The driving drums and keyboards fueled my movements as I bounced up and down, back and forth to the space lounge sound of Stereolab. Red, blue and yellow lights flashed, punctuating the music. I could see the lights through my eyelids as I let the music carry me.
The evening was ending much better than it had begun.
We attended the concert at the Trocadero with our friend The Water Ballerina, whom we know from working together at Otakon. We'd agreed to meet beforehand at a restaurant she liked in Chinatown, the New Harmony Vegetarian Restaurant.
The problem was, I didn't give myself enough time to get there in rush-hour traffic and hadn't clearly thought out my route. So when I got frustrated with the bumper-to-bumper badness that was Chestnut Street, I turned up 18th Street, got briefly disoriented, and then had to take the Ben Franklin Parkway to Market Street, where I wasn't permitted to make any left turns until 5th street, about six blocks past the Philadelphia Convention Center, where I'd been planning to park.
My husband, The Gryphon, was coming from work, and I called him in the middle of this annoying odyssey, saying some things I won't repeat here. As I was finally headed in the right direction on Arch Street, I laughed at myself for overreacting, and I called The Water Ballerina to tell her I'd be there soon.
Of course, it was raining, which made everything more fun. Fortunately, I now have a black rain hat to go with my black knee-length trench coat, so I hadn't had to bring an umbrella. After initially heading the wrong direction on Arch, I turned myself around and slogged my way to the restaurant.
As I neared it, I saw that "New Harmony Vege Cafe" was spray-painted in white on the side of the awning, presumably to make it more visible for people walking up Ninth Street. I thought that was rather odd, but having looked at their MySpace page, I assumed it was run by the sort of earthy people who have run some of my favorite natural food co-ops, so I shrugged it off. Hand-painted signs at hippie-run businesses are nothing shocking.
The restaurant, though, was not the colorful, incense-scented, tapestry-hung enclave I'd imagined but a drab, gray-walled, run-down restaurant. Of course, many Chinatown restaurants have a similar lived-in appearance, which doesn't necessary reflect the quality of the food, so I still wasn't overly concerned.
The Water Ballerina suggested we order the dim sum, which is an all-you-can eat sampler of various dishes. I was disappointed, though, because I expected to receive more vegetables you know, it being a vegetarian restaurant and all. Instead, almost everything was deep-fried: a spring roll, some sort of fried pancakes, and fried tofu. Everything was brown and tan. The only color on the plate was some neon red sweet-and-sour sauce that came with the dumplings, which contained the only vegetables in the entire meal.
Neither The Water Ballerina nor The Gryphon seemed to mind, but the colorless, fried food made me really sad inside, as if I was back old habits of stuffing myself to fill a never-ending void caused by low self-esteem. For about seven years now, I've been eating healthier, and I love my plates to be filled with nutritious, colorful vegetables and lean meats. Those meals make me feel happy, not just because I know they're good for me, but because my body functions better on healthy food. I feel energized, not weighed down. Plus, fruits and vegetables are pretty.
Dessert was a fried banana (of course) and some sort of sweet potato run which, despite its exciting orange color, was just as bland as our brown meal.
Afterwards, we walked to the Trocadero, stopping at the parking garage on the way to put The Gryphon's laptop in my car. He was coming down with a mild cold, so we tried to find something for him at a Wawa, but they didn't sell anything useful..
As we arrived at the Troc, they were just opening the doors. We entered with a scarce handful of people, most of the ticket-holders choosing to wait until the opening bands had played before arriving. This gave us a chance to look around and decide where to stand. The Water Ballerina wanted to be literally at the lip of the stage, but since The Gryphon wasn't feeling well, I sat with him on some low stairs near the dance floor. If we'd gone up to the balcony, we could have sat on benches, but I wanted the option of dancing when the band played.
After we'd been waiting for a little while, The Gryphon and I got drinks at the bar. They stamped our hands as we entered an area set aside with metal barricades, telling us we had to keep the drinks in that area. I guess that was to prevent us from sharing them with anyone who was underaged. Our drinks were strong, which I suppose was good, since they were also fairly small. I felt penned in, so after we finished them, we returned to the steps to wait for the music to begin.
The first act was a band from Pittsburgh called The Van Allen Belt [SITE HAS MUSIC]. They started their set with music from the beginning of 2001, which The Gryphon and I found funny, since we'd watched his copy of the movie the previous weekend, as part of our wedding anniversary celebration. We'd had a Space Age theme for our wedding and had even used images from 2001 as part of a looping slide show at the reception, along with other Space Age art, architecture, cultural artifacts, and NASA photos.
Once the song kicked in, though, I was disappointed. The singer had a good voice, but the song writing was weak: endless repeatitions of the same sing-songy four-note phrase: up the scale and back down again. All their songs were more or less the same. The one redeeming part of their set was that they continued the 2001 theme throughout, using fractions of the soundtrack, including sound bites from the psychotic computer, HAL-9000, as links between songs. Unfortunately, the mix was a little muddy, so we couldn't always make out what HAL was saying.
