Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Vialka: French avant-folk-prog in DC

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Vialka 9

Vialka, a French husband-and-wife duo of drums and baritone guitar, played at the Velvet Lounge on Tuesday night. I previewed the show at Black Plastic Bag, complete with plenty of hype and one wildly inaccurate comparison (no, these guys do not sound anything like Ruins).

The show definitely lived up to my expectations. As I wrote in my preview, the band describe themselves, glibly, as a “turbo folk micro-orchestra,” whatever the hell that means. But what they really are is prog, albeit prog in the Etron Fou sense more than anything else, minus a bit of the dadaism. They played a number of lengthy compositions that flitted whimsically through two to three seemingly unrelated themes, most of them involving tricky but somehow bouncy rhythms, gratuitously sung/screamed/declaimed vocals (all in French), and a hell of a lot of fancy guitar fretwork.

Vialka 6

Vialka combine the manic, stop-start spasticity characteristic of so much proggy avant-rock with a melodic sense that draws straight from Eastern European folk and what I ignorantly categorize in my head as “French music.” There’s a sense of whimsy that’s very un-American going on in their writing, which probably makes them sound ridiculous to some of the more jaded types out there, but gives them a certain irrepressible charm for me.

In concert, all the quirkiness embedded in the compositions came out in the open. I got a chance to chat with both band members - Eric Boros, the guitarist, and Marylise Frecheville, the drummer - before and after the show, and my very enjoyable conversations with them gave no hint of their stage personalities. When the show began, Eric donned a shiny metallic shirt and Marylise a sequined spaghetti strap top and the quirkiness just kept going from there. They danced around a lot - Marylise leapt up from behind her kit to dance in the middle of the crowd on two occasions, and Eric was bouncing around with a huge grin on his face the whole time - but more than that, their personalities just seemed to shine through in the vocals and the sometimes hilariously disjointed rhythms.

The reception was quite good, and they sold a few CDs, always nice to see with a band likely so far outside the experience of your average American concertgoer (even one who frequents the Velvet Lounge). Good times.

Vialka 1

There are a few more photos in the full Flickr set - mostly of Marylise as the lighting was almost nonexistent on Eric.

Japanese stoner-metal: Boris @ the Black Cat

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Boris 11

On Tuesday night at the Black Cat, Boris (pictured above), Torche and Clouds played one of the loudest shows I’ve been to all year, to one of the most raucous crowds I’ve been a part of all year. All three of these bands are very heavy rock bands - many fans would call them “metal” but for their own reasons, I believe Boris and Torche tend to eschew that label. But this was almost as “metal” a show as any I’ve seen so far this year, right down to the mosh pit that exploded during Torche’s set, and the wild stage dive by Boris’ drummer at the end of their set.

Clouds 3

Clouds (above) were first, replacing Wolves in the Throne Room who (very sadly, for me at least) dropped off the tour after being pencilled in as the openers. I’m not familiar with their material at all, but they put on an entertaining set of what seemed to be fairly straightforward sludgy metal. Their new album is on Hydra Head, and if this show was anything to go off of, it seems like their music is just a tad poppier than the norm for that label. Solid opener, but I wasn’t inspired to pick up their album right off the bat.

Torche 3

I saw Torche (above) a couple months ago at Rock & Roll Hotel, where I thought they stole the show from headliners The Sword. These guys play a very catchy brand of metal, with melodic hooks galore embedded in their jackhammering guitar riffs. They’re also not afraid to bring the noise, eschewing the poppy stuff in some songs in favor of pure cathartic brutality. But for the most part, they’re a crowd-pleasing band, and that was in full effect last night, as throughout their set a fairly large (by Black Cat standards at least) mosh pit roiled violently in front of the stage, at times threatening to push those of us in the front row practically up onto the stage itself.

The Torche dudes were loving it, playing to the moshers with huge grins on their faces, and seemingly upping the energy of their performance as compared to the one I saw in May. As before, they put on a hugely enjoyable show, even if the music is a little too straightforward for my tastes on record. Also as before, they closed their set with a monstrous, extended version of the title track from their most recent album, Meanderthal, that absolutely brought the house down. Good times.

Boris 13

Boris took the stage after a 45-minute set change, obscured by fog pumping out from the drum riser, playing the opening strains of their newest album, Smile. Their setlist was actually just Smile in its entirety, played in order, except with “Pink” and “Floor Shaker” inserted into the middle of the set. As such, their set exhibited by far the most dynamic range of any of the three bands performing, ranging from hard-driving stoner metal to meandering, pretty soundscapes to breathtakingly exciting extended jams (the final, set-ending song).

