TVD Live: (Sandy) Alex G, Japanese Breakfast at the Rock & Roll Hotel, 6/2

PHOTO: SONNY MALHOTRA | I wanted to see the show by (Sandy) Alex G in part because my daughter called him “the Elliott Smith of my generation.” This comparison took me aback, partly because I thought of, say, Nick Drake as the Elliott Smith of my generation. Which means I’m about two generations removed from what’s selling out the Rock & Roll Hotel these days.

There is an interesting back story to the Philadelphia guy once known as Alex Giannascoli, who only added the parenthetical aspect of his name last month. Working in a home studio he turned out a handful of albums that got wide play on Bandcamp, as well as a half-dozen other singles and EPs. The grass-roots success got him a label deal with Domino and his second release Rocket just came out this month along with the ambitious tour that’s already selling out a lot of places.

In addition to his own work, he got something of a wider audience when he started to work with Frank Ocean, a connection I still can’t quite get my head around. The guy is still only 24 and may look even younger on stage, with his raven black shoulder length hair brushed behind his ears. His recordings do denote some sensitive handling of personal material in a melodic manner. But on tour it seems he doesn’t really want to show that part of himself in front of so many people.

It’s one thing to bare one’s soul in the bedroom, mumbling personal thoughts and double tracking it; but in front of a band and hundreds of fans (S)A.G. would rather play up every rock trope of being on the road instead. So a big blast of Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” plays overhead to start and end the show (which got some bro-tastic singalongs and high fives in the crowd). More importantly, he takes a hard-edged, turned-up-to-11 approach on stage with a backing trio that he never introduces, making him sound overall more like the Rivers Cuomo of his generation.

Alex himself mostly stuck to guitar, moving over to a keyboard briefly mid-show. When it came time to play rhythm between his very simple verses, he stuck his tongue out over his lip, as if it were tough going, and swayed back and forth like the ingenue rocker he is. He kept mentioning how he had just messed up a song, or was sure to mess up the next one. Such is the case with live performance. And aware of the expectations in indie rock, he added that such messing up was “part of our charm.” Some of the songs were so short they almost seemed like movements in one big piece, especially as one followed the next many times with little or no commentary to the crowd (and certainly no tuning).

The kinds of songs shifted, too, from straight rock to ones with a bit of country guitar twang. I suppose it was the songs in which he sang falsetto that were intended as R&B (but weren’t really received as such). He had to fake the autotune he uses in his home recording noodling. There were even a couple of instrumentals. And then a couple of times as in “Brick,” he shrieked frantically in the microphone to approximate hardcore shouting as well.

There may be a certain charm to his simplicity, but he gave a whole new meaning to slacker rock. That phrase was used on people like Beck back in the day, but compared to (S)AG, Beck is Paganini. You get the idea his song titles are almost exclusively one word as if it would be too tiresome to use any more.

Not that he liked writing out set lists anyway. The second half of the show, which he describe as his encore, without ever leaving the stage (or getting the acclaim that might necessitate one), was given up entirely to requests. The patient crowd had already heard a half-dozen songs from the new work; nearly half the main set, intermingled with more familiar things like “Forever” or “Bug” and they’re be singing along when possible. The encores section was full of such things from the past, “Mis” and “Mary” and finally “Brite Boy.” Still, the one that most connected was one he played all by himself.

The directness of his recordings gets lost a bit on the loud live shows—he can’t harmonize with himself, loses the female voice and fiddle on those tracks, or any of their instrumental variety, replaced by the standard rock setup. He’ll probably figure out a way to do all of this in what looks to be a long career ahead of him. And he will have gotten the rock boy “life is a highway” stuff out of his system.

Michelle Zauner of the opening band Japanese Breakfast seems to found a way to better replicate her recordings on stage, sometimes by using the electronic tracks that she uses on her impending album. Surrounded by the same guitar bass drums set up, though, she’s able to transcend the format, even seeming to use just her voice to replicate the autotune-sounding trills on the new work, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, due out in July.

Not stuck in the moody strumming boy mold, she is free to be exuberant on stage as well, leading her fans to something like joy. She said it was her fourth time at the Rock & Roll Hotel, each time supporting sold out shows, by Porches, Mitski, and Eskimeux. Surely a sold out headlining gig there is in the future for the former leader of Little Big League.

Big Fish
Poison Root
Powerful Man

Brite Boy

Diving Woman
In Heaven
Road Head
The Body is a Blade
Everybody Wants to Love You
Jane Cum

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