“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.