I’m not a huge fan of Boris‘ studio output - as I just mentioned, I generally find stoner metal and stuff like this (I realize Boris is not really easy to pigeonhole in any one genre) a little too simplistic - but like Torche, these guys really shine in a live setting. Something about how they bounce between peaceful melody and merciless pummelling is just really fantastic to witness live. Wata is a beast of a guitarist, but you’d never know it from watching her, as she just stands there, expressionless, barely moving, while cranking out some killer riffs. But Takeshi made up for her stoicism with his manic stage presence, flailing around wildly on his headless double-necked guitar (as in the above photo). Atsuo, if anything, was even crazier, but ensconced behind his drum kit as he was, that never really became obvious until the end of the set. And all the while, guest guitarist Michio Kurihara (”guest” even though he’s been on Boris‘ last couple tours) stood quietly in the corner, barely lit, often completely obscured in fog:

Boris 2

The highlight was the end of the set, which was “You Were Holding an Umbrella” followed by its 16-minute closing section, a spectacular jam that built from a near-ambient beginning into a series of noisy, cathartic crescendoes. Almost post-rock-like, except a couple of the noisy parts tended to come more out of nowhere, giving the piece a much less linear feel than your average post-rock epic.

Towards the end, with guitars wailing and feedback screaming, drummer Atsuo started dismantling his kit, chucking cymbals against the giant gong hanging behind him and generally going apeshit. After he had thrown everything around, he jumped up on his bass drum, arms raised, face upturned, reveling in the glorious noise, and then hopped down onto the stage and dove into the crowd. From what I could tell he crowdsurfed half way back into the heart of the club before climbing back on stage, striking another pose, and exiting backstage with the rest of the band still hammering away. The wall of sound subsided shortly thereafter, leaving the crowd to cheer lustily in the hopes of an encore that did not come.

Boris 15

Also check out another nice review, by someone who’s a much more enthusiastic and knowledgeable fan of Boris than I, here at last.fm.

Full set of my photos, as always, at Flickr.

Churchy space rock: La Otracina in DC

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

La Otracina 8

La Otracina is a psychedelic/space-rock group from Brooklyn that played a show a few blocks from my house last Friday night, at a church/community center known as “La Casa.” It’s a fitting name for the space as this turned out to be pretty much a glorified house show, with very much a living-room feel. (The band brought their own PA because there wasn’t one onsite, and they brought their own lights as well, as the only house lights were plain incandescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling fan.)

While I am familiar with this band based solely on their recent release on Holy Mountain, Tonal Ellipse of the One, it appears that the band’s lineup has changed considerably since that recording, with new members on both bass and guitar; and their style has changed noticeably as well. Tonal Ellipse of the One is all long, sprawling, improv-heavy space rock; what the band played at this show (and what is present on their tour CD-R, The Risk of Gravitation), is more straightforward stoner-rock. It still rocked and there was definitely plenty of heavy instrumental psychedelic bliss, but there were also some vocal-heavy tunes with more traditional song structures.

Day 172: La Otracina 9

For a house show that got basically zero local publicity (none that I saw, and I live a couple blocks from the venue and read all the local listings religiously), the crowd was actually pretty decent. There were a few titters when Adam, the drummer, very earnestly introduced one song as “Crystal Wizards of the Cosmic Weird,” but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Also, if I recall correctly, that song kicked ass, with a straightforward vocal intro leading into one of the wilder jams they did all evening. All in all, a pretty excellent show; I enjoy La Otracina’s long-form spacey instrumental explorations more than their vocal tunes, but there was enough of the former to keep me happy.

Photography was challenging since, as mentioned, the band brought their own lights and the main light on the guitarist and bassist was your basic red-gelled flood. So, lots of black & white conversions for me. I managed to isolate the performers in some shots so you can’t tell they’re basically playing in a living room, but in others I didn’t try, and I actually kind of like the look, what with the long shadows on the walls and ceiling. Depending on my lens choice, I was at ISO 1600-3200 and generally keeping shutter speeds above 1/100.

La Otracina 3

Full set (10 photos) at Flickr.

In which Zs make my brain hurt

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Zs 2

On Tuesday night, I went to the Velvet Lounge to see a pretty great quadruple bill of avant/experimental-minded groups: New York-based Zs, who have been one of my favorite avant-rock groups for a couple years now; DC’s Caution Curves, El Paso’s zeuhl-heads Corima; and DC’s FFFFs.

FFFFs 1

FFFFs opened things up, at a typically (for Velvet Lounge) late hour of around 10pm. This is a solo act of a dude named Sean Peoples (pictured above); when I saw him last year opening for Zs, he played very calm, pretty ambient stuff - which is also what’s found on the one recording I have of his, Tree Epic. This time around, though, things were very different; Sean crouched behind his laptop for his brief set and bombarded the audience with some thumping beats and a much more aggressive brand of electronic music. The ambient stuff is more up my alley, I have to say, but perhaps this more bombastic material was more in line with the bands to come.

Corima 6

Corima were one of the reasons I was excited about the show; any band that lists Magma and Koenjihyakkei as prime influences has my attention. Additionally, I was forwarded an email about them from one of the bands that they had played with earlier on their tour, in which the words “fucking amazing” appeared prominently. And, to be sure, these guys were all fucking amazing musicians. They are a very young trio - drums, keys, and bass - whose music is almost a straight-up homage to the aforementioned zeuhl bands. Seriously, it was like if Ruins or Koenjihyakkei wrote 20-minute-long songs. It was the most bombastic, over-the-top performance I’ve seen since… well, Dream Theater, but let’s not go there.

