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Ground and Sky » Concert
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Got a little lull in concertgoing (there are a couple shows of interest at An Die Musik this weekend, but I’m going to take a break), so it’s time to catch up a bit on the backlog. Last week, Yo La Tengo played at the Birchmere, kind of a weird venue for an indie-rock trio known for making a shitload of delicious guitar feedback noise on top of a steady, almost Krautish pulse. The reason they were playing at this venue — an intimate dinner club whose more usual fare are singer-songwriters, country musicians and aging rockers — was the nature of this tour, dubbed “The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo.” The concept was basically that they would play “semi-acoustically,” kicking off with a couple songs and then opening up the rest of the concert to questions and requests.
There aren’t too many bands out there that can pull this off. Ideally, it requires a large and diverse repertoire of songs, the ability to play them acoustically, the ability to play any one of them on cue, a devoted and knowledgeable fan base, and the charisma to be able to sit on stage and answer questions without boring your audience stiff. I’m having a hard time thinking of any other bands that could actually do this, but Yo La Tengo managed to do it and be entertaining throughout. It helps that they’re one of the most endearing bands around, consisting of a married couple (he on guitars, she on drums) and a third-wheel bassist, all of whom have been playing music together for multiple decades (okay, the bassist is the relative “new guy,” having only been in the band for 15 years or so). The vibe these guys give off is one of relaxed confidence, like they’ve been together for so long they can handle pretty much anything the audience throws at them. In particular, guitarist Ira Kaplan was comfortably engaging and funny onstage, appropriate as it’s his guitar pyrotechnics that — for this listener at least — really propel the band to their most exhilirating musical heights.
I waited too long to pen this writeup, as I no longer remember much about the questions that were asked, but the band encouraged people to ask about anything, not just music. Nevertheless, for the most part the questions (mercifully in my opinion) stuck to Yo La Tengo’s music; the most off-topic it got was, “what’s your favorite Simpsons episode and why?” — and even that one became YLT-related since the answer was “well, the one that we did the music for, obviously.”
Musically, Yo La Tengo has a long and impressively diverse discography. I had expected them to stick mostly to the quieter stuff, or at least the poppier stuff. For the first half of the show or so, this was the case; they played a lot of their contemplative, slow-paced material, of which I generally find about half to be beautiful and half forgettable. But they did end up playing some louder stuff. It turned out that by “semi-acoustic,” what they really meant was “electric, but without distortion.” To my surprise and delight, they even played “The Story of Yo La Tango,” which is a 12-minute epic of guitar feedback and distortion over an insistent motorik beat. Kaplan did crank up a tiny bit of distortion on this one, but far less than usual, and the effect was fascinating, more spacious if not quite as compelling as the original.
For the first bit of the show I was kind of wishing the band would stop talking so much and just play more music. But it didn’t take long for me to warm up to them, and it ended up being a really neat experience punctuated by some great music. They didn’t blow my mind like they did last year (when Kaplan beat up on his guitar the way Cecil Taylor beats the shit out of pianos), but it was a pleasant evening and a rare look into the workings of one of the most long-lived bands in the turbulent world of indie-rock.
Last night I saw the semi-legendary guitarist Bill Frisell, which was curious because I’ve never been a huge fan of his. He was playing in a trio with Jenny Scheinman (I do like a lot of her work, but have never really been able to get into the album I have with her as a leader, 12 Songs) on violin and Greg Leisz on lap steel and pedal steel. The overall sound of this trio was extraordinarily chill, occupying a space somewhere between bluegrass, Americana, jazz and classical. They opened with a piece that lasted around 45 minutes, which featured some really beautiful melodies, but when Frisell was doing his exploratory solos I quickly lost interest. He has a certain sense of melody that I find difficult to follow; it’s fractured in a way that doesn’t appeal to me all that much. He spent a really long time playing those fractured semi-melodies, in his clean-as-a-whistle undistorted tone, using a lot of looping and some pitch manipulation, and when he was noodling away I was mostly bored. But when the band came together — man, they were beautiful. Scheinman tended to dominate the obvious melodies, and her playing was immaculately tasteful.
The highlight for me, though, were the moments when Leisz — the only one of the three musicians with whom I was not familiar beforehand — took the spotlight. Like Frisell and Scheinman, his playing was invariably low-key and tasteful, and his lap steel playing was just beautiful. Whenever he was in the lead or playing any kind of lyrical melody, I felt like I was listening to soundtrack music to an old black and white western. Just really evocative stuff. These moments were more frequent in the three pieces they played after that one 45-minute piece, perhaps because those pieces were more composed with less emphasis on improvisation (though to be honest at many times I had a hard time telling what was written and what was played on the fly).
