Friday, December 25, 2009

Favorite Art Exhibits 2009

Every year I see quite a bit - for a dilettante - of visual art but I never think to post a roundup like I do for music most years and I've done for film a few years.  I didn't see enough movies this year but I definitely think I saw enough museum and gallery exhibits that made an impression on me to do this list.  Next year I'm going to keep better track of books and plays for possible similar lists because I probably read 50 books this year but my memory's so bad about what I read this year versus last year making that more trouble than it's worth.

And as with the music, these aren't the only ten things I saw. A number of shows made these a hard call to make, including C. Spencer Yeh, Marilyn Minter, and Anri Sala at the CAC in Cincinnati, Ryan McGinness at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Robin Rhode and William Forsythe at the Wexner Center, Shepard Fairey at the Warhol in Pittsburgh, Constellations at the MCA in Chicago, this year's New Photography at MoMA, Watteau at the Met, Tristan Perich at Issue Project Room, and on and on.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Shows of the Year, 2009 (Draft)

This was a year of seeing some fine, fine music.  Last year A. and I decided we’d missed more shows than we saw and this year we set about correcting that imbalance.  Mission accomplished. 

Big thing to bring up is my New Orleans trip which I took out of contention for this list both because it’s forever tied in my brain to my stroke and because it was so awesome it overpowers everything else.  Tony Barba playing at Dragon’s Inn, the Condo Fucks and Redondo Beat at One Eyed Jacks, everything at Ponderosa Stomp especially Otis Clay and the Hi Rhythm Section, reunited Flamin Groovies backed by the A-Bones, Dennis Coffey. I mean damn.  And the New Orleans Jazz fest with my favorite single moment, after seeing half of Emmylou Harris’ powerful set especially “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “Red Dirt Girl” then walking over to see Solomon Burke open with “Just Out of Reach of my Two Empty Arms” and going into “That’s How I Got to Memphis”.  And all the food?  My god.

A lot of stuff that was good didn’t make this list – The Supersuckers at Ravari, Leonard Cohen in Detroit, Jack Oblivian (twice), Bonnie “Prince” Billy (twice), Box Elders at Bobo, Wooden Wand at Rumba, Scott Miller at Southgate House, O’ Death at the Southgate House, The Cynics, King Khan and BBQ and Those Darlins (two diff shows) at the Northside in Cincinnati, Garotas Suecas at Rumba, Vandermark 5 at the Wexner Center, the list goes on. 

Next year the plan is to reconnect with local music and find a few bands to love that don’t have my friends in them or haven’t been playing for 10 years, only Nick Tolford really blew me away and made me go see him several times this year.

Other trend I’d note that didn’t seem to fit the list proper, this was the year I reconnected with how much I like to go out and dance.  My thanks to Funkdefy locally, Windy City Soul Club and Peruvian band Novalima DJ’ing at the much-missed Sonotheque in Chicago, Mr. Finewine and Jonathan Toubin at many locations but together in a huge unmarked space in Brooklyn; all were some of the most fun nights I had this year, where you come out sweaty and sore and horny and feeling very, very good.

1.  Numero Eccentric Soul Revue, Lincoln Theater – You want to know how to perfectly recreate a classic music event of years gone by, you should call the Numero people.  First, mention has to be made that JC Brooks and the Uptown sound were the consummate backing band with a damn fine singer who had enough presence to command the stage, enough ebullience to be a perfect hype man, and enough humility to just stand aside and sing backup when needed.  And what made this great was that Numero is all about not just the eccentric, lost sounds, but they’re about local scenes, so tribute was paid to Marion Black through Brooks doing one of his songs and the Four Mints did a couple of songs including the gorgeous “Gently Down Your Stream”.  Renaldo Domino killed on “Too Cool to Cry”, one of the most beautiful songs of the ‘70s (I said most beautiful at the time, and A. put me in my place with “More beautiful than ‘La La Means I Love You’?”).  And Syl Johnson set the mother on fire, with his golden suit and raging versions of his hits including “Take Me to the River”, and while I would have liked another few songs (no “Dresses Too Short”?), the final encore of all the acts doing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” nearly brought me to tears.  So joyous a night in Columbus you won’t likely see again for a while.

2.  Gories/Oblivians, Majestic Theater, Detroit - Two bands I never got to see in their hey day, playing one of two shows in the US, and leaving everybody drenched and talking funny. Oblivians closing their set with "Never Change" with Greg beating the drums like he was Buddy Rich at the end of a long, drunken night, lurching through the biggest gospel rhythm you've ever heard. Mick Collins taking a solo so righteous on “Ghostrider” that he rocked his glasses off.