If that description sounds exhausting, well, that’s what it was. Corima definitely had some awesome, jaw-dropping moments - the lightning-fast, dissonant keyboard solos in particular tickled my aural pleasure centers, and drummer Sergio Sanchez did a pretty credible Yoshida/Vander act - but the compositions were so long and disjointed that they lost me within minutes. They played three pieces and by the end I was fried. Really, really enjoyed parts of the set, and I hope they tighten up their writing - this is a group with pretty huge potential. Did I mention the musicianship was pretty jaw-dropping?

Caution Curves 2

Now, if Corima were wild and exhausting, at least I had all the right reference points to understand what they were trying to do. When The Caution Curves came on, it was immediately clear to me that this wasn’t the case for this band. They are a duo, one member on drums and percussion, the other on laptop and reeds, and both are vocalists. But not vocalists in any traditional sense; rather, their voices were used in a kind of babbling, speaking-in-tongues style, or just to make random noises. The overall feeling was one of total discombobulation. There isn’t much out there these days that makes me think, am I really listening to music or just noise? But this did, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not sure I enjoyed the set, but it was provocative to say the least.

Day 169: Zs 3

And then it was finally time for the headliners. Zs lost a member recently and are down to a trio of guitar, sax and drums, with the drummer also triggering some electronics that are new since I last saw them. Ben, the guitarist, responded in the affirmative when I asked him if their material had changed substantially as a result, saying, “I think you’ll like it.”

The band ended up playing a single lengthy piece. Zs have always made some of the most bracingly ugly music I’ve ever heard, and that certainly hadn’t changed. The saxophonist spent most of the composition blowing long, extremely high notes, and if there was melody there it was stretched out over such a long period of time that it was imperceptible to me. The piece was fairly slow-moving and deliberate, with thematic and rhythmic changes coming at unpredictable intervals, using generous amounts of repetition as a compositional element. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I’d be able to digest without having a recording of it and settling in with it for some time - it lacked the visceral thrill of some of the older, fast-paced, Discipline-era-King-Crimson-on-steroids (sorry, that’s overly glib) stuff.

Photographically, it was a nightmare. The Velvet Lounge, while my favorite local venue in terms of the acts that they book, is one of my least favorite places to photograph. The lights are always static and generally dim (and most problematically, the front spotlights are blocked by big speakers mounted from the ceiling). Tonight was worse than it’s ever been, with the lights turned lower than I’ve ever seen them. I probably should have gone back and asked the guy controlling the lights to turn them up a little, but, er, I didn’t. In any case, my resulting settings looked like this: ISO HI 1.0 (6400), f/1.8, 1/40 to 1/80 second. Ouch. Definitely pushing the limits of my D300 there.

Needless to say, these are not my best photos ever, and the noise is distracting in some of them. That’s what I get for liking all this obscure music, I suppose; it’s not like I’m ever likely to get the chance to shoot Zs with a huge light show or anything. These are the challenges that come with the territory.

Full set at Flickr, of course.

Day 1 of Nordic Jazz 08

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Wildbirds and Peacedrums 11

Nordic Jazz 08 was a classy affair held on the roof of the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, last Thursday and Friday. The House of Sweden is a beautifully modernist structure right on the Potomac River, between the Kennedy Center and the Georgetown waterfront; an idyllic location for a concert, as long as the volume levels are loud enough to drown out the planes flying overhead on landing patterns for National Airport further down the river. I was only able to attend Thursday evening, which featured two bands whose music could be considered “jazz” only in a fringe manner: Wildbirds and Peacedrums and Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil.

The former played first, treating the debatably attentive audience to a brief set of highly rhythmic, swooping, dramatic folk. The band consisted only of a vocalist and a drummer, with the vocalist doubling on kalimba, percussion and some interesting kind of stringed instrument played in the same manner that a pianist might pluck strings inside a grand piano (pictured below). I’d seen offhand comparisons to Björk, but I’m way out of my element here in terms of finding comparisons or a way to describe this stuff. Suffice to say that it was surprisingly captivating, and I’d recommend a visit to their Myspace page for a listen. (That’s the ultimate reviewer cop-out right there.)

Wildbirds and Peacedrums 10

Second was Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil, with whom I am familiar through their album Yggdrasil. That album features the considerable vocal talents of Eivør Palsdóttír, but sadly she was not in attendance at this show (and in fact I have no idea if her collaboration with this band on that album was simply a one-shot deal). This was, then, with one notable exception a purely instrumental journey. What this band played — 1982’s eight-movement, album-length piece Ravnating — could hardly be termed jazz; in fact, I’d imagine it has more in common with modern classical composition. Each movement had a unique feel, often led by a different instrument, but always evoking imagery of the oceans and the sky (the field recordings of bird calls towards the end obviously had something to do with this). Given the context of this show, I was pleasantly surprised to find some considerable edge to the composition in places, with a splintered guitar melody in the second or third movement providing some real teeth. For the most part, though, this piece ebbed and flowed peacefully, with long stretches of minimalist quietude punctuated by beautiful melodies elaborated on the lead instruments (sax, flute, guitar, occasionally Blak’s piano). After this lengthy, subtle piece, which succeeded in losing the attention of a dismaying portion of the audience, Blak’s band launched into some more accessible, folk-oriented songs that were enjoyable but somewhat less provocative. The one exception was an interpretation of what sounded like some sort of Native American tune, in which Blak sang with a surprisingly soulful lilt.

Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil 2

Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil 8

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this show, purchased a copy of Ravnating, and wish I purchased a copy of Wildbirds and Peacedrums‘ latest recording. The setting was beautiful and the weather perfect, although my sense is that at least half the audience was there for the scene as much as the music; everyone was snappily dressed (cocktail dresses and button-down shirts all around; this is Georgetown after all) and a substantial portion of people were hanging out far from the stage, talking throughout the performances. Thankfully, they were separated enough from the more attentive, seated audience that they were not generally too distracting.

Photographically, not much about this was ideal. The stage was full of clutter, making it difficult (even with a long lens) to isolate performers in a simple, compelling image. The light was great for Wildbirds and Peacedrums, illuminated as they were in the warm tones of the setting sun. For Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil it was a completely different story; the sun was down and the stage was lit solely by a few white spotlights that provided splotchy lighting: brightest on the drummer, who was so far back that I couldn’t get a clean shot of him anyway, dim on Blak and the reedist, and almost nonexistent on the bassist and guitarist. For a setting like this I certainly wouldn’t expect fancy lighting, but this was very challenging indeed. I got some usable shots but nothing particularly compelling.

Nordic Jazz 08 - after

As always, a full selection of photos are contained in a photoset over at Flickr.

Nels Fucking Cline

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Nels Cline Singers 15

“You’re all very strange people” — that was Nels Cline’s introductory statement before his trio, the Nels Cline Singers, launched into the first of two blistering sets at The Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday, June 6. East Coast appearances by Cryptogramophone groups are few and far between, so even though Charlottesville is a bit of a hike from DC, I made the trek down through three and a half hours of rush hour hell.

I’ve seen Cline a few times with Wilco, where his guitar work is always the highlight of the show for me; and I also saw him last year in a solo/duo show with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. But this show may have been my favorite of any of the above. The Singers are a trio of Cline, Devin Hoff on bass, and Scott Amendola on drums (note to Scott: please bring your own eponymous band to the East Coast!). What they play is fairly indescribable; like much of the stuff that Cryptogramophone puts out, it’s easiest to lazily call it “jazz,” but while there are certainly elements of jazz and improv, there are also substantial nods to rock and noise and blues.

Nels Cline Singers 16

Many of the group’s pieces are long-form structured compositions with plenty of space for raucous improv in the middle. The first set that the trio played seemed to draw from their more abstract material, stuff that would build extremely quietly before exploding into unpredictable, manic noise from all corners. The second set, by contrast, was relatively accessible: they opened with two pieces from Cline’s (excellent) tribute to Andrew Hill, New Monastery - if I recall, these were “Dedication” and “Reconciliation.” I was hoping for the aggressively noisy “Compulsion,” but the lyrical melodicism of the two selections they played instead was a welcome change from the more “out” material from the first set. Following this were a couple of pieces that were almost straight-up rock, except with a generous helping of Cline’s trademark excursions into pure noise.

Random aside: oddly, some of my favorite moments of this show, as well as the solo/duo show last year, were when Cline wildly strummed or picked his guitar, then frantically reached over to twiddle some switches - which clicked audibly in the spaces between sheets of abrasive sound, like the electronic musician’s analogue to fingers squeaking along a fretboard.

The final piece of the show was “Something About David H.” from The Giant Pin, which is probably my favorite of the three Nels Cline Singers recordings. It summed up the evening nicely, beginning and ending with quiet ambience and Cline’s delicate, sensitive picking, bookending a thrilling middle section that could have been taken straight from a breakdown in a metalcore song. All in all, this was exactly the kind of stuff that gets my heart pumping, and I think it was easily among the best of the 30 or so shows I’ve seen so far this year.

Nels Cline Singers 5

The Paramount Theater was somewhat of an odd place for an avant-jazzish band like this to play: it’s a cavernous but still fairly intimate space, capacity almost 3000, all seated. The sound was pristine - really, just absolutely phenomenal; the tone of Cline’s guitar and Hoff’s electric upright bass were amazing. Cline seemed openly bemused by the fact that he was playing in such a venue (I wonder if he knew that two days later, none other than Kenny G was scheduled to play there) - not that he doesn’t have experience with huge venues given that he’s been touring with Wilco for several years now, but the fact that he was playing this music in a big theater was no doubt a novelty.

Not surprisingly, the venue wasn’t anywhere close to capacity. Cline joked towards the end of the first set, “We have another set coming up - please don’t leave because then this place would really be empty.” A number of folks walked out during the first set, even in the middle of songs - I have to wonder if these were folks expecting Wilco minus Jeff Tweedy or something. I try not to judge by looks alone, but the frat-boy looking dudes with disgruntled expressions on their faces as they quietly left in the middle of a song probably didn’t get what they came for.

As the trio closed out the show, Cline said something like, “Thank you for having us here; it’s bizarre and strange and wonderful.” Indeed it was.

