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Music Picks

From the Basement to the Stars

Intimate concerts remind why music still matters.

By Thom Wong 16 Apr 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Thom Wong writes regularly about music for The Tyee. He can also be found ruminating about the state of menswear at The Sunday Best.

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Jarvis Cocker composes an ode to the microphone.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying that "only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars," which, I imagine, means we should be seeing the entire universe shortly because things have gotten ridiculously dark. If it's not the economy falling under the weight of our collective hubris, it's the killing of pirates off the Somali coast, or the pending disappearance of an entire species of fish. Couple this with general news about how we're all too fat, stupid or lazy, and it takes a pretty strong constitution to get out of bed these days.

The music industry, by all indications, is faring no better. Sales are down across the board, and people are pointing fingers. (Mostly the major labels are pointing at anyone listening to music, as they are clearly thieves. Yes, you there with the iPod -- a dirty, rotten thief!) Some are even saying the end of music has come not because there won't be multi-national conglomerates to make it -- although the multi-national conglomerates are certainly saying that -- but because music has become so ubiquitous, it has lost all meaning. Surely Taylor Swift is somehow responsible for this.

It was with these dark thoughts swimming through my head that I found myself on the bottom floor of HMV, surrounded by video games and blockbuster films and very little in the way of music, when the familiar, tortured vocals of Jack White floated to me from the television screens. I stopped liking Jack White sometime around when he became a sort of undertaker cowboy carnival barker, and so I was surprised to find my attention held by his playing in a giant room full of musical instruments. Meg was there hammering on her drums and what appeared to be a set of colour-coded service desk bells.

The most surprising aspect of the video was not the musicianship so much as the setting -- between songs there was no banter, with only a few stage hands lounging in the background, dressed like Jack. They played two songs and were gone, replaced by Beck, who stood in the middle of the room, now criss-crossed with wires, playing a tiny keyboard. These sets, along with about 18 more featuring artists that range from Jarvis Cocker to Autolux, are on the recently released From the Basement DVD, by producer Nigel Godrich.

Godrich has worked with both Radiohead and Beck, which probably explains their willingness to stand in a giant room with no discernible audience and attempt to create performance gold. But I watched for 20 minutes and then bought the DVD, and its effect on me was so profound that it is inspiring me now to write something completely daft -- From the Basement made me excited about music again. In an era where innovation is re-releasing the Beatles catalogue for the eleventy billionth time, From the Basement is a reminder of how artists can reach fans by simply doing what they do best -- performing music.

Videos from the series have been floating around for some time, including Radiohead, Damien Rice and Fleet Foxes, but if you like any of the artists, you owe it to yourself to hear the DVD audio, which is pristine. And considering the cost of tickets, and Vancouver's track record with concerts, this might be the closest you get to some of them.

Buy the DVD and listen to clips on the website.

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