3.  Extra Golden, Rumba – Best drummer I saw all year, propelling a band through the best melodies I heard all year.  They played like they threw diamonds up into a starry sky with flames in the background and took long-exposure photograph, all deliciously blurred shapes and acid-trail lines.  Anyone who wasn’t dancing was nodding along from their seat.  Anyone who wasn’t at least nodding, or who was outside smoking, is automatically suspect.

4.  Faust, Wexner Center – Most of the time, you see one of those bands you thought you’d never see and they don’t live up to the expectations you built up.  But once in a while it’s better than you would have let yourself hope.  This year that happened to me at least twice, with the Gories and with Faust.  Regardless of who the lineup was, original members or no, they showed up with a concrete mixer on the rider which they mic’ed and deferred to like a background singer.  A long kosmischemusik jam followed by introducing the next song with “This is about the ambiguity between men and women” and then one of the prettiest acoustic-guitar-led pop songs I heard all year.  I walked out of this and floated all the way home, wanting to grab people by the shoulders and make sure they know just how awesome what I saw was.

5.  Antony and the Johnsons, Southern Theatre  -Reams have been written on the angelic properties of Antony’s voice but until you see him live you may not realize how much of a classic soul man he is.  The same intensity and humor and joy I saw last year from Jimmy Scott singing from a wheelchair at the Iridium, or Meredith Monk at the Wexner Center or at BAM, or Otis Clay, Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint in  New Orleans this year, he has those qualities in spades.  A tight seven piece band that can go from chamber music/art-song settings to ‘50s gutbucket cal and response and Antony at the piano at all times in control, from the rousing “Shake that Devil” and “Fistful of Love” though the heartrending “For Today I am a Boy” and “Kiss My Name” on through the perfect, finding-the-sadness-and-obsessive-qualities cover of “Crazy in Love”. they created a continuum of music that used clichés and tropes but never descended into just cliché.

6.  Rafael Toral Trio, OSU Urban Arts Space – Not the first show I saw after getting out of the hospital (that was Leonard Cohen in Detroit) but close, and certainly the first show I took a notebook to and tried to write about, though I don’t think I did anything with it.  Before this show I only knew Toral from the record he did accompanying David Toop and his appearance on Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers.  Here he appeared with C. Spencer Yeh of Burning Star Core, Trevor Tremaine from Hair Police for the first set of a single 20-25 minute improvisation that coiled and glittered, then adding Columbusites Ryan Jewell and Mike Shiflet to make it a quintet that opened the canvas up to different brushstrokes and colors.  As hard as the music was to describe – is it noise? is it free improv?  is it at times eai? – it was even harder to get out of my head later that night.

7.  Eric Taylor, Red Door Tavern - “Just like high school.”  That was the oft-repeated refrain Taylor would use in his long, partly-improvised, snaking spoken word interludes between those beautiful songs, both were riveting.  A story of his friend drawing wax-crayon hearts on a shopping bag and throwing knives at them starts hilarious and ends ineffably sad and then turns into one of my favorite of his songs, “All So Much Like Me”.  For those two sets there was nowhere I Wanted to be and I even regretted leaving before the encores to go see Moto at Bourbon Street (who rocked, of course).

8.  Jack Rose, Hideout, Chicago, and Sarah Borges, Fitzgerald’s, Chicago – I wrote these two shows up together in this blog and they’re inextricably linked in my mind, I’m not sure what to say about one without the other, but it was the best Jack Rose show I ever saw and I thought that before it turned out to be the last Jack Rose show I’ll ever see.  He’ll be missed but I don’t need to tell you that.  And Sarah Borges was perfect in a completely different way, distilling all sorts of roots music (soul, ‘50s R&B, country, whatever the hell NRBQ is) down to catchy hooks and tight playing and a sense of epic fun.  A great first couple of nights before the wedding of one of my best friends, which was the best thing we did all weekend.

9.  Larkin Grimm, Cafe Bourbon Street - Four of us there in one of the worst-promoted shows in history. Grimm playing most of her excellent Parplar (came out in 2008 but I wasn't hip to it until the beginning of this year) backed by guitar, harmonium, percussion and guzheng with these songs that build their own internally consistent world and at the same time feel wholly other and resonate with your own life. Her voice is a bludgeon and a scalpel when she needs it.

10. Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, Roulette, NYC – This was the frosting on a great damn weekend of jazz in New York for me this year, from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at LPR to Harris Eisenstadt at Cornelia Street Cafe, but Threadgill was somebody I never thought I’d see live.  And the current lineup of Zooid is cracking.  Stomu Takeshi on bass, the guitarist and the tuba player are erecting these cracked sculptures of rhythm while still not letting the melody slip and Threadgill’s alto and bass almost recall Bach counterpoint at times,  with a terrific drummer.   I think Threadgill gets a lot of credit for arranging and putting together awesome bands but you don’t hear much about his compositions – or at least I don’t recall – but my god, these perfect byzantine structures but with gold rivers running through them, every piece held its own weight and could hold anything the players or audience could put into it.

11. Reigning Sound, The Summit – Nothing much to say about this, one of my favorite bands sounding better than I’d ever seen them and playing for an hour and a half to a pretty full crowd on a Tuesday night.  It’s hard to get me to stay out after midnight on a weeknight any more but I just didn’t want to leave.

12. Amir El-Saffar, Wexner Center – This and the aforementioned Harris Eistenstadt show fought in my memory for this list, both had excellent tunes and great playing, but I had to side with El-Saffar and not just for Nasheet Waits shit-hot-as-always drumming.  I walked out of this glad I was alive.  Right after I saw a very good ? and the Mysterians show but I don’t remember it anywhere near the detail I remember El-Saffar and not just because of the shots.

13. Davila 666, Ravari Room – Exactly what you want rock and roll to be, the stripped down-to-basics melodies of Johnny Thunders and the Ramones but also the wild dancing excess of the Fleshtones, with two people who are basically tambourine players and background singers. They got up in front of maybe 70 people on a Sunday night and left an ounce of sweat and plenty of spilled beer on the stage and sent everyone out into the night with a song in her heart.  And I’d be remiss to not mention the slinky grooves made up almost entirely of sharp edges that Mannequin Men opened with, and the perfect, raging set El Jesus played to start the night off.

14. Black Swans, Essie Jain, and Bird and Flower, Rumba Cafe, 11/06/09 – There’s an undeniable joy when you see a band develop into its own thing before your eyes, which I saw happen with Bird and Flower; they had one of the most enjoyable sets I’ve seen in a long time and have grown from a band I respected and dug to one I really look forward to seeing.  Essie Jain‘s lullaby should have shamed and quieted the barroom party crowd, and would have in a better day, but even in the face of an indifferent audience she brought some wistful beauty to a Friday night.  But the winner of the night, aside from the audience, was Black Swans.  As much as ever, they were a revelation, a band that references history but is not shackled to it, on the newer songs like “Joe Tex”, “Blue Bayou”, “Thinking of You”  and especially the perfect ballad “Don’t Blame the Stars” and the metallic mosaic-blues stomp “Sunshine Street”, they’ve cracked into a new world, one I can’t see enough of.

15. Erik Friedlander, Wexner Center – Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.  I’d seen Friedlander do songs from his solo record Block Ice and Propane in Chicago a few years ago in a space over a Chinese restaurant and that was great but the immaculate sound of the Wexner Center and his father’s photographs hammered this home and made it one of the most moving shows I saw all year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Favorite Records 2009

I tried keeping a running tally of any record that knocked me on my ass this year, and spent the last couple of weeks adding a couple new releases and separating it into the 20 records right now I can see still being awed by in 20 years and honorable mentions which I’m not quite so sure will make that list but still gave me a lot of pleasure and in some cases it was an incredibly close call between what made the list and what didn’t quite.  I’m a little disheartened to see my list is overwhelmingly white (15 out of 20) and male (11 out of 20), and not so disheartened or surprised to see that it’s less rock-heavy, it was one of those years, I think.
Anyone reading, feel free to argue with the choices in the comments and especially suggest things you think I might have missed.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Roots Grown Gnarled and Elegant; Jack Rose, Hideout, Chicago, 09/24/09 and Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, Fitzgerald’s, Chicago, 09/25/09

Two shows in Chicago that seemed at first glance to be about as far as ou can get on the spectrum that is “roots music”.  Rose has been doing this since his days in the overtone-laden minimal psychedelia of Pelt and his demeanor on stage is of abject seriousness, staring a hole in his acoustic guitar and barely communicating with the audience at all, letting his instrumental music fill the air and get perceived for what it is, removed from his personality.   Borges has three albums out, two on Sugar Hill, and her voice, like a huskier Amy Allison or a twangier Dar Williams, is the show, and she’s bending over backwards – at some points literally – to be ingratiating and charming.