Nels Cline Singers 13

Photographically, the Paramount was a joy to shoot in; my only regret is that I didn’t have a wide-angle zoom with me (gotta get that 17-55/2.8 so I don’t have to keep renting it). The light wasn’t fantastic - strong blue backlighting with weaker blue frontlighting and a hint of red mixed in, such that the musicians tended to be haloed without enough light illuminating their faces. But the space was excellent; I was free to move all around the theater. The front row of seats was left empty (as at DAR Constitution Hall for the Progressive Nation show) so despite the lack of a real photo pit, I had free reign along the front of the stage, which was raised 4-5 feet above floor level. I could also move out to the wings and shoot from the sides. Because I was the only photographer and the theater was probably something like 15% full, I never felt like I was in anyone’s way.

Because the stage was large and the musicians planted themselves fairly far back on it, I mostly used my 80-200/2.8 (this is becoming a recurring theme - that telephoto is fast becoming my most-used lens for concert photography in any medium- to large-sized venue). The light was just a bit too dim, though; I was at ISO 3200, wide open and shooting at speeds ranging from 1/125 to 1/200, supporting the lens on the edge of the stage to minimize camera shake. And I was still underexposing by a stop or so (adding an extra couple steps to my post-processing workflow and bringing out a bit of noise in the images as well). I did have some success shooting with my 50/1.8 from the front of the stage as well, at ISO 2000 or so and without the underexposure.

Because the musicians were all pretty static - no jumping around or posturing, though they certainly had some great facial expressions - I really wished I had a wide-angle zoom to get some more dynamic shots, especially since I could literally lean over the edge of the stage to get as close as possible. I’m going to have to make some extra cash to get myself that 17-55 soon. Still, I’d consider this a pretty successful shoot all things considered.

Nels Cline Singers 20

Big thanks to Ben Levin, who helped get me set up with permission to photograph this show. The venue staff were also extremely helpful and accommodating. The usual three songs, no flash rule applied, but I think I actually just did two songs because their pieces are so damn long. Also thanks to Todd Tweedy, who tried to set me up with an interview with the band after the show, but that idea was nixed because they had some pretty grueling-sounding travel plans involving a very early morning flight the next day out of Richmond (over an hour from Charlottesville).

As always, more photos can be found at the full Flickr photoset.

Washington Jewish Music Festival, 2008 edition

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Just off the top of my head I can think of three very good live music performances that I’ve seen in DC in the past few years thanks to the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s arts program: Charming Hostess, Hasidic New Wave, and Rashanim (performing rock interpretations of John Zorn’s Masada songbook). I missed the Washington Jewish Music Festival last year, but this year there looked to be a bunch of interesting artists, and so even though I haven’t heard of most of them, I decided to attend as much shows as I could. This is helped by the fact that I landed a photography gig allowing me to document the shows I go to — per usual, the results are up at Flickr. Photography notes are at my photography blog; this is a condensed version with just discussions of the music I’ve seen so far.

The whole shebang kicked off on June 1, jointly with an absolutely enormous Israel @ 60 celebration. Israel @ 60 was a free event going on all day outside on DC’s National Mall; the musical attractions were “anti-folk” singer/composer Regina Spektor and the apparently very popular Israeli rock band Mashina. Later that night, WJMF also sponsored an interesting show at Bohemian Caverns: Ayelet Rose Gottlieb/Anat Fort/Rafi Malkiel, a vocals/piano/trombone trio who recently released an album on Zorn’s Tzadik label.

Regina Spektor 14

I went to all of the above. Mashina was first, kicking off a little after 1:15. Their set was relatively straightforward rock-and-roll, totally accessible for the mainstream crowd but thoroughly competent and musical, enough to keep me entertained for a while. At 3:30, Regina Spektor came on, and she was a joy to watch and photograph — she has an incredibly expressive face and almost always seems to be smiling. All this despite the fact that she didn’t quite seem to be settled in for the first few songs - perhaps because she had to change some lyrics around to accommodate the children in the audience (although there were some “god damns” and reference to cocaine), or simply the fact that she was playing in front of an enormous outdoor audience. She actually forgot the words in the middle of her second song, but handled it in the most endearing way possible, laughing at herself and appealing to her fans in the audience for help. She played piano and guitar and performed one song with a beatboxer as well. It was a great (though short) set for an enthusiastic audience; her vocal talent was really what stole the show, but she was no slouch on either instrument. I think it would be really interesting to hear her perform with some of the downtown NY scene jazz musicians; she frequents some of the same venues, apparently, like Tonic (RIP) and the Knitting Factory.