Not a transcendent experience, then, but I wasn’t expecting one. I went mostly because I really wanted to see Scheinman, and while I was lost for a little while, there was enough there to keep me pretty happy. That’s actually kind of surprising in and of itself, considering that my taste in jazz runs almost exclusively to the energy-jazz side of things, and this show was pretty much exactly the opposite.
Although I still have other shows to write about, I wanted to put some words down about the concert I saw tonight (Tuesday night), Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress. This was the best show I’ve seen since the spring — I really haven’t seen a show since then that’s had me smiling gleefully in the midst of it, but this one had exactly that effect on me.
Alarm Will Sound is a large ensemble of about 18-20 mostly quite young musicians, playing mostly classical instrumentation (a couple violins, viola, cello, bass, various winds, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano etc) but with a few notable exceptions. I think they made it onto my radar because I heard about the album of Aphex Twin interpretations they did a couple years ago. In any case, their repertoire now is something they’re calling “a/rhythmia,” in which they play a bunch of pieces that are all based on a steady pulse, but that fuck with them either by layering additional rhythms on top or simply by messing around incessantly with said steady pulse. I’m a pretty beat-based music listener (with the exception of the various ambient musics I’ve started getting into fairly recently), and as a fan of prog and RIO, in which unusual rhythms are the norm, this was a pretty ideal program for me.
Of the pieces they played — interpretations of everything from 20th century Western classical music to rock to electronica to early music (pre-1500) — my absolute favorite was something called “Yo Shakespeare” by Michael Gordon. For this piece, the ensemble shifted around their instrumentation considerably, ditching some of the acoustic instruments for three Fender Rhodes and two electric guitars, in addition to an assortment of acoustic strings and horns. The music was a loud, polyrhythmic, dissonant cacophony that sounded to me like it could have been a direct influence on Zs, that insanely awesome avant-rock band that rocks out like crazy while focusing on intricate charts the whole time. Imagine Zs‘ material fleshed out for an ensemble of 20, with many of the resulting possibilities for increased complexity and poly-everything explored to the fullest, and you get some idea of what this piece was like. My feet kept tapping out some of the rhythms in this one for at least 20 minutes after the piece was over.
Another highlight was a composition by Harrison Birtwistle called “Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum,” a disorienting slice of postwar classical experimentation that reminded me a lot of (and I’m probably showing my total lack of knowledge when it comes to this kind of thing) Penderecki’s more chaotic stuff, in effect if not really in sound. The group also played several pieces by Conlon Nancarrow that I found really appealing — each of these compositions started off with very simple jazz or blues-inspired melodies and basically layered them on top of each other, with the melody played simultaneously by mini-ensembles playing in several different meters. These pieces were some of the the most immediately comprehensible, and accessibly beautiful, examples of complex polyrhythm that I’ve heard.
Then there were the electronica pieces. A low-key piece by Aphex Twin based on a simple bass drum beat was given life by the performers constantly shifting position, first throughout the concert hall as they meandered down the aisles while playing, and then on the stage. And a manic piece by Mochipet, “Dessert Search for Techno Baklava” (clearly a play on Mr. Bungle’s “Desert Search for Techno Allah”), was fun to watch just to see these musicians tackling a composition not meant to be played by humans; their speed and dexterity was impressive, although the song appeared to my ears at least to lack the some of complexity of the rest of the program. But maybe that’s just because it was all flying by too fast for me to hear.
Finally there was a cover of a song by The Shaggs. If you don’t know it, their story is worth reading. For the purposes of this entry, though, all you need to know is that they were called “the most horrible rock band in the world” by the New York Times, which probably isn’t too far off the mark if you’re concerned with things like conventional ideas about instrumental talent, compositional chops, the ability to sing and play in tune, etc. But here’s what the text of the concert program said:
“…the rhythmic complexity of the other arrangement of commercial music, Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs, may not be the result of intelligence… The drummer seems to be flailing, the vocals and guitar are completely out of tune, and all three are never in time with one another… It is not clear whether the complexity of their music is accidental or deliberate.
One of the guys in Alarm Will Sound apparently decided to take the Shaggs’ complexity seriously, and the ensemble’s cover of “Philosophy of the World” was actually pretty great, taking the original song’s hilariously inept drumming (they played a recording of the original first) and turning it into an asset, an insanely shifting meter that formed the basis for other rhythmic shenanigans in which the rest of the ensemble indulged.