The more you see Jack Rose the more you realize how much he’s evolved over time, what on his first solo album was easy to dismiss as  post-Fahey, longer forms, some beautiful flat-picking, melodies showing off their elasticity by stretching until they almost broke then snapping right back, or like pools of viscous rainwater on a dirty street running together so you can see the rainbow in the whole. 

By the time the first two were collected under Two Originals Of and then the gorgeous Raag Manifestos I started to realize what an original voice you had in Jack, not by eschewing what’s come before but by absorbing it, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Maybelle Carter and Mississippi John Hurt and Peter Walker, and Hawaiian slack key and Indian music and sacred steel and more recently and most intriguingly flamenco runs.  His most recent album and the most recent time I saw him, at Terrastock, has him accompanied by the Black Twig Pickers, a more traditional bluegrass/mountain music duo and again it didn’t click until I spent more time with the record and realized he’s integrating his own harmonic language without compromising it into this fabric. 

But the show at the Hideout found him back in solo mode and it was hypnotic and uplifting, hitting everything in his catalog and bringing out the melodies more than I think I’ve ever seen him.  In that little room, everyone fell to silence and each note hung in the air in an almost Morton Feldman waltz.  Decay and generation, birth and age, step one, one-two, one-two-three, heel-toe-turn.  I didn’t even stick around to see the headliners, I wanted those songs to keep ringing in my head a little longer.

Borges the next night followed the stultifying Elvis 56 which featured the fantastic guitar work of Eddie Angel and the drumming of Teen Beat from Los Straitjackets but a English singer who did a spot-on Elvis impression and perfect Elvis dancing and mannerisms and sang a set of things from Elvis’s early career including his covers of R&B like “Money Honey” which weren’t that good in the first place.  Angel’s muscular guitar playing and Smed’s always lithe and sexy drumming tried mightily to elevate this but it couldn’t get over being charmless, feeling like like you walked into a particularly humorless Civil War recreation, give me somebody who shows up as Dr. Who or something.

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, included bass player and harmony singer Binky, Robert Larry Delaney on drums, and Lyle Brewer who might be the best lead guitarist I’ve heard for this kind of music since the guitar player in Robbie Fulks’ band, which is high praise by any measure and doubly high when we’re seeing them in Chicago.  They came out and in a ballsy move opened with the first song of theirs I ever heard, “On the Day We Met”, which is still think is probably the best song they’ve ever written and it stood as a call to arms, an ars poetica that set up the fun, free-wheeling tone of their set, “I want my old records back / I’m gonna sell them all for trade / It’ll be less lonely hearts club / And more of the hit parade” and went through an hour and a half of their own fine songs, especially good was the ‘60s pop-Latin by way of Dean Martin and the Shirelles “Me and Your Ghost” (“Since you’ve been away I’ve been livin’ / But you know that livin’ like that’s a shame / Me and your ghost both know / We can’t go on this way”), the ragged stomp of “I’ll Show You How”, the Aerosmith-style blues stop (thanks to Anne for pointing that out) aon the song about a prostitute (can’t find my notes where I wrote down the title and I’m not finding it on either of the records I have) and the soaring ballad “Better at the End of the Day”.

Between the seams of this rock-solid original material they wove in enough covers to show their muscle but did it without making the covers seem like they were showing up their own songs and shining light on their aesthetic that can encompass Smokey Robinson’s “Being With You”,. J. Giles Band’s “Cry One More Time”, Charley Pride’s “Just Between You and Me” and Hank Ballard’s “Open Up Your Back Door” (what turned into a rousing 30 minute encore when a certain member of Elvis 56 had to be hooked off the stage, which again proves how fantastic her band is, when he went into “Treat Her Right” they were right there with him on every digression), and still left me wishing they’d done a couple of other covers they’ve recorded (“It Comes to Me Naturally” and “Stop and Think it Over”).  Much like Jack Rose, they’ve absorbed all of these genres and styles, amoeba-like without changing their shape or their intent. 

Sure there are quibbles, there’s nothing truly new here and the banter went on to the point where it hit a Tammy Wynette-like level of smarm, but those are minor.  If you want a well-played, purely entertaining bar band in the best sense with some fantastic vocals, you can’t do better than this.  See Sarah Borges.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Mephistopheles Leaves Through Another Door; “An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This, His Final Evening”, Theater Oobleck, 09/26/09

No epigram this time, I think the title of the play took up more than enough space, suffice to say I was in Chicago for a friend’s wedding and looking for some theater.  The Michael Shannon play was tempting, so was the Arthur Conan Doyle thing at Steppenwolf, but the early write-up of this promised just the kind of high=minded literariness and wackiness that I couldn't resist.

