I owe a couple more show recaps: first is Dälek at Rock & Roll Hotel, actually just a day after I saw St. Vincent at the same venue (this was a couple weeks ago and I’m just now getting around to writing it up). This show was predictably great; Dälek live is quite literally a punishing experience, and if you don’t have earplugs at one of their shows you’re doing some serious damage to yourself. This time around they had expanded to a quartet, and as this review of the Philly show amusingly puts it, “Dalek didn’t look like any hip hop band I’ve ever seen - a metalhead bass player, a laptop DJ that look straight out of Death Cab For Cutie, a giant tattooed turntable DJ, and an almost scarily intense MC.” (Oops — the “metalhead” plays guitar, not bass.)
I’ve seen these guys annually for the past three years, and each time they’ve added a member. In 2006, it was just MC dälek and Oktopus, the producer. I believe their turntablist, Still, had just left the group at that point. Last year, they added the guitarist. This year, they added the dude on laptop and keyboard. Incidentally, I don’t remember seeing any laptops at all the last two times I saw them, but this time, Oktopus and the two “new” guys each had their own laptop.
All of this lineup shifting didn’t seem to have much of a discernable effect on their sound as far as I could tell. I mean, with Dälek live, you can basically hear three things: dälek rapping, Oktopus’ beats thumping, and a shitload of howling noise, not necessarily in that order. I guess my ears aren’t quite good enough to figure out exactly what effect the guitarist and laptop guy had on the howling noise. Still, I do have to say that, though this is a statement totally lacking in specifics, these guys sounded good. Noise is at its best when it evokes emotion, and Dälek is masterful at tweaking their sheets of sound to get the emotional response they’re looking for.
I was happy with this set as it included some great stuff from Absence (”Culture For Dollars” was totally mindblowing) as well as the expected material from Abandoned Language. As with last year, the closing song was “(Subversive Script),” and what a fantastic way to end it was, seeing as how it is home to one of the group’s most lethal beats ever. Also as with last year, I was left wishing their set had been much, much longer. Oh well.
As for the other groups: I left before Russian Circles came on, which was my loss because I understand they are awesome. I didn’t much care for Young Widows, who were billed as “noise-rock” but pretty much just sounded like indie-rock with a lot of noise on top, which is really not the same thing. I saw that they recently got signed to Temporary Residence, a label I generally respect, so perhaps I’ll have to give them another chance sometime. For more useful takes on these two bands, check out this review.
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.)
On Tuesday, I saw St. Vincent, an indie-pop group headed up by charismatic frontwoman Annie Clark, who has done stints with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. Clark is a tremendous lyricist, vocalist and guitarist, and also has a penchant for great arrangements. St. Vincent’s music is a kind of melodic indie-pop that’s beautifully orchestrated and a bit off in left field a bit in terms of arrangements, song structures and so on. Their debut album, Marry Me, was a minor hit last year, so I was expecting a decent crowd. Still, her music is just enough out there that I wasn’t expecting a totally packed house, but that’s what it was. And it didn’t take me long to find out why.
As good as Marry Me is, it’s got nothing on this group’s live show. Live, these songs sound considerably different; most obviously, the band frequently tacked on noodling instrumental intros, but also there was just a lot more guitar in general. Turns out Clark is a hell of a guitarist, and her somewhat unpredictable style was pretty fun to watch and listen to — kind of a scorched-earth electric spazz-out but always with melody just around the corner. In particular, “Your Lips Are Red” featured some blistering instrumental work that just isn’t there on the studio version, and a new arrangement of “Paris Is Burning” was a simmering beast of a pop song that exploded into delicious cacophony more than once.
But the quieter, less abstruse (hi Ben) pieces fared just as well too. Chalk this up to Clark’s natural charisma as a vocalist — songs that I found just kind of middling on record became somehow beautiful live, especially with a crowd as rapt as this one was. Suffice to say, I came away impressed and a bigger fan than I was before.
Amusingly, two of these reviews mention the small army of amateur photographers at work at this show; naturally, I was one of them. (In fact I’m probably the one referenced in the Baltimore Sun review, as my unassuming, trusty little 50/1.8 lens is exactly the kind of thing that would inspire the photographically unaware to say something like “get a better lens.”) I’ve never been at a show with so many other people taking photos; it was a little disconcerting. I’m happy to report that of the ones I’ve seen show up online, my own are my favorite. Which is not really all that important to anyone but me, but at least it makes me feel a little less redundant.
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).
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 Club — DJ 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.
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.
So I was on a much-needed vacation last week, but still managed to squeeze in a couple last concerts in DC: Frode Gjerstad Trio and Circus of Saints, two groups that were sort-of jazz but not really, although in completely (and I do mean completely) different ways.
The former show was a tough decision, because that same night, a very appealing group was playing at An Die Musik in Baltimore, including Marc Ducret on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums. Luckily I made the right call, as that show turned out to be cancelled due to weather. Gjerstad’s trio consisted of the titular member on saxophones and clarinet, Øyvind Storesund on bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I’ve seen the latter three times now this year, with three different bands, and I think I have something like eight CDs from this year alone on which he plays. Does the man ever rest? Who knows, but what I do know is that he’s a damned entertaining drummer, and the main reason I decided to go to this show, dragging my girlfriend along with me.
