Archive for February, 2008

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).

Befuddled

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Wow, absolutely classic mismatch of reviewer and reviewed: PopMatters’ Filmore Mescalito Holmes, who normally seems to review electronica, drum ‘n’ bass and the like, tackles Ocrilim’s new one, Annwn. Not surprisingly, he can’t make heads or tails of this stuff, and the result is an amusingly clueless couple of paragraphs that say little more than “this guy’s just wanking, you might as well listen to a jackhammer.” (To which I say: don’t ever hand this guy an Einstürzende Neubauten album.)

In all honesty, this is the kind of review that makes me more interested to hear this than I would have been otherwise (I like Ocrilim’s first, Anoint, but not enough to make me go get this one sight unseen).