We all filed into two long rows of chairs on either side of the basement of the Chopin Theater, one man sitting at a chair on one end and another standing nervously, who then walks to the lounge we filed in from and pulls a heavy door shut so we’re in a dark room lit only by two globe lights and an Exit sign.  And we’re off.

For the next hour, Colm O’Reilly as John Faustus sweats and stammers his way through boastful justification and not-quite-belied regret, through flights of visual fancy, from Sisyphus tracing hash marks on the rock in mud until the mass is mostly the shell of keeping time to a world pouring out of the hump on the devil’s back like a piñata.  

Faustus works to get us on his side, but through it all, you get the impression that what he most wants is to evoke a reaction – something, anything – from Mephistopheles (David Shapiro) who holds all the cards and has nothing to gain or lose by giving in.  Shapiro is riveting in a role with one action and no lines, but it’s O’Reilly who keeps making you laugh (“I return with future beer and potatoes!” “I am a very annoyed person!”) and bringing you to tears with the wasted efforts and barely submerged regrets. 

Mickel Maher’s text is a wonder and by the time Mephistopheles turns off the lights and leaves through the other door you’re completely taken up.  Runs through October 24 at the Chopin Theater in Chicago.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Flickering Shapes, Grief, Rage; Luc Tuymans at the Wexner Center

"Knowing I am going away past the sharp edge of the world, she knows we need magic, we need magic stronger than words since just words cannot save us. I follow her to the place where the machines hum and draw blood since we need strong magic, need to rip the skin, let blood, and change the body for life, so it know."

-Daphne Gottlieb, "maps and legends"

When you see Luc Tuymans paintings they come up on you slowly, some vaguely impressionist techniques through a new sensibility, and then you start seeing them together and you get the patterns, the juxtaposition, and it all comes together when you see he was a film maker. He doesn't try to replicate stills, none of the photorealism of Marilyn Minter, he captures the velocity of film - establishing shot, close up, jump cut to the same shot from a slightly different angle, and not in an old-Hollywood way, all handheld Super-8 that blew their entire budget on a crane shot that makes that look even more devastating as in the shot - the painting - of a couple dancing at the Governor's Ball that's almost touching until you get the political implications and behind it the Presidential Seal seen so close it's blurry, looking new, looking freshly used. It's like you found a storyboard with half the shots missing and had to piece the story together from the faded, munged drawings.

World War II and the Holocaust deeply haunt his work, and the current specters of nationalism, jingoism and racism, with at least two paintings of gas chambers, one an interior with the showers as black uneven splotches, like sunspots, and the roof almost translucent, the sky seeping into this empty room The other looks like it could just as easily be a summer camp, as a companion to The Architect, which is a grey painting of Albert Speer having a skiing mishap, taken from home film footage of a vacation he was on, maybe the summation of the whole retrospective. Banal, and interesting just for the way he uses color, and then the audience says, "Oh, that architect. Damn."

Tuymans uses color in a very subdued way, but that doesn't mean he uses less of it. He has an amazing eye for seeing all the colors in a suit coat, or a sky at ease, reds and blues figure prominently in everything and most of the time they don't draw attention to themselves, just shoot their acid into the veins in your eye and sink in so you start seeing them three or four paintings later, unless something is done for sheer effect, like the strawberry blonde hair of the paratroopers that makes more apparent they don't have any faces.

If you're within a hundred miles of Columbus before January 3, go see this. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Church by Young Jean-Lee, Available Light, Riffe Center; August 20, 2009

"I beg for haven: Prisons, let open you gates-

A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.

Damn you, Elijah, I'll bless Jezebel tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don't let us be broken;

Only we can convert the infidels tonight.

Has God's vintage loneliness turned to vinegar?

He's poured rust into the Sacred Well tonight."

-Agha Shahid Ali, "Ghazal"

I've always loved old gospel music and Renaissance religious art, but the religious expressions that really move me or raise my hackles are plagued with doubt. Like they're working through something to convince themselves. Current 93, Leonard Cohen, and now Young Jean-Lee's new play, Church. Young Jean-Lee has said she tries to make whatever the last show she'd like to make is. It's like she's writing herself into aesthetic corners and trusting that the truth of her approach and the truth of the performances will carry her out. And Available Light, I believe doing the first performance of this not done by Jean-Lee's own troupe, shows up again as one of the most interesting, provocative theater companies Columbus has or has ever had.