This trio played a little less than an hour of pure free improv, with few gestures towards traditional melody, harmony, or rhythm. Definitely not free jazz, just freeform improvisation. Gjerstad had a tendency to explore the upper registers of his instruments, particularly clarinet, something that I don’t particularly enjoy, but otherwise this was still a pretty fun show. Nilssen-Love is always a blast to watch, in any case. Without any real musical reference points, I’m a bit at a loss to describe this stuff except that it was very challenging.
Three days later, seeing Circus of Saints was a bit of a jarring transition. This is some kind of collective of local musicians playing what could be categorized as accessible, melodic jazz-rock, with plenty of room for soloing but also lots of catchy, composed melodies. The show was at one of my favorite venues, Jammin’ Java (though sadly they were out of their amazing spicy pork chili when we got there), and I had a good time. Although it wasn’t the kind of music I would ever listen to on record, they were fun to watch live, particularly a guy on low brass (trombones and tuba) who was a bit show-offy but had the chops to match — at one point my girlfriend thought he was reading off of the saxophonist’s music and transposing the lines on the fly in is head!
So the vacation was the reason for the lack of recent posting, but I’ll have some good stuff coming up — maybe some notes on new acquisitions, thoughts on an MP3 player I bought a friend for Christmas, recounting an eMusic customer service experience, and an end-of-year concert recap. Til then… happy holidays!
I haven’t taken a camera to a concert in years, mostly because I realized that whenever I did, I paid more attention to photography than I did to the music. That wasn’t a trade-off I was willing to make. Also, bringing an expensive digital SLR into a packed, dingy club (usually in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood) isn’t my idea of a relaxing time. So I haven’t mixed my passion for photography with my passion for music since, oh, maybe 2001 or so.
For whatever reason I decided to change things up a bit last night, and I brought my trusty Nikon D70 to Orion Sound Studios for the Radio Massacre International show. An electronic music group doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting of concert photography, but on the other hand at least they’re somewhat easier to shoot because they’re relatively static. The studio was dim enough that I had to shoot wide open (f/2.8) at a high ISO (800-1250) to get any reasonably fast shutter speeds, so if they’d been moving around very much I wouldn’t have gotten anything sharp.
The results of my efforts are up at Flickr; I’m reasonably happy with them considering I haven’t tried anything like this in years (most of my photography is either nature or, more rarely, sports photography). I do wish the D70 performed better at high ISOs, but there isn’t really anything I can do about that. In any case, the predictable thing happened, and indeed, I didn’t pay as much attention to the music as I would have liked.
That said, I did enjoy the show quite a bit, especially the first set. RMI played about an hour of their “traditional” Berlin-school electronic music for the first set, although there were times where they burst into more rock-oriented material, which I found a little off-putting at first. This stuff was great for the most part, really evocative and slow-moving. I’m only familiar with three of the band’s albums — (Emissaries, Septentrional and Rain Falls in Grey — of which Emissaries, whose music is closest to the style of this first set, is my favorite. So it makes sense that I dug this set a lot.
The second set was Rain Falls in Grey performed in its entirety, with the core trio augmented by Cyndee Lee Rule on violin and Premik Russell Tubbs on saxophones. I haven’t quite made up my mind about this album yet; parts of it are great (the track “Emissaries” in particular), whereas other parts seem to wander without really going anywhere in particular. The live performance didn’t change my mind; the parts I already liked were even better live, but the meandering parts still meandered. Also, I couldn’t really tell what Rule added to the band, she didn’t seem to play all that much and when she did I sometimes thought she muddied up the sound. That might have just been my earplugs cutting out some the high end of the mix, though.
In any case, a good show, and the big news is that Radio Massacre International got announced for next year’s NEARfest. Hopefully I can make it next year, as I will welcome the chance to see these guys again and really put my full attention to the music.
At first, I thought the pairing of post-rockers Grails with stoner-metal gurus Om was a weird concert double-bill, but as soon as I showed up at Rock & Roll Hotel on Tuesday night and the former began their set, it became clear that this was in fact quite an inspired pairing. Both of these bands take a fundamentally rock style and add to it distinct Eastern influences — in Grails, it’s the acoustic guitar scales; in Om, the overwhelming Eastern mysticism that dominates their lyrics and overall approach.
I’ve never been blown away by Grails — with every one of their albums, including the new Burning Off Impurities, I feel like there are some really great moments, but they are separated by long stretches where nothing is really going on. Seeing them live only reinforced this impression, although the great moments were pretty freakin’ great. Unfortunately, the acoustic guitar parts kind of got drowned out in the louder sections, especially with their drummer pounding madly away (too loud). One of the band members was wearing an Ash Ra Tempel t-shirt, and I felt at their best this band evoked a kind of meditative mood that reminded me of classic Krautrocky ambience.