Ma Yafit 10

Then, a couple hours after events on the Mall came to a close, a much more intimate affair took place at Bohemian Caverns, a historic jazz club in the U Street neighborhood that is actually built to look like a cavern when you’re inside. The Gottlieb/Fort/Malkiel trio played a set of “love poetry set to jazz,” which was not surprisingly mostly slow-moving, laid-back vocal jazz. I was impressed by all three musicians’ technical skill — Malkiel was amazingly effective at using the trombone as a textural instrument, Gottlieb has an impressive voice and a whimsical style, and Fort’s work on the ivory keys was what held it all together for me, melodic and beautiful but never too straightforward or obvious. Most of the songs drew from Gottlieb’s album Mayim Rabim on Tzadik, described by the label as “an evocative song cycle based on texts from the erotic Biblical love poems Song of Songs.” Gottlieb explained some of the lyrics for the monolingual folks in the room, and they were… odd. The last song, for instance, was something like a poem about how “as the apples are to the trees, so my man is among men, and his fruit is sweet in my mouth.” Um… perhaps I’m glad I couldn’t understand the lyrics. :) Regardless, after a long afternoon under the hot sun, this relaxing set of slow jazz was a nice comedown. Following the show, I’ve been investigating Anat Fort’s discography, and may pick up her latest disc on ECM, 2007’s A Long Story.

Beyond the Pale 7

Last night, though, was the highlight of the fest so far for me, and perhaps the show of most immediate interest to readers of this website. Toronto’s Beyond the Pale is a five-piece band playing that kind of skewed “world music” that draws mainly from European folk traditions while also mixing in random bits of jazz, rock, bluegrass and other Americana. They reminded me of (and these are not close comparisons, mind you, just bands I thought of while listening) the kinds of bands on the Northside label; or an instrumental Charming Hostess; or Alamaailman Vasarat minus the drones and processed cellos; or Stórsveit Nix Noltes, who opened for Animal Collective a couple years ago and blew me away. With mandolin, clarinet, violin, accordion and acoustic bass, these guys introduced their songs with rhetorical questions like “have you ever wondered what bluegrass would sound like if it were from Romania?” The resulting fusion of ethnic styles was something that I’m a total sucker for, and the sizable audience was eating it up as well. Much of what they played were original compositions, but there were also interpretations of existing material that were brilliant — such as their encore piece, which was Mozart’s Minuet in D Minor (I think) reinterpreted through a Serbian folk lens and written in a stilted 7/8 meter (parts of this were hilarious).

I’m going to two more WJMF shows, and if they’re half as good as last night’s, I’ll be happy.

Once again, full photoset is here, and writeups with photography notes are here.

The Progressive Nation tour comes to DC

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Understandably, this whole Progressive Nation thing is a big deal in prog-rock (or at least prog-metal) land. At one point I think there were four separate threads going on about this tour over at ProgressiveEars, and who knows how much activity there’s been on Mike Portnoy’s forum, the Opeth forum, or the various relevant Yahoo! groups. The tour made its stop in Washington, DC on Monday night, and I went to see what the hubbub’s all about, camera in hand (all photos are at Flickr).

Day 147: Progressive Nation 30

Of the four bands participating — Dream Theater, Opeth, Between the Buried and Me and 3 — I’ve seen the first two (2-3 times each, I can’t remember anymore), am a big fan of the third’s new album Colors, and am totally unfamiliar with the last. Overall I was most excited to see BTBAM; I haven’t been a Dream Theater fan for a long time now, and once I started getting into the more extreme end of extreme metal, Opeth started seeming a little less interesting to me as well (though I still quite enjoy their stuff when I get the hankering to give it a spin).

In any case, I showed up at the venue, DAR Constitution Hall (a 3,700 seat theater), a little before 7pm. I’ve never photographed a show at DAR before, so I spent a few minutes wandering around figuring out what to do. I picked up my photo pass and then got conflicting instructions from staff about where to go from there. I ended up going through some backstage door and getting led to the stage area by a friendly member of BTBAM (I was too distracted by wondering where the hell I was going to engage him in much conversation, but did find out that he’s one of the members from my hometown, Winston-Salem). He actually led me to the stage itself — and I found myself at the very back of the stage just as 3 were beginning their set. Uh, not exactly what I had planned, but ok. I made my way around the wings and got down to the audience area where I was supposed to be. DAR has no photo pit, but I was told I could shoot from the aisles, and found out later (during Opeth’s set) that I could also shoot from the front row of seats right up against the stage, which were unoccupied.

For more on the photography end of this show, check out my photography blog. Now that we’ve gotten to the point in the story that I’m in the venue, what about the music? I was mildly interested in 3, mostly because people have been absolutely raving about their opening set for this tour. In the past I never read anything about their music that made me think I would particularly like them. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I particularly like them, as their music made almost no impression on me. Most of that is my own fault; I was paying attention to getting my bearings in the venue instead of listening. So, put that one down as an incomplete with apologies from the grader. Circumstances were only slightly better for BTBAM as I had to spend the first half of their 30-minute set working out a pass issue, but I did get to see them do “Viridian” and “White Walls” and they fucking blew my head off. Colors was an album that I thought was just ok at first but has really grown on me, and in the live setting these guys pulled it all off with aplomb: the quick shifts in mood, the tricky time changes, the range of styles from Floydlike shoegazing to death metal volume and intensity. The bass solo in “Viridian” raised the tension just enough for them to bring the house down with “White Walls.” The crowd seemed fairly responsive, but then again I was in the front, where folks were bound to be most engaged.