The play is about working through her lack of belief, or lack of concrete belief anyway, and it's structured like a televangelist/mega-church's service I used to grow up listening to because I fell asleep too late with the TV on, with gentle words in soothing cadence that explode into almost baffling anger and then recede but somehow feel like they never lost control, never lost the arc of the message. It opens on a darkened stage with Reverend Jose (Ian Short) saying in an even tone that gets progressively more and more of an edge, as it calls out the audience for grasping for tiny things, and talking about our attempts to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit bad relationships and "that's what you talk about when you're trying to be deep." When the lights come up there's Reverend Kate (Kate Watts, so good in God's Ear as the couple's almost-oblivious daughter) asking the audience questions and turning somewhat ludicrous, mocking "prayer requests" into things that aren't so ludicrous.

And it goes through sermons from Kate, rambling and surreal but periodically stabbing you in the heart, Reverend Eleni (Eleni Papaleonardos), working through her addiction to be loved and exploding in an indictment of those who would use religion for bigotry or exclusion, and Revererend Jose bounces off the good will he's already built up and then comes back out and starts discussing mummies and mummies are real and god and the devil are both mummies until he breaks down. Then there's dancing which is perfect, unforced, but well-choreographed, and sone group harmonies by Reverends Kate, Eleni and Casey (Acacia Duncan), and ultimately a choir comes out and takes the stage.

All of the Jean Lee plays I've seen seem to rotate around what you think, what you feel like you should think, what you say and what you're trying to avoid saying, both publicly and privately. This makes no attempt to hide the surface absurdity of some of these concepts (translated as chicken blood and mummies, using the old Bunuel surrealist technique of horror images to hint at a deeper psychological interest), but it flashes back and forth between these and totally rational words and explanations to create this dichotomy and draw you in. Maybe this is a little slighter than The Shipment or Dragons Flying to Heaven, but it might be more moving than either, at least for me.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Gesture/Action/Gesture/Action – Vandermark 5, Wexner Center for the Arts, 08/06/09

“By one-sidedly emphasizing only one aspect of the new, Brotzmann transforms the music into a kind of still life, reducing it to a style without concomitant creative substance.”
- Amiri Baraka, review of Nipples in Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music

I don’t necessarily agree with the above sentiment but I’ve heard similar things about both the Euro improvisers (Brotzmann, Gustafsson, Bailey, Bennink) and the Chicago crowd exemplified by Fred Vandermark, that what you get is a frozen-moment perspective of the fire music of the ‘60s, unmoored from the gospel and R&B underpinnings that someone like Ayler had so it looks like action painting.  But I stand in front of those Rothkos at MoMA and every time I hold back tears, and Vandermark was my big gateway into free jazz.  Really, my gateway was John Corbett’s Extended Play that came out my freshman year in high school, and it’s an easy step to Ken Vandermark from there.

The first live shot of the juice I love in freer improvised music came from the sets of shows Zach Bodish booked in the much-missed rock club Little Brother’s and it was 2000 when both DKV and Vandermark 5 came to Little Brother’s on separate occasions in one of these series.  The first time I’d seen un-amplified, not even through a PA, music I think, though I’m a little ashamed to admit it took me until I was 20.  And at the time I was just blown away by the interplay.  But slowly I drifted away from Vandermark and when I heard he was coming back to the Wexner Center  almost a decade later, there was no chance I wasn’t going to go but I was a little nervous that I’d be let down.

And I’m happy to say that was completely unfounded.  In the years I haven’t been keeping up, Ken Vandermark’s tone has gotten even more assured and the melodies he’s writing are killer, while the band has gotten even more groove-based.  From the opening “Friction” to the closing “Cadmium Red (For Francis Bacon)” I was enraptured.  I would’ve liked a few more songs that varied from head-solo-solo-bridge-head (or thereabouts) but the tunes where he deviated from that, “Spiel” with its interlocking sections glued together by Fred Longberg-Holm’s distorted cello, or the gorgeous ballad “Early Color” propelled by Dave Rempis’s sax, were astonishing.