Om’s live performance also reinforced my impression of them based on their recordings. This band’s albums are meditative, heavily repetitive, stripped-down stoner metal, just bass, drums and vocals that are chanted more than they are sung. Somehow they manage to be mystical in a neo-hippie kind of way while simultaneously being heavy as fuck. Live, they pulled off this unlikely marriage of stylistic elements impeccably. Bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros is one intense-looking dude, staring into space the entire show as if he was being chased by demons no one else could see; and drummer Chris Hakius was all over the place, the driving force of the duo much of the time, weaving and bobbing his entire body even during the passages where his playing was mostly minimal.
They played four songs, I think, which lasted for over an hour. The clear highlight was an absolutely transcendent rendition of “At Giza,” my favorite piece of theirs, from Conference of the Birds (a brief excerpt of this song is on their Myspace page). The majority of this song is quiet and meditative, although in concert Cisneros’ bass was crushingly loud even in the softer sections. When the climax hits, Cisneros kicks in the distortion and Hakius starts bashing, the effect is unbelievable. The closing to this rendition of the song was just as awesome: the volume dwindled gradually, and Hakius ended the song by slowly reducing the volume of his drumming, tapping his cymbals delicately long after Cisneros had stopped playing, as the entire crowd listened in total, enraptured silence. When it ended I felt compelling to jump up and down screaming my brains out. That doesn’t happen very often.
They ended with “Bhima’s Theme” off the new Pilgrimage, but sadly this was ruined by excessive volume levels. On record, the middle section of this song is incredibly slow and quiet, just Cisneros’ bass playing quietly as he chants his mystic lyrics without accompaniment. Live, the bass was way too loud, killing the near-stillness that the quiet section evokes on record. Still, when the loud section kicked back in — distortion cranked and Hakius beating out a killer rhythm — the effect was awesome. I can only imagine how powerful this would have been if the quiet section had been properly quiet.
I was pleasantly surprised at how many folks showed up for this show. The crowd was pretty thin for Grails, but it seemed like the club, which fits 400 people in a pinch, was almost full for Om. Who knew that stoner metal had such an audience in DC?
Once upon a time, I owned more Pink Floyd CDs than CDs by any other artist — combined. I was depressed because I thought I’d never find a band whose music was as transcendently amazing or that affected me in such an emotional way. I put up posters at my school celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dark Side of the Moon. I bought or downloaded “RoIOs” (seems like only Pink Floyd fans use this term instead of “bootleg”) and became familiar with tens of different performances of the same few songs. When I was a junior in high school, I once told a class that the one thing I wanted to do before I died was to see Pink Floyd live.
Needless to say, I’ve since set my life goals slightly higher, and Pink Floyd has slipped considerably in my list of favorite bands. Still, when I found out that The Australian Pink Floyd Show (hereafter “Aussie Floyd”) were going to play in the DC area, it was with only mild hesitation that I ponied up fifty bucks for a ticket. And I somewhat guiltily slipped out of work an hour or so early — it was a late night tonight as a bill we’ve been working to kill for over years now is going to a vote tomorrow — to make it to the show.
When I got to the theater, 45 minutes late, the band was just wrapping up what sounded like a killer version of “Us and Them” and seguing into the finale of Dark Side of the Moon. It looked like the first set was that album in its entirety; despite my poster shenanigans in high school, Dark Side has never been one of my favorite Floyd albums and so I wasn’t overly bummed about missing out on most of the set. However, to my surprise I did nearly get chills listening to “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” so things were looking good.
After a brief intermission, the second set kicked off with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” much to my delight (Wish You Were Here remains my favorite Floyd album). I won’t list out the whole setlist, but suffice it to say that it drew from a wide variety of albums, although the only pre-Dark Side songs were “One Of These Days” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The latter was godly. The live rendition was trancelike at the beginning and ending, but unlike the original, added in an absolutely crushing middle section, with a pair of white-hot solos courtesy of the guitarist and saxophonist. Easily the highlight of the show for me. The pro-shot YouTube video below is good, but doesn’t do the performance I saw justice.
Elsewhere were some totally unsurprising selections like “Wish You Were Here,” “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2″ (with a nifty guitar solo section), “Comfortably Numb,” etc. If I had a complaint it would be that there were too many songs from The Wall. The vocalists in Aussie Floyd did a decent job with Gilmour’s rich vocal parts, but couldn’t pull of Waters’ reedy, tortured-soul vocals nearly as convincingly. In fact, overall their vocal performances, while technically sound, were emotionally a little flat. Some of the songs from The Wall (in addition to not being my favorites in the first place) suffered as a result.
An odd highlight for me was “Learning to Fly” off of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which was played in a form closer to the funkier Delicate Sound of Thunder version. Momentary Lapse is not an album that most Floyd fans would ever call one of their best, but I have a bit of a soft spot for it. It was the first Floyd album I ever heard; I stayed up all night on a long bus ride from North Carolina to the Florida Keys on a seventh-grade school trip, listening to this album over and over again. When Aussie Floyd played “Learning to Fly” — my favorite song on the album then and now — I closed my eyes and I was 12 years old again, watching the nighttime landscape zoom past under the light of the moon as a whole world of music was opened up to me thanks to an old cassette tape in a borrowed Sony Walkman.