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After BTBAM I figured I’d seen my highlight of the show already, and I was more or less right. Opeth put on a solid set — interestingly, thanks to the compressed time limits (they only had an hour to play), they opened with “Demon at the Fall,” which was actually a little disconcerting to me. I kept expecting them to walk off the stage at the end of the song, since that’s what they usually do. They played a range of stuff from their career, including one of the snoozers from Damnation and a song from the forthcoming album Watershed. I don’t really do the illegal downloading thing, so I haven’t heard the leaked version of Watershed that’s been making the rounds for a few months, but I liked the new song (”Heir Apparent,” I think) with reservations. There were some awesome riffs but it probably could have been cut shorter by a couple minutes (really I could say this about a lot of Opeth songs, so that’s nothing new).

Otherwise, it was Opeth and not a lot more needs to be said. Lots of slow sections that burst into killer riffs and death-metal growls. Lots of banter from Mikael Åkerfeldt. Someone yelled “Freebird.” (Someone always yells “Freebird.” Seriously, I think we need legislative action here. Note to people who like to yell “Freebird” - you are not anywhere near as clever or funny as you think you are.) The sound was awful. Like, really awful; the bass drum overwhelmed everything, especially the vocals. This seems to be the case every time I see this band and it makes me sad.

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Apart from the sound, though, I dug Opeth’s set and waited for Dream Theater satisfied that I’d already seen two pretty good sets, with absolutely no expectations for the last. Just to clarify: I used to love Dream Theater. Images and Words and Awake are two of the albums that originally got me into the whole prog thing, and by association into adventurous music in general. Even as recently as Scenes From a Memory (and especially Live Scenes from New York) I would count myself a fan. But things went quickly downhill from there, and I can’t really say I much like anything that came after Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. It’s telling that the last time I saw the band live (a long time ago in 2002, back when Usenet was apparently still relevant judging from my old post), I thought the best stuff they did was a medley of old material and a cover of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.

This time around, I went in with no expectations and came away pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Dream Theater’s set. I think I would have liked it even more if I stuck around for the encore, in which they played, well, a medley of old stuff. But what I saw was pretty decent; the new material still doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but these guys have the showmanship thing down, and even if I don’t really dig what they’re playing, at least they are entertaining. When they played “Take the Time” I was really, really reminded of how much better I like the odd-time riffing from the old albums as opposed to the mile-a-minute shredding on some of the newer ones; and some of the songs they played from Scenes From a Memory also came off quite well.

I did start getting a little restless after Jordan Rudess pulled out his wireless keytar thing and played a shredding duo with John Petrucci, and when James LaBrie’s voice started going from somewhat coherent and controlled to, uh, less so. So I booked out of there before I was reminded of all the reasons I don’t like this band as much as I used to. It seems to have worked, as I look back on the concert now with good feelings. The highlight for me was definitely BTBAM — and I would really like to see them on a headlining tour sometime — but the rest of the sets were pretty solid as well. The venue seemed pretty full and folks were getting into the bands, though the turnout for Dream Theater was way, way higher than for anyone else, which was understandable but still made me a little sad to see. It was interesting to see the tension of folks who were there for Dream Theater listening to metal with growled/screamed vocals — not surprisingly, during the BTBAM and Opeth sets there were a fair number of people that retreated to the concourse and downstairs lounge.

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That’s all I’ve got, music-wise at least. If you still haven’t gotten your fill, read my photography notes here or see the full set of photos here.

The Sword at Rock & Roll Hotel… meh

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

(Random note: you wouldn’t know it from this and my previous couple of show reviews — to say nothing of the Progressive Nation tour review I have coming up next week — but I have been seeing music other than metal recently. In fact, this week, I could have gone/could go to a great show every single night except last Sunday — Candlemass on Monday; Pattern is Movement yesterday; my housemate’s ex-housemate’s band tonight; either Adam Caine/Nick Lyons or Twin Earth tomorrow; A Silver Mt. Zion on Friday; Thee Maximalists on Saturday — but unfortunately I will be seeing none of them. I’ll use the time off from showgoing to post an overdue concert review.)

The Sword 4

Last Thursday: Rock and Roll Hotel. The headliners were The Sword, a mildly ridiculous and fairly straightforward stoner-ish metal outfit who sing about things that your average stereotypical nerdilicious prog fan might enjoy. Opening were Philly’s Stinking Lizaveta (also known in prog circles, partly because guitarist Yanni Papadopoulos has appeared with Thee Maximalists, I believe) and show-stealers Torche. The former went on first and played their trademark herky-jerky heavy instrumental prog, complete with weird time signatures and turn-on-a-dime riffing. They pretty much blew the crowd away, which surprised me. Last time I saw them was when they opened for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at the Black Cat, and I was less than impressed. Their material seemed kind of sterile and contrived (”odd-time riff after odd-time riff,” I said in my review of that show, and little more). It definitely came off better this time, but still, I headed out for a break about halfway through the set and didn’t really feel like I missed all that much.