Every memory gets me back to the sheer physical force of the rhythms they churned out, Kent Kessler on bass and Fred Longberg-Holm on cello often both playing pizzicato to create one seamless giant rhythm below everything, or both playing arco to give it a chamber music kick and expanse and Tim Daisy’s drums stop the music short in the most interesting ways when they’re not bringing different, almost orchestral colors out to the fore.  I’m glad the Wex is bringing this kind of thing to Columbus, and I intend not to let it be another 9 years before I see the Vandermark 5.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Olafur Eliasson: Take Your Time, MCA, Chicago; Cy Twombly, The Natural World, Art Institute of Chicago

“You see half the moon, its crescent, and one of the planets, maybe Saturn, maybe Jupiter, in the early night sky over Berlin, through the windows of a taxicab, near Potsdamer Platz.

You think: Beauty.

No, this is not beauty, maybe not, maybe, this is the rest of it, maybe not, maybe, the rest of beauty,
maybe not, maybe, what remains of beauty,maybe not, maybe, what is visible, certainly, uncertain.
Your arms would not be able to stretch as far as necessary to form an adequate gesture for beauty
(You know that, don't you?).
So,  beauty remains in the impossibilities of the body.”
--Einsturzende Neubauten, “Beauty”

If beauty doesn’t stop you dead sometimes, catch you breathless and reeling, I’d go have your pulse checked or your head examined.  Or stay away from me.

It had been a little while since something left me totally speechless but still trying, desperately trying to articulate my reaction to it (maybe God’s Ear at Available Light, or the William Forsythe exhibit at the Wex) and like I knew it would, Chicago came through in spades last weekend.  My batteries were in terrible need of a recharge born of whiskey, wine, pizza, some rocking music, and mostly some art.

The Eliasson has been making the rounds from SFMOMA to MoMA but the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was the first chance I had to actually see it.  And large chunks of what I knew about Eliasson almost made him sound like Christo, whose work I enjoy but don’t really remember.

This exhibit opens with a series of the most intricate spectrum paintings I’ve ever seen, “Your Eye Activity Field”, showing the 300 nanometers of the spectrum the eye can see, and it’s immediately followed by a long hallway lit in monochromatic yellow.  So it’s teasing you, showing all the colors you can see and then bleaching everything into a yellow that’ll drain the aesthetic appeal out of anything and everyone.  By the time you get out of the hallway, you’re so grateful to get your eyes back that you’re overjoyed to find… a wall fan hung from a cable in the middle of a room.

The fan’s swinging is entirely propelled by its blowing and it works as a prank but it also has some beauty to it, some swing.  You move from this to the bones of Eliasson’s work.  Wire models, photographs of nature.  And the photographs are in grids that almost but don’t quite tell a story.  A river runs through a row but it doesn’t quite match up.  A horizon shifts slightly.  All perception.  There’s a moss wall in this same section, growing and alive over the wires.

The light and the nature come up again in the second half of the exhibit, which has mirror tricks and an inverse disco ball (black matte glass facing out and light and mirror within so it projects these astonishing patterns on the floor directly underneath, not flung like coins of light over the room), and a kaleidoscope hallway (positioned as the opposite of the monochromatic hallway)  where you see visions of yourself in other colored mirrors until you stop and look directly at the wall and all you see are other people. 

The two pieces in this that bring everything home are A Room With All Colours and Beauty.  The former, a 360 degree space that travels across the color spectrum either by colors chasing across the wall or all shifting at once, in what Ken Hite dubbed “$12 Ecstasy”, you actually feel your heart rate slow or speed up and your brain chemistry turn over like an engine. when you get close enough it fills your field of vision.  But you need to come to it slowly, standing in the middle and getting the overall rhythm, watching it as a backdrop, then moving in.

And one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen is just called “Beauty”, a dark room with a man-made waterfall running over small jets of air that create sculptural illusions in the water, and two spotlights that make rainbows when the water flows a different way.  You feel the slightly-warm mist and you breathe in the humid air and you can’t see anything but the waterfall and maybe yourself.  I wanted to live in that room for a week or two.

Staggering out of this into the daylight we made our way to the Art Institute of Chicago and the beautiful new Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing.  Still the first museum I fell in love with, still repays that love in spades. 

This time there’s a new Cy Twombly show and I’ve always respected his work but I’ve never been the biggest fan, this blew me the hell away.   Some blurry photographs and the sculptures and paintings he drew from them, and it’s all nature work, Untitled (paintings and sculpture) is based on a garden with deceptively sloppily blended acrylic, wax crayon, pastels and wadded bits of paper that bring to mind the flowers you made in art class as a child.

