Archive for the ‘Archive’ Category

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble 35th anniversary

Friday, February 29th, 2008

This past Monday the 25th, I saw the first of two 35th anniversary concerts by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, a trio anchored by Kahil El’Zabar on percussion, drums and thumb piano; currently the other members are Corey Wilkes on trumpet and percussion and Ernest Khabeer Dawkins on reeds and percussion. These guys have played every February in DC for something like the last 10 years at least, but I’ve never seen them, nor had I heard any of their music before this show. I was not disappointed.

El’Zabar was playing possessed all night, whether on hand drums, drum set or kalimba; throughout the set he was singing along with the tunes, usually wordlessly, sometimes singing actual lyrics (as on the highlight “Mama’s House” and especially “There Is a Place,” in which he burst out several times with a single a capella line, “can you find a place/where there’s peace and happiness” to devastating effect). As one of my concertgoing companions mentioned, in this unique lineup, El’Zabar is the entire rhythm section, so his vocals were a welcome presence, filling in where in other ensembles a bass, piano or other chordal instrument might have.

For the most part, the trio played material that was relatively tame but still high-energy when it mattered. The two above-mentioned pieces were easily the highlights for me; “Mama’s House,” which closed the second set, played host to a thrilling solo each from Wilkes and Dawkins. Other pieces showcased El’Zabar on thumb piano, which he played while hypnotically and almost maniacally shaking his head from side to side, feeling a rhythm that was mostly implied rather than explicit. At their best, the ensemble was as soulful and expressive as any other I can think of.

From what I’ve read, though, it sounds like the second night was even better than the first — complete with drum circle before the show and a much more involved audience during the show as well. (At the show I went to, the crowd was small and fairly subdued.)

I’m still alive, and I saw Bloodcount!

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

So. Long time no nothing. Since I last wrote anything of consequence, I’ve had the privilege of seeing four concerts, all of which were quite awesome. Seriously, one of the better streaks of shows I’ve had. At each of them I managed to take photos for the first little while, then settle in and just listen and enjoy the music — best of both worlds. I’ll tackle them in chronological order over the course of a few posts.

Way back when on February 9, I had the privilege of seeing Tim Berne’s Bloodcount play their third show since something like 1997. I don’t make much of a secret out of the fact that Berne is one of my favorite modern composers and bandleaders, and some of the stuff that Bloodcount put out in the 90s is up there with the best of his work, in my opinion (the first disc of Unwound is just astonishing). So to get a chance to see the quartet reformed was a real treat. They played two sets; the first consisted of mostly shorter pieces, which seemed more focused than the old meandering compositions of the 90s, and really condensed the energy of the quartet to great effect. The second set was a change of pace, as they played one piece over again (Berne’s performance the first time around, when they opened the first set with the song, was apparently flawed — I didn’t notice — as he said after the piece ended, “Well… the score is 1-0. I’m losing.”) but then unleashed a 45-minute behemoth on the audience. It was classic Bloodcount, unfolding in ways that were sometimes difficult to follow; attention-demanding but extremely rewarding. After the fact, Berne wanted to know if anyone had recorded that second set, and I can see why: it was fantastic. (Sadly, I don’t think anyone was recording.)

Photos of the show below, in black & white because the colors in the performance space at An Die Musik do not exactly translate well into film (they show up as kind of a sickly yellow that also tinges the skin tones… gross).

Befuddled

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Wow, absolutely classic mismatch of reviewer and reviewed: PopMatters’ Filmore Mescalito Holmes, who normally seems to review electronica, drum ‘n’ bass and the like, tackles Ocrilim’s new one, Annwn. Not surprisingly, he can’t make heads or tails of this stuff, and the result is an amusingly clueless couple of paragraphs that say little more than “this guy’s just wanking, you might as well listen to a jackhammer.” (To which I say: don’t ever hand this guy an Einstürzende Neubauten album.)

In all honesty, this is the kind of review that makes me more interested to hear this than I would have been otherwise (I like Ocrilim’s first, Anoint, but not enough to make me go get this one sight unseen).