What a pleasant surprise this was. It’s like I unwittingly stumbled into a “Classical In Opposition” concert. I expected stuff like the Ligeti and even the Birtwistle, but the overt rhythms and complex beats in the other pieces was what really sold it for me. Really great fun. Sounds like the ensemble are releasing some pieces from this repertoire on a forthcoming CD, which I’ll definitely be looking into.
Once again, I have a couple shows to report, both at Virginia’s The Birchmere — Yo La Tengo and Cowboy Junkies (and I’m going back there next Monday to see Robert Fripp). I only have a few minutes right now so I’m going to write about the latter first, as I have a bit more to say about the former.
Cowboy Junkies are an old favorite of mine; I have probably 10 of their albums and always enjoy them when I’m in a quiet mood. They don’t exactly fit in with this website all that much, although one could say that their crossover between old-school country and rock is a reasonably innovative meshing of styles. They boast some excellent musicians, but the heart of the band has always been vocalist Margo Timmins, whose husky, powerful voice is an unmistakable force. I had never seen them in concert before, and they didn’t disappoint, even though I’m not particularly fond of their latest album, At the End of Paths Taken. They played a bunch of stuff from their older albums, including a couple from The Trinity Session, their breakthrough record, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, and a couple from Lay It Down, the 1996 album where I feel they achieved their best marriage of country, rock, and just plain great melodic songwriting.
If I was surprised by anything, it was by how edgy these guys have become. Aside from Timmins’ vocals, Jeff Bird on harmonica and (especially) electric mandolin was absolutely mesmerizing, and he churned out some really great, strident, wonderfully dissonant solos on both instruments. I really didn’t expect them to rock out like that, but Bird was very impressive in that respect. Their closing song was their interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” — on album, this is a stark, almost doomy four-minute interpretation, and live, it was equally stark but stretched out to something closer to 10-15 minutes. This was AWESOME. It was as if the band had suddenly taken a huge dose of Mogwai or GYBE! influnce, or decided to get a bit Krautrocky a la Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” A repetitive, driving bass line underpinned the whole song, while Bird and Mike Timmins on guitar spewed out brief, spiky solos and Margo Timmins mumbled short vocal lines in a resigned, doom-laden fashion. The volume levels were ratcheted up and down with regularity, creating troughs and crescendoes that would make any post-rock band proud. I could hardly believe what I was hearing but this was absolutely great.
I love the Cowboy Junkies for their melodicism, hooks, lyrics, all that good stuff, but I was most impressed by them in concert for their edginess and willingness to experiment and really put on a show instrumentally, especially with that electric mandolin. Quite the pleasant surprise!
So… the Nightwish show. This was their first show of their U.S. tour I believe, and it had sold out something like six months in advance, with paying customers from as far away as Russia (uh, you would think that Nightwish plays plenty of gigs a hell of a lot closer to Russia than Springfield, Virginia, but whatever). The openers were Paradise Lost, whom I did not show up for. After a seemingly interminable delay, which unfortunately I did show up in time for, the band took the stage sometime after 10pm, after a nice little pep talk from club owner Jay, who made the very good point that these guys are used to playing stadiums and arenas and it’s pretty damn cool that they were willing to play at a tiny little metal club in suburban Virginia.
They opened with “Bye Bye Beautiful,” which I thought was an interesting choice, considering that song is basically a “fuck off” towards Tarja Turunen. Eh, ok. It was alright. See for yourself — a video of part of it got posted to YouTube and is below, kind of fun to watch if you can ignore the hyperventilating fanboy going “oh my fucking god” through the whole thing. Then came another song from Dark Passion Play; again, it was alright (can you tell I’m not that enthused about the new album). “Dark Chest of Wonders” and “Ever Dream” followed, and it was really interesting to hear the new vocalist perform the old songs. “Dark Chest of Wonders” was great, “Ever Dream” not so much. Annette Olzon is a completely different singer from Tarja Turunen and gives Nightwish an entirely different sound — one that’s much less over-the-top, not operatic at all, much more mainstream. Normally I don’t really like bands that are so over the top, so one would think that I would like this more streamlined version of Nightwish better — but really, when listening to female-fronted power metal, where’s the appeal except in the over-the-top-ness?
