Archive for April, 2007

Zombi @ the Black Cat

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

A couple nights ago I saw Zombi, opening for Trans Am, who I did not stick around for. I’m feeling lazy so I’ll just paste in what I posted to ProgressiveEars a little while ago.

Saw Zombi last night at the kick-off show in DC. I didn’t stick around for Trans Am - after listening to Sex Change a couple times I didn’t find much to like about it, which surprised me given the reviews it’s gotten so far. (I still like Futureworld a lot, but that’s from 1999, and they’ve definitely moved on in some senses…)

Zombi was solid… extremely loud, but solid. The bassist didn’t play much bass, instead sticking mostly to keys, which meant he wasn’t all that exciting to watch, which meant naturally the bulk of the audience’s attention was directed to the drummer. He was a beast. But sometimes I felt like I was just watching a drum solo, because the keyboard textures were relatively simplistic.

For whatever reason I liked them better when I saw them last year and wasn’t familiar with their recordings. Oh well. I’d still recommend that anyone who digs Surface to Air go see them.

Crowd was ok, but I was expecting more considering that Trans Am is from DC. Maybe they all showed up late…

Tomorrow night I am heading to Baltimore to check out the Red Room, a new venue for me — Peter Brötzmann is playing there with a trio of his I’ve never heard, but whose record garnered a rave review over at Outer Space Gamelan. Seriously, that review all on its own made me want to drive an hour to go see these guys. Can’t wait!

Awesome WaPo piece about Joshua Bell, sort of

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

More nifty music content in a major national newspaper — this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine featured an article about how Joshua Bell, acclaimed classical violinist, played in a busy DC metro station at rush hour as a kind of social experiment. Surprising no one who has ever been in the DC metro at rush hour, he was resoundingly ignored, despite the predictions of Leonard Slatkin, director of the National Symphony Orchestra, who either has never been in the metro, is shockingly out of touch with the modern world, or both:

“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician… Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe… but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”

So, a crowd would gather?

“Oh, yes.”

To be fair, it seems that a few people did stop and listen for at least a few seconds or minutes, which is generally more than you can say for most street musicians in this city. But in any case, Bell’s reactions to the stunt are especially fun to read: “‘I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.’ This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.”

The article includes audio of the full 45-minute “performance,” plus selected video clips which are good fun.

Really, really obscure post-rock

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Found this neat list at rateyourmusic: “underknown” post-rock. Of this list of 29 albums, I’ve only heard one (Cerberus Shoal’s Homb) and have only actually heard of three or four! I’ve got some exploring to do.

I found this through DJ Martian’s page — a website/blog full of links arranged in a manner that I found pretty much incomprehensible at first. It’s really best to read this thing through the RSS feeds; there are two, one for the sporadically-updated blog and one for the more regularly updated links (through del.icio.us). Once you figure out how to sift through this in an intelligible way, it’s a very nice source of regular music news.

NYT op-ed slams RIAA

Friday, April 6th, 2007

Yesterday, the New York Times published an excellent op-ed by a couple guys who owned an independent record store in NYC that went under in 2005. What’s great about this piece is that it puts forth the argument that, while downloading and file-sharing is hurting not just the major labels but also the little guys, a good portion of the blame can still be placed on big industry (RIAA being the figurehead of course) rather than the inherent selfishness or evil of consumers (the stock RIAA argument — “they don’t play by the rules and we’re the victims!” — that makes me severely uncomfortable, to say the least).

Basically, the argument is one that I’ve put forth before and read in a few other places, but rarely in so concise and cogent a form: that the record industry is guilty of mishandling the onset of new technology and basically just been flat-out stupid, not only trying to defend a technology that is over two decades old (CDs) and grossly inefficient and out of date, but actually jacking up prices on them in some cases. It’s akin to paying $5,000 for an IBM PC-AT or an Apple IIgs.

The recording industry association saw the threat that illegal downloads would pose to CD sales. But rather than working with Napster, it tried to sue the company out of existence — which was like thinking you’ve killed all the roaches in your apartment because you squashed the one you saw in the kitchen. More illegal download sites cropped up faster than the association’s lawyers could say “cease and desist.”