The Hard Sell

Friday, January 25th, 2008

I have a couple interesting things to write about (thoughts on a couple books, mainly), but wanted to report on the second show of 2008 for me, which was last night at the 9:30 ClubDJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. I’ll betray my total ignorance here: this was the first time I’ve ever seen a show like this before. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen a live turntablist was when I saw The Beta Band, who at times indulged in some scratching. I do have a couple DJ Shadow albums, and I have an early album by opener Kid Koala, and have heard him on records like Deltron 3030 as well.

With this minimal experience in mind, I had a lot of fun last night. Each performer used four turntables; Kid Koala’s solo act might actually have been my favorite. He really took his set above and beyond the source material he used, including one rather jaw-dropping section where he lifted up the stylus and placed it on different parts of a spinning record, in succession, creating a melody not unlike some of those that appear on the aforementioned Deltron 3030 (I think towards the end of “Things You Can Do” is a good example, but that’s offhand and I’m not sure my memory is right).

On the other hand, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s performance seemed a lot less coherent, and more dependent on the source material. They used a really wide variety of 7″ records, but the whole thing was just a bit too pastichey for me. Still, their talent was undeniable (Cut Chemist in particular showed off some pretty ridiculous chops) and their closing gimmick — imitating the hyperspeed guitar riffing from Metallica’s “One” — was hilarious and awesome. These guys might not be “musicians” in the traditional sense, but they absolutely are artists, working in a particularly postmodern field.

This is going to be a common theme throughout the year — I took some photos. SLRs (for the uninitiated, this basically means professional cameras, though not exactly) were not allowed, so I was using a cheap point & shoot digital camera, but here they are anyway.

Unexpect minus violin: still fun

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Last night I saw my first show of the year — Unexpect at Jaxx in Virginia. I really like their latest album, In a Flesh Aquarium, although I think folks are blowing its “avant-garde-ness” way out of proportion. Just because it’s pastichey and schizophrenic and draws from a wide variety of styles doesn’t make it avant-garde. But I digress: it’s a very good album regardless, and I was excited to see these guys pull off some of these all-over-the-map compositions in a live setting.

Sadly, the band was missing their violinist for this tour. As far as I could tell, they didn’t so much compensate for that lack so much as just play over it; there was no rearranging of parts and no transcribing of the violin parts to keyboard or guitar. This actually turned out fine. There were a few places where I really missed the violin melody, but for the most part the music didn’t suffer the loss much at all. A lot of that can be attributed to the band’s sheer energy level, which was through the roof, and their enthusiasm for playing their material. This was an extremely entertaining show, to say the least. My favorite piece live is also my favorite on In a Flesh Aquarium, “Desert Urbania,” which has a totally crushing sludgy riff towards the end that was the highlight of the show.

I took my camera to this show, as I’m embarking on a project this year to take as many photographs as possible. So despite the reservations I have about concert photography, I spent the whole concert taking photos and came away with a bunch that I’m pretty happy with. These are up at Flickr and sampled below. Thanks to the band for letting me shoot and for being extremely warm and friendly in general.

Music books!

Monday, January 7th, 2008

I got a bunch of music-related books from my brother for Christmas: Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn, and (perhaps most excitingly) Music and the Creative Spirit by Lloyd Peterson. I’m about halfway through Bailey’s book and, after finding it a bit of a slow starter (the sections on improvisation in Indian music and flamenco are interesting, but coming as they do at the very beginning of the book, it was a little unclear to me how they fit into a larger thesis), am starting to get really engaged. I’ll have more comments once I’m done with the book, but the ideas that Bailey presents about the effect of formalized notation on the history of music are fascinating. There is also some interesting material about how the systematized version of improvisation present in “traditional” jazz essentially kills the improvisation’s vitality and capacity for progress — this is where the sections on Indian music and flamenco come in, as Bailey stresses in these sections that there is absolutely no way to learn improvisation “by the book” in the context of these musics, as opposed to in trad-jazz.

On another book-related note, a few months ago I read Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan, but forgot to write anything about it here. In short, I found some of it a fun read, but it doesn’t read so much like a book about music as it does a true-crime kind of book. In fact, there’s a pretty disappointing lack of analysis about black metal itself, and instead the author chooses to talk endlessly about the twisted ideologies of the major players in the Norweigian black metal scene. I suppose the title should have warned me about that, but I was let down nevertheless. I guess I’m going to have to pick up a copy of Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore and hope that it does a better job of sating my appetite for intelligent commentary on the actual music being made in these extreme-metal scenes.

