s gig on Friday was promising on a level of both songwriting and performance.