Besides that, Olzon seemed to really strain to hit some notes, and I found myself missing Turunen a lot. This really isn’t the same band, and while it’s a little unfair to compare them to the old version, when they play the old songs the comparisons are inevitable. I left after about an hour and a half, in the middle of “Nemo,” after finding that the new songs were almost all pedestrian and the performances of the old songs just left me wishing that Turunen was singing them. Ah well.
For a different perspective (and a complete setlist), check this out. Also note that the same guy who posted the below video at YouTube also posted clips of “Nemo” and “Wish I Had an Angel.”
A couple more concerts to report, and tomorrow I’m thinking about going to see Gongzilla despite never having heard them and not being all that much of a fan of Gong (not that I actually know whether or not the two bands’ music has much of any relationship).
Last week sometime I had the most efficient concert experience ever. Now that I go to tons of concerts, many of them by myself, I don’t really enjoy standing (or sitting) around waiting for bands to start. I try to time my arrival at the venue as close as possible to the band’s starting, and once I’ve had enough, I get the hell out of Dodge. In the past I felt some compulsion to stay for a band’s entire show even if I wasn’t enjoying myself. I have no such feelings anymore — or at least, I’m much better at ignoring them.
In any case, said efficient concert experience was Kidd Jordan at Twins Jazz. Jordan — who was the subject of a really nice interview at the Philadelphia Daily News just a couple days ago — was playing with his trio with pianist Joel Futterman and drummer Alvin Fiedler. I have a couple of this trio’s records, and really like one of them, Southern Extreme, on which Futterman reminds me a lot of Cecil Taylor.
In any case, I timed my arrival perfectly, getting to the club, ordering dinner, and then watching the trio take the stage no more than five minutes later. They played a single lengthy improv, somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour long. Futterman definitely struck me as having a style somewhat similar to Taylor, although much less percussive. The interplay between the three musicians during this completely improvised, free-blowing set was mesmerizing. Futterman and Jordan in particular had some really fist-pumping moments, and were as fun to watch as they were to listen to. This was definitely “difficult” stuff, with much in the way of conventional rhythm or melody, but in the live setting they really tore it up and the sheer energy was enough to win over most of the crowd on its own.
I had a lot of things to do that night, so I had to leave after the first set — which I managed to do and then get home in record time. All told, I was gone from the house for 90 minutes, and in that space of time saw 60 minutes of fabulous music and ate dinner. Now that’s an efficient concert experience. Ha.
And then last night I saw Nightwish, but I’ll save my writeup of that one for later.
Well, I’m writing this as I sit on the side of a highway in my car, whose muffler assembly suddenly decided to drop off the undercarriage and start dragging on the road (while I was going 75 mph no less). Tow truck is 45 minutes a way — no better time to write a concert review! Ha!
Last night, I went to the Library of Congress to see Dhafer Youssef, a Tunisian-born vocalist and oud player whose latest album, Divine Shadows, is a very chilled-out work that combines jazz, “world music” and electronica. I like it well enough, and was drawn to this show also by the presence of Mark Helias on bass. Youssef was backed by the “Divine Shadows Quartet” (interestingly named because it is a totally different string quartet than the one that is actually recorded on Divine Shadows) as well as a Japanese percussionist who is a Berklee graduate.
The show was a very pleasant surprise in almost all respects. It was far, far more energetic than the studio album led me to expect. In fact, I would go so far to say that it flat-out rocked at times. The drummer/percussionist was a big part of this; although he was way too loud in the mix sometimes, he definitely lent the band a certain drive that is missing from the album. Youssef himself is a fabulous oud player, but his vocals stole the show — it was all wordless singing in the Islamic/Sufi tradition, powerful and clear with long, lonely notes. Of note, all the musicians were amplified because there was often some subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) electronic manipulation going on, but Youssef was frequently singing above all of them, his voice resonating so powerfully that he chose to sing without his microphone.
The energetic combination of jazz, rock and countless folk musics (I heard everything from the obvious Middle-Eastern influences to Eastern European bits and even plenty of Americana in one of the violinists’ solos) was intoxicating, and the crowd just absolutely ate it up. The parts where Youssef played his oud in interlocking parts with the string quartet were especially memorable (these are my favorite pieces on the album as well). Helias was given a couple solos that were pretty jaw-dropping, and fascinatingly enough, he did a really good job at making his solos fit the Middle-Eastern theme of the music rather than phoning in some straight-up jazzy parts that he is probably more comfortable with.
So this was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me (the winner of that title has to be the Atomic show back in February). I just wish I had a live recording of Youssef’s music, since it’s so drastically different from his studio work, at least judging from Divine Shadows.
