Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle is a lot of things, but mostly it’s a gathering of a community of like minded gamers. These are nerds and geeks who live by a simple credo popularized by Secretary of Geek Affairs, Wil Wheaton. It simply states, “Don’t Be a Dick.” So what does a bunch of gamers getting together in Seattle have to do with a music website? First of all, this is the second year I’ve gone (out of many I will attend; it’s populated by uniformly awesome people). Every year, PAX invites some musicians that are popular in the gamer community to perform at a popular series of concerts. It’s time that these shows got a traditional concert review, so here it is.
Friday night’s lineup started with Anamanaguchi, a Brooklyn-based band that performs alongside a programmed Nintendo Entertainment System. They take the music genre known as chiptune and add a more traditional rock sound to it. The product sounds like some other popular instrumental “math rock” bands such as Battles. I really like this band’s music, and they played a well received, if sonically flawed, performance.
The expo hall where the concerts happen is a giant cavernous room with cement floors. The music tends to get pretty boomy, so the sound mix becomes critical. What happened during their set is that the Nintendo was mixed really high, and it was hard to hear the instruments that were playing along with it. The drums were especially hard to hear, with the toms simply disappearing into the muddy middle. I am sure that there is a lot more nuance in the arrangements than could be heard in this hall.
The visuals, on the other hand, were really cool. They were being done live by this very cool looking couple standing on one side of the stage. One guy was staring hard at a monitor, using a controller to time and mix them live. It made for an impressive performance. I could easily see Anamanaguchi catching on in the mainstream; there’s nothing all that nerdy about them on the surface.
The next band, however, is the nerdiest project in the history of music. As a proud nerd, that means I think it’s a fantastic concept. The band, Metroid Metal, does heavy metal arrangements of music from the Metroid series of video games. They sound absolutely incredible. The nerdiness doesn’t even end with the concept, because not only do they dress in an odd combination of metal clothes and nerd gear, but the audience throws up the devil horns with abandon. I think there may have been more hands in the air than you’d ever see at a traditional metal show.
As for the arrangements, they sound incredible, and the performance has this thrown-together quality about it, like they never really get together to practice. Songs end suddenly, with some band members playing the riffs a couple of extra times at the end. They’re all such good musicians, though, it’s jawdropping at times. I waited for about 20 minutes to buy their CD after their set, and I was not disappointed. I recommend this for fans of instrumental metal as well as nerds everywhere.
MC Frontalot–the pre-eminent voice of nerdcore–finished up the night, and the boominess of the hall hurt his set more than anyone else’s. He does live hip hop with clever lyrics. Lyrics are hard enough to hear in live hip hop, and when you mix it with a boomy room, it simply gets lost. The hardcore fans of his who already know the songs were really into the show, but there was a palpable lack of energy in the hall. His band is really spectacular, and the beats they’re playing are great, ready for dancing up a storm. Including me, I think there were about three people dancing. One of them, a tall guy in a V mask (from V For Vendetta) was absolutely amazing, and I was really hoping he’d inspire a dance riot. Didn’t happen.
Another mild disappointment, and this was true for the shows for both days, was the use of the video screens. The hall is pretty darned big, housing about 6000 people, so they have video screens in the front and the middle of the hall, and they do a fantastic job of showing the concerts live on these screens. Where this runs into trouble is that a couple of these bands use video in their shows for added comedy value, and the director needed to jump back and forth between the produced comedy videos and the live action on the stage. He did the best he could, but it would be nice to come up with alternate solution to this in future years.
Saturday started with Freezepop. They’re well known throughout the gamer world as a favorite band of Harmonix, the developer that popularized rhythm games in America. They’ve been using Freezepop songs for years in their games, and it wouldn’t be a Harmonix game without a Freezepop tune or two. (How they’ll sneak them into Beatles Rock Band is anyone’s guess.) On record, they sound great. Live, not so much.