I’m ashamed to say I’m not familiar at all with Torche’s recorded output, but I knew there was a good chance they would be my favorite band of the night, just based on everything I’ve read about them over the past year or two. I was right. They fucking crushed. How to describe this show? The first half was accessible, heavy but melodic, nice stuff but nothing extraordinary. I suppose when people talk about this band and say things like “stoner pop” or “pop metal,” this is what they mean. It’s a skewed version of pop to be sure, but I dig it. But the second half of the show, they brought the noise. Honestly, I don’t remember much other than the last song, which was extended out to what was probably 10+ minutes but felt like twice that long. Howling feedback and white noise combined with brutal riffing: I was in a happy place. So was this guy:

Day 136: Torche 3

As for The Sword, pictured above… eh. Color me unmoved. Their records are entertaining enough, but for some reason in the live setting (maybe it had to do with followed the brain-frying performance that Torche gave), their songs seemed remarkably unremarkable. Middle-of-the-road, melodic metal, clean vocals, basic chunky riffs. The crowd was loving it; the show was sold out fergodsakes (seriously? a metal show in DC selling out?) and from where I was standing I couldn’t see anyone who wasn’t pumping a fist. But after photographing the first three songs, I quite happily retreated to my car, where Gaza’s I Don’t Care Where I Go When I Die awaited me in my CD player. Guess I just like my metal a little more extreme these days.

Photographic notes: the lighting was difficult for this show. Rock & Roll Hotel has some nice backlights above and behind the stage, but for some reason they almost never use the equally nice frontlights that they have. For all three bands I was at ISO 3200, wide open with a 50/1.8, struggling to keep my shutter speeds above 1/80. I really needed faster shutter speeds because all three of these bands were moving around a lot (those damn metal bands, they’re energetic and all). I was right up against the stage, too, with a packed crowd behind me, and the 50mm lens was a little too narrow — really could have used that 17-55 I had a couple weeks ago.

Finally, one unusual thing was that The Sword requested that we (myself, a guy shooting for spin.com one other dude) only shoot the first three songs. There was also a “no flash” sign on the door, making this the first “three songs, no flash” concert in a small, no photo pit venue that I’ve ever done. Thought that was unusual, but wasn’t a problem. My photos of The Sword weren’t great, but I don’t think shooting for more than the first three songs would have gotten me anything much better. The conditions just weren’t ideal for the equipment I had (or my limited talent, I suppose).

Full set is at Flickr. I’ll leave you with a shot of Stinking Lizaveta:

Stinking Lizaveta 3

Epica + hired gun at Jaxx

Friday, May 9th, 2008

Epica 12

Last Saturday, I went to Jaxx in Springfield, VA to see Symphony X, Epica and Into Eternity on the last gig of their current tour. Of these bands I’m mostly a fan of Epica; I used to really like Symphony X but I moved away in large part from the prog-metal type stuff, oh, five or six years ago. Unfortunately, Epica was missing their inimitable frontwoman Simone Simons, who has been ill for some time now. Amanda Somerville, Simons’ voice coach (who makes an appearance on the We Will Take You With Us DVD), filled in, and her voice was remarkably similar to Simons’ — if not actually a little stronger all around. She seemed comfortable on stage with the band as well, which I suppose makes sense since it was the last gig of the tour. Still, Simons has an unmistakable charisma that I witnessed last year when Epica played this same venue — even though that time I was watching from afar and this time I was right up front — and her presence was definitely missed.

Epica 6

All the bands put on very good performances. The two local openers, Apothys and Tolerance for Tragedy, were solid, and the former band certainly knew their audience when they played a cover of Opeth’s “Demon of the Fall.” I’m not much of a fan of Into Eternity — singer Stu Block’s more high-pitched wailing moments just don’t really do it for me, to say the least — but Block is an excellent frontman and Tim Roth is a pretty awesome guitarist. As for Epica, well, they rocked it, although I did wish they would have played more stuff from The Divine Conspiracy. I generally find that album much more compelling than the older stuff, but of their older material they did play the best of it, so I suppose it all evens out in the end. “Sancta Terra” was a highlight for me, all cheesy bombast that’s pretty much just sheer awesomeness once you accept the nerdiness factor.

For Symphony X, I retreated to the back of the club and actually ended up leaving early. I just don’t find their music all that compelling these days, although admittedly in a live setting they are way heavier and more engaging than on record (Dave Kerman would still call it “panty-waist mallcore/prog-metal b.s.” though :). Part of my decision to give up my spot near the front of the pit was that or the last couple songs of Epica’s set, some dude who probably weighed 200 pounds more than me decided to shove his way up front and lean his entire weight into me while pumping his fists and screaming. I pretty much had to stop taking photos and brace myself against the stage railing (doing the folks in front of me a favor). After Epica’s set, he didn’t move, and I decided to find a different spot. Unfortunately, that proved impossible, the crowd was so densely packed. So I retreated to the bar and enjoyed probably half or a bit more of Symphony X from afar.

Into Eternity 6

One final note: the bands were unruly themselves, it being their final show. It was actually kind of hilarious; they were throwing food and other things (silly string, as in the above photo of Into Eternity’s guitarist) at each other during the sets, and apparently things got even crazier towards the end of Symphony X’s set, after I’d already left. It was cool to see these guys having so much fun, and in front of a very appreciative crowd to boot.

Lots more photos in the full set at Flickr. Of them all, my favorite shot of the night is probably this one, of the singer for Tolerance for Tragedy:

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