Also, they bemoan the record industry getting in bed with the likes of Best Buy and Wal-Mart to undercut prices, “[b]ecause, ideally, the person who came in to get the new Eagles release with exclusive bonus material would also decide to pick up a high-speed blender that frappéed.” It’s a great article, arguing that not only has the RIAA put profits before music, which is something that should surprise no one at all, but also that they’ve put short-term profits before long-term business savvy.

Yes, I did pay $55 to see Christina Aguilera

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

Okay, those of you who just don’t give a damn about my concert reviews can rest easy: this is the last one I’ll do for at least… a week. No shows between now and April 10th, when Zombi and Trans Am hit the Black Cat; in this concert-filled year, that seems like an abnormally long drought for me.

Last night was the big show: maybe the biggest show I’ve ever seen or ever will see. Yes, it was Christina Aguilera at the Verizon Center, with openers Danity Kane (who were terrible) and The Pussycat Dolls (who were worse than terrible). This was only the second stadium concert I’ve ever been to, actually, and the first is hardly worth counting — I saw Phish when I was fifteen or sixteen years old (and amusingly enough, I remember writing a long rant on my then-website about the show, complaining that Phish couldn’t hold a candle to King Crimson as rock improvisers). I went with my housemate, an indie-rock fan with a soft spot for good pop music, and as we approached the venue we were overwhelmed by the amount of makeup slathered over the faces of folks heading into the stadium. I half-expected to see some ironic hipsters in the crowd, but nope, the vast majority was what you’d expect: girls between the ages of, I don’t know, 8-18 or so. Some with parents and some with boyfriends.

My friend and I intentionally missed most of Danity Kane (hearing their album of really atrociously bad pop music makes me appreciate good pop music that much more), and settled into our “cheap” (don’t ask) seats just as they were starting their last song. It was forgettable, of course. Next up was The Pussycat Dolls, a six-piece girl-band taking their roots from a Vegas burlesque show, if I’ve got my facts straight. This was a bit of a weird experience: the stage show made its Vegas roots pretty clear, as the girls were hardly wearing anything and the dancing was, uh, provocative. I would NOT have been comfortable taking my 10-year-old daughter to this performance. Man, I’m getting old. Anyway, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I think The Pussycat Dolls‘ sole studio album, PCD, is actually pretty entertaining (especially the Timbaland-produced songs). This did not translate at all live: their live musical performance was awful and surprisingly, given their roots, so was their choreography and dancing.

Once the main act started, though, it was clear there was a whole different level of production value and talent at hand. Aguilera has a pretty astounding voice, and her over-the-top vocals were complemented by a seriously over-the-top stage show. I mean, there were three outfit changes in the first three songs alone (this puts Within Temptation to shame). The jazzy big band backing her was probably 15 members strong. The songs from the second disc of Back to Basics were accompanied by the most gimmickry — a decadent circus-themed extravaganza featuring guys on stilts, acrobatic stunts, a carousel horse, and more. All this flash made up a little for the fact that the songs off of that disc are terrible: generic backing music with embarrassingly juvenile lyrics.

Her other songs, though, came off pretty well, although she does have a penchant for over-singing. And, refreshingly enough, there was one huge surprise: halfway through the set, the dancers stepped aside and the big band melted into the shadows, leaving just Aguilera and a pianist on stage. Aguilera proceeded to spend what was probably a good two minutes introducing “Oh Mother,” talking about how domestic violence affected her life, and then went into a pretty emotional rendition of the song — backed by a seriously intense video on the enormous screen behind her of a man yelling at his wife, the wife crying, the man shoving and hitting her. It was actually a little over the line, I thought, but simply awesome that this kind of slow, devastating statement song was in the middle of her set. Aguilera may have been in full entertainer mode throughout, but this song was a memorable exception, when music, lyrics and message took the front seat and spectacle was nowhere to be found.

Overall, this show was something that was definitely worth seeing once, if only for the ridiculous, gaudy spectacle of it all, “Oh Mother” excepted. It was really fascinating to see major-label corporate music in all its “glory” — I’ll always be much more comfortable in a dingy rock club or a tiny jazz club, but seeing what the majority of the country thinks of when they think of “live music” was quite the eye-opener.

Two great recent shows

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

Over the weekend I saw two big-band concerts: the 10-piece free-improv Instant Composers Pool Orchestra at the Library of Congress, and the 8-piece post-rock collective Do Make Say Think at the Black Cat. These were both excellent shows, albeit very different, of course. I think the latter was good enough that it’s destined to make my top 10 list by the end of the year, easily.

