Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Great show: Earth & Kayo Dot

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Okay, sorry for the major delays in updates both in the site proper and this blog. I’m going to try something here. In 2008, I’ve been focusing a lot on my photography, and doing a lot of live music photography in particular. I’ve started a photography blog, and will be cross-posting concert reviews, with photography notes, at that blog and this one. So at this blog I’ll continue posting my usual ramblings, as well as concert reviews, but the concert reviews will now include more photographs and a few paragraphs of photo-geek stuff that you can safely skip over if you’re just in it for the music. We’ll see how this works. Not that the photos will usually look better at the photography blog thanks to the black background there. Anyway, here’s my first shot at it — a review of a great show I saw last night, Earth and Kayo Dot. Sunday night metal.

Earth 9

“Metal” is stretching it a bit, but both of the touring bands I saw last night at Rock & Roll Hotel, Earth and Kayo Dot, have their roots in it - the former in their classic drone-metal albums of the early 90s, the latter in their evolution out of avant/prog-metal group Maudlin of the Well. Still, this was about as different from Saturday’s prog-metal (when I saw Symphony X and Epica, review to come) as it could get. Earth plays glacially slow, crushingly loud instrumental music that, were it not for the volume and subtle drone tendencies, could almost be called doomy country & western. Kayo Dot is pretty much uncategorizable, straddling some invisible line between rock and rigorously composed modern classical music. The opener, Stymphalian Birds, was a solo noise/drone act that was surprisingly quite excellent. Needless to say, there was no symphonic metal bombast going on here, no drunken screaming fans, no call-and-response fist-pumping.

Earth was who I’d come for and they did not disappoint. The touring version of this band is a four-piece of guitar, bass, drums, and keys/trombone (trombone very sparingly used on one song only). They played almost exclusively stuff from the new album, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, which was fine by me as I think the album is pretty excellent. Live, their music sounded pretty much identical to the album versions, with one key difference: sheer volume. This stuff, when heard at bone-rattling loudness levels, becomes even more doomy and impactful than on record. Yet it still retains its beauty, with slow, repetitive melodies shining through wonderfully. It was also impressive to watch these guys play so damn slowly - drummer Adrienne Davies (pictured below) especially. I’m sure it takes massive concentration to play these songs, where sometimes there was a full second or even more between individual beats, and they pulled it off easily.

Earth 6

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kayo Dot (sorry Aaron). I always get the feeling that much of their material is going straight over my head - lots of abstractness and subtlety when I am longing for more intensity. Live, they held my attention better than on record, and it was fun to see just how intricately composed some of the pieces are, with all the musicians either reading from their charts or watching bandleader Toby Driver (below) intently for cues. The majority of the set was very quiet and slow-moving, with a few heavier parts intermingled; calling this band “metal” at this point would be a total misnomer. The pleasant surprise was a stunningly lyrical guitar solo from Driver during the last song - not sure what song it was but it was gorgeous. By that point, it seemed like they had already completely lost some of the audience, though - a couple of the guys in the front row next to me looked noticeably impatient with the whole affair.

Kayo Dot 7

Photographically, this was a tough show to get anything exciting, between the mostly static performers and completely static lighting. At least there was enough light (barely), but it was patchy and strongly hued. This weekend, in fact, I had a first: I blew out the blue channel in several of my photos. I’m used to screwing up and blowing out red highlights, but blue is a new one for me. Still managed to get some decent shots, but nothing as dynamic as Saturday night’s show - which, all things considered, is hardly surprising. I shot wide open with my rented 17-55 again (boy was I sad to return it this morning), between 1600 and 3200 ISO, shutter speeds as high as 1/160 to preserve blue/red highlights, as low as 1/40 at times to try to get the performers who were standing deeper in shadow.

The nice thing about shooting at Rock & Roll Hotel is that, except at completely sold-out shows, it’s relatively easy to move around. I mostly shot from right in front of the stage, but during Earth’s set I moved to the side and slightly behind (which I how I got the headline shot of Dylan Carlson haloed by the spotlights up front). No problems like Saturday at Jaxx where I was pinned to one spot and not even in the front row.

One last Earth shot to close out this post… check out the full set at Flickr for more.

Day 125: Earth

Dälek, still killin’ it

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

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.

And, of course, there are photos…

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble 35th anniversary

Friday, February 29th, 2008

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

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

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

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

St. Vincent live: absolutely awesome

Friday, February 29th, 2008

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.

This being the indie scene, there are a bunch of nice reviews of this show up in various places:
Black Plastic Bag
Counting Stars On the Ceiling
Baltimore Sun
Washington Post
Club D

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.

I’m still alive, and I saw Bloodcount!

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

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

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

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

The Hard Sell

Friday, January 25th, 2008

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

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

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

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

Unexpect minus violin: still fun

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

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

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

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

Radio Massacre International @ Orion Sound Studios

Monday, November 19th, 2007

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.