By this point, The Water Ballerina, who's close to my age, had started talking to a guy in his 20s wearing black plastic glasses, who was also standing near the stage. They went to the merchandise table and bought CDs by The Van Allen Belt together. So I didn't feel as bad anymore about sitting off to the side with The Gryphon. She later told me that, while the night started off fine, his immaturity became increasingly grating on her (which shouldn't be surprising, given she's about 10 years older than him).
When I talked to her between acts, she told me that she didn't like the next act, Atlas Sound [SITE HAS SOUND], who had opened for Stereolab the previous day. She found his music discordant.
The Water Ballerina is what's affectionately known as a Lab Rat, or someone who follows Stereolab around. In fact, she plans to see them twice next week when they play in New York City. The first time she saw them, she flew to London over Spring Break in college, just to attend the concert!
Actually, I found Atlas Sound, which is actually one person, Bradford Cox, to be refreshing, in part because his music was more musically complex. He uses an electronic device which allows him to loop sounds, and he created an interesting set of harmonic phrases that had everyone riveted to the stage. Then, he added some much more mechanical sounds, which were louder and probably were what The Water Ballerina found discordant. Still, I thought his music was fascinating, in a sort of cerebral, meditative way.
In one of the longer stretches of drawn-out sound loops, I turned my eyes to the floor and discovered a moving abstract painting, created by the long silhouettes of people's shadows, contrasted with layered red and purple splashes from the stage lights.
While we wait for Stereolab to set up, let me take a moment to describe the Trocadero. According to that nigh-infallible source, Wikipedia (hey, I take my info where I can get it), it opened as the Arch Street Opera House in 1870 and in previous incarnations, housed Vaudeville and burlesque performances. In more recent years, it's offered music-lovers a chance to catch some great punk and alternative bands, in an intimate setting with a large dance floor.
These days, the Troc is badly in need of restoration: its Rococo proscenium arch flaking, its ornate vintage curtain dusty and faded, its ceiling plaster in such poor shape that netting has been stretched across to prevent chunks from hitting concertgoers.
My musings were interrupted when Stereolab quietly took the stage, to cheers. I'd never seen photos of them before, but they looked exactly as I thought they might: 30-somethings dressed in casual, yet hip clothes, like for example, the long-sleeved striped polo shirt sported by one band member. Lead singer Laetitia Sadier wore a blue mini-tank dress with ruffles, paired with black leggings, her hair pulled back off her face.
They launched into a song that I recognized from one of the albums I own (although I admit to being horrible with song titles). It was a from Emperor Tomato Ketchup, one of the hard-driving, danceable tunes that make me think of sunshine on a glorious summer afternoon. We'd had the DJ play some of Stereolab's music at our wedding reception for just that reason.
It was amazing to see them in person, live, and to see how many different instruments they played on-stage, with band members picking up shakers or other percussion instruments to augment the sound. They even used one instrument that was played by mallets. It was amped, so I'm not sure what it was. Perhaps it was one of the vintage electronic instruments they love. Above it all, Laetitia's vocals ebbed and flowed, her voice an analog instrument counterpointing the tapestry of electronic sound, guitar and percussion.
The floor was instantly packed, although it took a little while for people to do more than bob their heads. As a few people's movements bubbled joyously into dance, the spirit spread, and soon a lot of people were getting their groove on. In addition to enjoying the music which included such classics as "Ping Pong," "Percolator," "The Noise of Carpet" and "French Disko" I loved watching the dancers around me, sometimes picking up on their moves.
A guy ahead of me resembled a younger, hipper version of Mohinder from Heroes, and he had an easy glide, his feet barely seeming to touch the floor. A group of three guys were egging each other on to sillier and sillier dances, eventually culminating with a funky chicken, done to a truly inappropriate spacey number. This broke them up into fits of laughter.
To my left was a 20-something woman, wearing a knee-length skirt with leggings, paired with a boxy, modern leather coat, a newsboy hat crunching down her pigtails, oversized dangly earrings bouncing as she rocked out to the movement, throwing out her arms and shaking her hips.
Not far behind her was a couple in their late '20s, swaying in place, his hands on her hips. And right next to me were a couple of college-age guys, bouncing on their toes to the buoyant music.
The Gryphon, who was feeling a little better but clearly not at 100 percent, was leaning against a white pole near me, taking in the show.
Near the end of the concert, as Stereolab played a high-speed version of "The Noise of Carpet," with an extended jam session in the middle, I felt lifted on waves of colored music, bouncing to an internalized joy, a communal harmonic convergence. Not even a stomach full of fried brown tofu could hold me down.
Music is a painting you feel in your blood.