But first things first — ICP Orchestra played this gig of their 40th anniversary tour to a respectably large audience at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. I had never seen any of these guys before, but was familiar with Misha Mengelberg, Ab Baars and of course the ubiquitous Han Bennink. They surprised me by playing very accessible music clearly grounded in the jazz idiom — probably a function of the audience and venue. No need to scare everyone away at a free show, I guess. In any case, Bennink was completely nuts. I had no idea he acted out so much, but the dude was ridiculous. At almost 65 years old, it seemed like he had about three times more energy than the rest of the band combined, and in fact he kind of overpowered them at times with his playing (and his vocalizing would have made Keith Jarrett blush). He sat behind a single snare drum and eked all kinds of noises from it, but didn’t satisfy himself there — on several occasions he leapt out of his seat and played pretty much anything on the stage that struck his fancy, including chairs, music stands, the floor, his foot, and so on and so forth. Entertaining, to say the least.

Oh right, the rest of the band. The other nine were just as fun to watch, if for a totally different reason: it was neat to see their interplay, the little nods and hand signals present at any improv show, the way they would split into little mini-ensembles that would seemingly play in opposition to each other before coming together just as spontaneously. Again, for the most part the improvising stayed in relatively structured and melodic territory (and the harmonies that this large ensemble stumbled upon were often beautiful), but it was a pretty rewarding show nonetheless.

One last note about this show: by total random chance I sat next to the saxophonist from DC Improvisers Collective, whom I’d never spoken to but recognized from the one show of theirs that I attended a month or so ago. We had a very brief interaction in which he mentioned that DCIC might be playing as backup for Joe Lally, ex-bassist for Fugazi, something that sounds very interesting indeed!

Moving on, Sunday’s show at the Black Cat got off to a less-than-promising start, as the openers, death-country group Elliott Brood, cancelled with no explanation. But when Do Make Say Think got on stage, all was forgiven. My brief recap at the ProgAndOther list:

I think DMST are the most interesting current post-rock band, and the only one who doesn’t seem to be rehashing the same formula over and over again (don’t get me wrong, I tend to like that formula, but you know…). I too was struck by the diversity of instrumentation, and their compositions really take advantage of that diversity.

The sound at the DC show was definitely at earplugs-needed levels (I put mine in after the first song), but their soundman was fabulous and even at the high volume levels, little things really came through in the mix - especially the violinist. It seemed like a lot of the band’s modus operandi was to develop a repetitive, trancey beat with subtle ornamentation from the guitars, and then a beautiful melody would surface out of the murk, on violin or horns or gently picked guitar. Really gorgeous stuff.

The diversity of instrumentation I reference comes from the fact that many members of the eight-piece band played two or three different instruments over the course of the show. The “standard” lineup seemed to be two guitars, bass, violin, trumpet, sax, and two drummers (although admittedly the horns were used more for color and ornamentation than for melody or lead lines), but when called for, there’d be a third guitar, or there’d be some keyboard or marimba in the mix, or the guitarists would pick up horns to make a muscular four-piece brass front line. Every one of these guys, but especially the three who rotated on guitars and bass, are impressively accomplished musicians, with some of the more intricate guitar picking a consistent highlight throughout the show. However, it was the violinist who held it all together for me. While the rest of the band was jamming along to trancelike rhythms or blissing out to ear-splitting climaxes (one audience member’s good-natured heckle: “do you guys have any songs with, like, big crescendoes?”), she was more often than not playing gorgeous melodies that, thanks to the skills of the soundman, were clearly audible even above the din.

Highlights of the show for me were all the quieter pieces like “A Tender History in Rust” — no post-rock group does quiet and pretty better than these guys — and the polar opposite, the extroverted and energetic “Horns of a Rabbit,” which absolutely slayed. But the whole set was fabulous, and it ended with a good sign: the guitarist said, “See you in the fall,” seeming to indicate that DMST will in fact be touring again soon. This is one band that I wouldn’t hesitate to see again, as their material is much more memorable live than on record (and I like their records).

Let me tell ya, Christina Aguilera (who yes, I am going to see tonight) has a lot to live up to. :-)