8 Musical Crushes
1. Andrew Bird
He’s my musical hero. He’s a wiry, rumple-haired, dark-eyed virtuoso with long, spidery fingers that fly over his violin’s fingerboard with effortless grace. He sways and sashays when he plays like a man possessed, his brow furrowed in concentration. He sings with his eyes shut tight, perhaps trying to block out the ever-increasing crowd in front of him. He’s an odd mix of confidence and shyness: He’s fearless when he plays, a man who knows his craft, and is sure of his songwriting prowess. But sometimes something goes awry, the looping machine he keeps at his feet and controls with his stockinged toes malfunctions or misbehaves, and he looks at the crowd, mildly embarrassed, and jokes in a quiet, self-conscious semi-mumble.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform twice, several years apart. The first I saw him, I dragged a few friends to the 8×10 in downtown Baltimore to see him. My friends were skeptical, but left converts. He performed by himself, just him and his various instruments and his looping machine at his feet, with occasional accompaniment from Bowl of Fire drummer Kevin O’Donnell. It was a small crowd, 30 people would be a generous estimate. He had just released “The Mysterious Production of Eggs.” And the second time I saw him was in Philidelphia, on South Street. The show was sold out weeks in advance. People were trying to buy tickets off passersby outside the venue. There must have been 400 people there, packed in tight. And everyone knew his songs. It was sort of jarring to see all of those people there, since for years, it felt like I was his only fan. It was clear that he’d finally made it big. But, as I watched him perform, I realized that something amazing had happened. His songs were getting increasingly more complex, lyrically and musically, and he hadn’t compromised one bit of himself or his craft to sell out venues and get radio airplay. He made it big on talent and vision alone. You gotta tip your hat to that.
2. Colin Meloy (frontman of The Decemberists)
I gotta tell ya: The first time I listened to The Decemberists, I hated them. “OH MY GOD,” I thought, “WHY DOES THAT DUDE SING LIKE THAT.” But one song made me a fan, “The Engine Driver.” The way his voice lilts over those gorgeous, gorgeous words (“I am a writer, a writer of fictions, I am the heart that you call home, and I’ve written pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones”) and collides with that soft female voice and the accordion, oh, I was hooked. He sold me. And as I listened to them more and more, I realized, no other voice would make sense with these songs. And so I grew to love Colin Meloy’s voice as much as his words.
But nasal Cockney singing and wordsmithing aside, he’s just plain old adorable. And how can you resist a Morrissey covers album? Simple answer: YOU CAN’T.
3. Eugene Hutz (frontman of Gogol Bordello)
Eugene Hutz wants you to start wearing purple. He also wants you to think locally and fuck globally. All I can say is, sure thing, Mr. Gypsy Punk. I can has moustache ride? Plz?
4. Nick Cave
Nick Cave is pure, raw, unadulterated sex and violence. Oh, sure, he has a contemplative side. He can spin a ballad like nobody’s business. But from his first wails on the Birthday Party’s brutal fury to “Murder Ballads,” he’s all about sex and violence. Even when he’s not, even when he’s singing sensitive long songs (a la “The Boatman’s Call”), it’s there in that deep, booming, sinister voice of his. And his absolutely berserk cry of “OH GOD PLEASE LET ME DIE BENEATH HER FISTS” on “Zoo Music Girl” (from “Prayers on Fire”) has got to be the single most *UNF*-worthy moment in any song ever.
5. Erik Petersen (of Mischief Brew)
I saw Erik Petersen perform live before I ever heard anything recorded. It is a magical thing to behold. If you ever get the chance to see him perform, whether it’s a dark smoky dive bar or some crust kid’s living room, jump on it. It is one of the most amazing spectacles you will ever witness. Erik Petersen plays his guitar like a percussion instrument, beating out the chords, and you he doesn’t sing so much as he leads the crowd in protest chants. He’s just an anarchist kid, armed with a guitar and an awesome set of pipes, and he manages to instantly bring everyone in the room together with his singalong melodies and raspy voice. Personally, I don’t identify as an anarchist. But if anyone could ever sell me on it, it’s him. And although his rabid crust punk fans won’t admit it, his music and message harken back to the 60’s, when poets and big thinkers attempted to incite revolution with their acoustic guitars and a song. He’s a punk rock Cat Stevens. And nothing is sexier than a man with a conscience and a message. Especially when he’s sweaty and grungy and unwaveringly earnest and singing the praises of empowered women who “just might build your house but just might tear it down.”
6. John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats)
I’m a sucker for a hyperliterate man and John Darnielle might be the most hyperliterate songwriter of them all. From his “Going to…” song cycles to the self-destructive couple chronicled on “Tallahasse,” there’s a desperate romanticism to his songwriting that’s endlessly surprising and always beautiful. He’s penned some of my favorite songs ever (“Have to Explode,” “Going to Georgia,” “Game Shows Touch Our Lives,” and on and on…) and he’s lanky and bespectacled to boot. DOUBLE WIN.
7. E (from the Eels)
Mark Oliver Everett, the brain behind the Eels, is not your typical dreamboat. In fact, he’s sort of funny looking. Sometimes he will grow a positively feral beard and dress up like Unibomber, as he did during his “Souljacker” phase. And his voice is what I imagine it’d sound like if Beck and Tom Waits melded their respective vocal chords together. But, over the years, I’ve come to find E positively charming. He’s a hopeless romantic, always in search of someone to love. He’s authored some of my favorite love songs of all time (“Fresh Feeling,” “World of Shit,” “Tremendous Dynamite”) and he’s turning into an endlessly evolving, innovative, modern-day Captain Beefheart. And I really just want to pinch his cheeks and give him a big kiss.
8. Harry and the Potters
Okay, this is probably the nerdiest and most self-indulgent entry on an already nerdy and self-indulgent list. But I can’t help it. I love the Potters somethin’ fierce. I spent most of my early 20’s following these guys up and down the East Coast. Yes, they sing about Harry Potter. And, yes, the humor is likely to be lost on you if you aren’t a fan of the books. But these guys are also just top-notch performers — their shows are veritable nerdgasms, full of energy, and community, and just plain old rocking. The Brothers DeGeorge (Paul is Older Harry, Joe is Younger Harry, the premise of band is that Older Harry got hold of a Time Turner and went back in time to start a band with himself, pure genius) have also grown considerably since they first dressed up in their Hogwarts uniform. They’re nice guys to boot. I’ve been to at least 12 of their shows and, even as the crowds got bigger, they always took the time to interact with their fans and made themselves available for conversation after the show. And that, to me, is that mark of an awesome band.