Gross

Friday, January 4th, 2008

From a review of Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender at rateyourmusic: “This sounds the way it feels when you grate your fingers along with the cheese, leaving clots of blood and sliced nuggets of skin on your creamy white pile of mozzarella… Abrasive.”

Yikes! I don’t agree with it, but that’s a pretty awesome, concise review right there.

Dream Theater: still sucks

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

Wow, the “new” Dream Theater album, Systematic Chaos (which I just picked up because it was super-cheap and I am a masochist), is really pretty terrible. Not in the same way that Train of Thought was aggressively awful, but more in a I’m-bored-out-of-my-mind kind of way. I sort of feel bad reviewing their albums these days (even though Octavarium was really okay, nothing too bad) since it’s a bit like poking a stick in the eyes of fanboys around the Internet, but I’ll probably review this one anyway for the sake of comprehensiveness. In the meantime, feast on this amusing review of it at PopMatters.

Great reissues from 2007

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

Happy New Year dear reader! Although I obviously won’t be doing a best of 2007 list just yet, I figure one thing I can do is talk about a few 2007 reissues I thought were great — since I don’t include reissues in my best-of-year lists. I don’t really follow reissues the same way I do new releases, so this list is even more personal than some of my other ones, but anyway, here are some highlights.

Kevin Drumm’s Sheer Hellish Miasma is a 2002 noise recording, reissued this year with an extra track. This was a revelation for me — an electronic apocalypse from a guy I only knew at the time from a similarly cacophonous collobration with Weasel Walter (Flying Luttenbachers) and Fred Lonberg-Holm. Drumm is also active in the eai world, but this stuff is about as far as it gets from the so-quiet-you-can-barely-hear-it end of that genre: though arguably minimalistic, the noise on this record is punishingly brutal. And oh so fucking awesome. Might review this one in the near future; the one thing stopping me is a total lack of reference points or vocabulary to talk about it.

Baby Grandmothersself-titled release — technically this is an archival release and not a reissue, since this stuff was never actually published as far as I know. As far as early Swedish psych-rock goes, this is some of the best I’ve heard. Read my review for more.

I got John Coltrane’s Live in ‘60, ‘61 and ‘65 DVD for Christmas, which was a few days after Oscar Peterson’s death. Peterson is featured on a song or two from the 1961 session here, and I thought it a fitting tribute to get to enjoy footage of one of his inimitable solos. Also it was neat to see Reggie Workman, a bassist whom I have seen perform a few times in the Baltimore/DC area in recent years, playing 45+ years ago yet looking strikingly similar to how he does now. Otherwise, the highlight of the set is a 1965 performance of “My Favorite Things” that stretches for nearly half an hour and reaches some dizzying heights.

Peter Brötzmann’s Complete Machine Gun Sessions is a very nice reissue package of a classic free-jazz blowout. The only problem is that the original “Machine Gun” is so intense and draining that I can barely stand to listen to anything more along the same lines after sitting through it once. I’ve taken to listening to the bonus tracks separately from the original, which seems to work okay. Sometimes I’m a bit of a wimp.

Finally, one that I have, but haven’t actually gotten around to, is Sun Ra’s Strange Strings, which is getting raves from many corners of the Internet, and not just the dark corners populated by crazies. This is an album where the whole Arkestra plays string instruments, which kind of sounds like a downright frightening prospect to me, but what do I know? I haven’t listened to it yet.

My favorite shows of 2007

Monday, December 31st, 2007

Well, so this was my year in shows.

If you count NEARfest as two concerts (which seems fair, since it was two days and I saw five shows), then I hit my goal of seeing 52 shows in 2007. There were tons more I wanted to see, but between playing a competitive sport, spending many spring and fall weekends backpacking, and maintaining a long-distance relationship, it was particularly difficult for me to make weekend shows this year. So all in all I think I did pretty well. Here are some of the highlights — I’m just putting these in chronological order, and not necessarily limiting myself to 10 or anything like that.