Last Friday, John McLaughlin and his current band (The 4th Dimension) played at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, and despite the fact that I had a very busy and exhausting weekend ahead of me, I made a last-minute decision to show up. I would like to say I didn’t regret it, but I’d be lying. This might come as a surprise to a bunch of folks, but I really actively disliked this concert.
Instead of the burning Mahavishnu-like fusion I was hoping for, what I got was something that had plenty of million-notes-a-minute soloing but little in the way of edge or tension. An excessively smooth bass sound and some really, really silly keyboard timbres (courtesy of Gary Husband, with whom I’m more familiar as a drummer) contributed to the overall feel of watching four amazing musicians play something akin to virtuosic smooth jazz. I was pretty much bored from the minute I set foot in the auditorium, and while I stayed for the duration of the show, hoping things would improve, they never did. To me it almost seemed like McLaughlin was channelling John Petrucci — Dream Theater gone fuzak — while Husband insisted on playing virtuosic keyboard solos using the thinnest, tinniest, silliest possible sounds. Seriously, even the cheesiest prog band would avoid the dorky keyboard sounds he was employing.
Uh, so, I didn’t exactly enjoy that one. You win some, you lose some.
Last night I had the chance to see The Plastic People of the Universe, which was great because I missed them here two years ago when they were guests at the Czech embassy. I’m not all that familiar with these guys — I have Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned and Muz bez uší, the album of their earliest live recordings. I’m not very well-acquainted with the latter, but I think pretty highly of Egon Bondy. Regardless, given that the bandleader Milan Hlavsa passed away in 2001, I really had no idea what to expect from this incarnation of the band.
What I was treated to was a melodic, accessible brand of sorta-avant-rock — still a little out there and experimental, but not enough to scare off anyone even moderately familiar with dissonant music, and nowhere near as edgy as their early stuff, at least the stuff I’m familiar with. There were tons of catchy themes, bouncy rhythms and melodic guitar solos; the most out-there stuff were the vocals (mostly chanted or spoken), the sometimes weird keyboard harmonies, and the occasional white-hot sax solos. I was a little surprised at how prominent a role the guitarist was given; he’s a very good player but many of his solos were a little too straightforward for my taste. The sax solos were more up my alley, soulful and searching; and the highlight of the entire set was definitely a rendition of “Apocalyptic Bird” from Egon Bondy, which dispensed with the annoying keyboard squalls present at the beginning and end of the studio version, but faithfully rendered the funky beat and blistering sax work.
This was a really fun show; if not the most compelling one I’ve seen this year, it was great to see these guys looking so hale and hearty and having a great time. Also nice to see that they were able to draw a crowd of probably over 100 folks (and interestingly enough, I think more than half of the audience was female). I might have to pick up some more of their material at some point.
The last (first) of the three concerts was Exploding Star Orchestra, whom I saw at Velvet Lounge on Thursday the 13th as part of DC’s Sonic Circuits festival. This is a festival of experimental music, mostly of the noisy electronic improv variety as far as I can tell. Certainly the five (!!) groups that played supporting sets at this show were along those lines: making a shitload of noise with the occasional rhythm and the even scarcer melody. The one exception was the last guy, who played some ironic rawk mixed in with more avant-garde stuff; I could have liked this stuff, but by that time wasn’t really in the mood for anything but the band I’d come to see, so I sat it out. Overall, this was not really my bag at all, especially since they all invariably played way, way, way too loud.
Exploding Star Orchestra, on the other hand, were refreshingly good. The actual band is a 12-piece jazz group headed by Chicago trumpeter Rob Mazurek, who have released a single album thus far, interestingly enough on Thrill Jockey — a label better known for indie and post-rock. On this tour, the band was down to a five-piece (trumpet, sax, vibes, bass, drums IIRC), but still managed to create a very full sound not far from the album. They played both of the big suites from the album, which came off extremely well; while I find the record a little soporific at times, the aggressive, repetitive beats were much more energizing in concert and they held my attention the whole way through. Still, the best thing they did was a new piece, which was quiet, introspective and absolutely beautiful. They didn’t tell us what it was called, but hopefully it’ll surface on a new album at some point — it was easily the best thing I’ve heard from this crew.
I didn’t get home until almost 2am because of the five opening sets (the first of which didn’t start until after 10pm), but it was almost worth it thanks to the Exploding Star set. I think I was just a bit starved for some live jazz, too, not having seen any since early June.