I’ll take you back a couple of years to SXSW 2008. I went to a launch party of some website that doesn’t exist anymore (or if they do, I don’t remember who they are), and one of the bands on the bill was Freezepop. Since I was a fan of their records, and had never seen them live, I was really excited about seeing them and I told my friends how great they are, and bought some merch, and got into the front row. Then they came on stage and yielded poor results. They were so disappointing, in fact, that it became common to pick on me throughout our trip for liking them: “Why should we trust you? You like Freezepop.” Playing them their albums from my iPod redeemed me somewhat, thank goodness.
Flash forward to PAX 2008. I get there in time to see Freezepop, hoping that I had seen a one-night disappointment. Nope. So now it’s PAX 2009, and since I’ve committed to writing an official concert review, I have to watch them. So they come out on stage and sound great! The singer starts, and she’s only talking the lyrics, so everything is great so far. But then the singing starts, and I was making a run back to the hotel room to drop off my Paul and Storm “Dejected Arrrrr” t-shirt. Stick to their records. They’re really good at making records.
I came back just in time to see Wil Wheaton walk on stage to introduce Paul and Storm. I’ve known of Paul and Storm for some time, as the two of them were members of DaVinci’s Notebook, the greatest a capella comedy group in the history of the genre. Paul and Storm, up to this point, are famous in the geek community as the Washington Generals to Jonathan Coulton’s Harlem Globetrotters. He’s been carting them around as his opening band for some time now, and they’ve slowly been collecting their own fans. Tonight, from the time they started their opening song, “The Opening Band,” they had the giant crowd wrapped around their fingers. I feel like this had to be the best show of their entire career, and I was absolutely thrilled for them.
Their blend of comedy songs and interludes had people cheering madly. Their songs are full of puns, references to other musicians, self depricating humor, and a fair dose of geek fan service. Think of a less smug They Might Be Giants with more versatile vocalists, and I think you might get some idea of what to expect.
The crowd reaction was so good, in fact, it made me come up with another idea for future PAX concerts. They need to refresh the band lineup a little bit more from year to year. This year, four of the six acts had played the year before, and the crowd had the best reaction to the two new acts: Metroid Metal and Paul and Storm. Most music festivals try really hard not to repeat acts from year to year. It keeps certain acts from getting stale, and the discovery of new things in a large crowd can provide a welcome burst of energy.
Last up was Jonathan Coulton, and he played a really fun set with special guests and surprises. Everyone knows his music really well, singing along in the right places, doing proper hand motions, holding up lighters, lighter iPhone apps and DSs when needed. I had this sudden realization watching his set. He isn’t the Harlem Globetrotters; rather, he’s the Phish of the geek world; not a jam band, but their cult hero. And what would a review of a Phish-like presence be without a setlist?
Big Bad World One
Betty and Me
Code Monkey *
Space Doggity *
Blue Sunny Day *
Wil Wheaton (My Monkey with all mentions of “my monkey” changed to “Wil Wheaton.” See the video at the bottom of the post for Wil’s reaction to this.) **
Bills, Bills, Bills (Destiny’s Child cover) **
Always the Moon **
Creepy Doll *
I Feel Fantastic *
The Future Soon
Re: Your Brains
Mr. Fancy Pants (included an ending bit where JoCo played mashup DJ including Mario music, “Single Ladies,” and more)
Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond cover) **
Birdhouse in Your Soul (They Might Be Giants cover) *
First of May *
* accompanied by Paul and Storm
** accompanied by Paul and Storm along with Molly on ukulele
This was a virtuoso set by Jonathan Coulton, and even though he forgot some words here and there, and had some technological mishaps along the way, there was no questioning that JoCo is an essential voice of the PAX community. Remember all of that stuff I said above about refreshing the bands every year? Make sure that Mr. Coulton doesn’t get refreshed. Sure, his appearance fees will keep rising as he ascends into mainstream mega-stardom, but I hope the Penny Arcade team keeps paying him.
Overall, the PAX concerts were a total blast, and the no-drinking atmosphere lends itself to a lot of happy people by the end of the night. I didn’t see any pushing or shoving (except when called for–hello Metroid Metal!) or drunken arguments. Sure, there was a wayward laser pointer or two and a few people stepping on punchlines here or there, but overall the crowd was terrific, and the performers were both gracious and on the top of their game. It’s all a testament to what can happen when people live by that most awesome of slogans, “don’t be a dick.”