  • Atomic at Twins Jazz, February 8 (blog entry) — What a great surprise! This quintet plays a very accessible brand of free jazz; it’s really fun to hear Paal Nilssen-Love in particular playing a more straight-ahead style. Twins Jazz was packed with about 80 people who gave Atomic an ecstatic reception. Fantastic, high-energy jazz, a great way to kick off the year.
  • The Vandermark 5 at Jammin’ Java, February 16, $12 (blog entry) — Actually this was along the same lines as Atomic: great, explosive energy jazz, also very accessible (I even took three friends to this show). They were a hundred times better than when I saw them in 2006; Fred Lonberg-Holm went from being an interesting addition to a core part of the group’s sound, pushing them further and further “out.” The crowd was kind of lame but the band nevertheless played two very hot sets.
  • Zs at The Hosiery, February 26, $5 (blog entry) — This show cemented Zs as one of my favorite current avant-rock groups; before, I liked them a lot, but seeing them live really made their brilliance unmistakably clear. The image of four musicians staring intently at each other and their sheet music, while cranking out some of the loudest and most intricate (yet still aggressively rocking) sound imaginable, is permanently burned into my brain.
  • Dälek at Rock and Roll Hotel, March 2, $10 (blog entry) — Speaking of loud… Dälek on record is an intense experience, but Dälek live is something else altogether. This was my second time seeing them, and if anything they were better than the first, if a little less overtly in-your-face.
  • Do Make Say Think at The Black Cat, April 1, $10 (blog entry) — The best rock show I saw all year. DMST played a transcendently beautiful set, and I don’t use those words lightly. I love their take on post-rock, which involves a cacophony of instruments making coherent noise, often with one single instrument (an acoustic guitar, or most often electric violin) rising to the surface with a gorgeous, straightforward melody. One of the most purely joyous concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.
  • Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller at The Red Room (Baltimore), April 13, $12 (blog entry) — A legendary free-jazz skronker teamed up with an extreme metal rhythm section? Yeah, this was probably the most unrelentingly intense show I’ve ever seen. Once I managed to figure out how to parse it, though, I found it enthralling, especially Wertmüller’s drumming, which alone could have given me nightmares if I’d been having a bad day.
  • The Dismemberment Plan at The Black Cat, April 28, $15 (blog entry) — DC’s biggest phenomenon since Fugazi reuniting for two shows, four years after their breakup, guaranteed a crazy event, something bigger than just a mere concert. Sure enough, this was something to behold, especially since the band was, bizarrely, at their peak, better than they ever were when they were actually together. I saw better concerts in 2007, I think, but maybe none as memorable.
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at The Black Cat, June 5, $12 (blog entry) — The third time was the charm: the first two times I saw SGM I was actually kind of underwhelmed for some reason, but this time they really brought their A game. Maybe it was just my newfound familiarity with the In Glorious Times material, but it just seemed like the band had really mastered their peculiar meshing of theatricality, creepy beauty, and crushing heaviness.
  • Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress, October 30, free (blog entry) — A very intellectual concert that I also found quite viscerally effective, which is a good combination indeed. This 20-piece ensemble played a series of pieces chosen specifically for their rhythmic complexity, and they pulled it off with gusto. There were some avant-rock type moments here, but the real fun was seeing them play live renditions of a couple IDM songs, music that was never meant to be played by humans.
  • Om at Rock and Roll Hotel, November 13, $10 (blog entry) — I guess I must just like really, really intense concerts. This one had it all: incredible feats of tension-building, wonderfully effective individual performances, high-wire drama, and above all, a sense of spiritual searching of the sort that I like to think listeners must have experienced at late-60s Coltrane shows.

Honorable mentions go to Magma, Richard Pinhas, Wilco, Aussie Floyd, Nelly Furtado, Epica, Cowboy Junkies, and Dhafer Youssef, all really great shows but perhaps a tiny step down from the above. The most disappointing show I saw was probably John McLaughlin, but then again I think I just don’t like fusion very much, so maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Isis and Mastodon were also pretty terrible, the former being particularly disappointing as I saw them put on a great show in 2006.

I’m not sure I’m going to try quite as hard to see every concert I possibly can in 2008, for financial reasons if nothing else — but 2006 and 2007 definitely have awakened a certain passion for live music in me that I don’t think is just going to go away. I’ve already started making a list of interesting 2008 shows