But the pieces that really killed me are Gathering of Time and Untitled (Winter Pictures) which are beautiful giant seascapes with this crude dark energy right underneath the surface, and they’re juxtaposed so you can feel the heat and warmth breathing out of the canvases.  So glad I saw this. 

The rest of the trip was great, good friends, good music (Jack Oblivian was one of the best rock shows I saw all year), good food (Enoteca Roma made the best polenta I’ve ever eaten), and good whiskey (I discovered the reasonably priced but amazingly tasty and cinnamony Templeton Rye on this trip), but both those exhibits alone made this work going.  Well, plus seeing a smile on Anne’s face.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

All So Much Like Me – Eric Taylor, Red Door Tavern, 07/10/09

“Whether writing is knowing or whether it it singing, the love remains, the joy, the daring, the exaltedness when one approaches, at however far a remove, perfection.  Shake the greatest Art ever, and dross will come out.  But honest effort for its own sake is beauty.  If the writer is talented and lucky enough, then the result may be beautiful too.”
-William T. Vollman, “Writing”

Eric Taylor is the kind of artist who feels like he’s read every book and heard every songwriter worth hearing, and lived everywhere with this amazing storehouse of experiences, all of which he’s remembered perfectly.  And it doesn’t come off showy, he reaches through everything he’s built up and pulls out the perfect image, the decisive moment, le mot juste, and then he makes it rhyme.

Crammed in the back of a Grandview bar chasing red wine with Dewar’s on ice, he spun these monologues, with flexible rhythms and room for improvisation, that were fascinating in their own right, and you hit a point where you, the audience, are sure this doesn’t relate to any song, he’s just going off, but all of a sudden his perfect William Burroughs impression leads into “Whorehouse Mirrors and Pawnshop Knives” which he wrote based on his conversations with Burroughs, the story about a knife-thrower writing hearts on a bag with crayon then throwing knives into them because “He know that me and her.. .well, he knew,” turns into the version of “All So Much Like Me” that’ll make you give up making art forever or go right home and paint another canvas.  “Billy’s got a girl as cold a switchblade / She walks the wires at night / She was born and raised on a Carolina midway / And she likes my songs all right”.  The only time I’ve seen a singer-songwriter get a round of applause for the spoken word section of his set.

You’ll never see a better songwriter who has a more assured grasp on repetition.  His lyrics sound purely conversational, but its deceptive in its seeming simplicity, as in the perfect version of “Prison Movie” he introduced with the story that Johnny Cash told him he really liked it and he made the mistake of asking why.  “It’s got my name in it!”  The song rotates on the axis of memory, dream, and banal existence, and where most songwriters, a lesser talent would certainly place the dream in the chorus, with the lilting music, but Taylor has the chorus reinforce the daily life of the protagonist, “In a line / We all walk in a line”.  And it opens with memory, “You learn how to cry in the cradle / And you learn how to lie in jail” and slowly moves towards dream, where he’s sure he’ll be when he gets out but not sure at all, the dreams are impoverished, weak things, “I’ll steal my Mama’s station wagon / Fill it full of whiskey and gas / Drive on up to Macon / And sit in front of Rachel’s house” and even the delusions of grandeur don’t pay off, “They might write a book about me / I could sign a movie deal / And the lawyers can take all the money / Just as long as Johnny Cash plays me” and then it’s back to “In a line”.

If I see a more moving or enthralling performance this year, it will be a great year.  Which is saying something in a year that’s pretty great already, with Larkin Grimm and Sarah Borges and Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Leonard goddamn Cohen.  Thanks go as always to Chip Kobe and Bob Teague for brining this to town.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Deck of Masks, Three Takes on Where Theater is in Columbus – Love Stories and Negotiations, Raconteur Theater, 06/06/09; God’s Ear, Available Light, 06/11/09; Blackbird, Catco, 06/14/09

Sometimes it takes me a while to catch up with and take the temperature of a theater company, with Raconteur I’m sorry to say it had been an entire year, so last weekend I trekked out to see their one-year anniversary show.  I like the theory that you can pay for one half or the other of this series of one acts (7 in total), and I like the space above Club Diversity, where I hadn’t been in quite a while.

The show is basically a series of cute comedy skits and it feels like it’s not sharp enough as comedy and not thought-through enough as theater.  “Plugged In” by David Grant is basically a monologue that’s all reactions to outside forces, characters unseen and unheard-from, showing how a modern college student is distanced from the rest of his life with electronic gizmos while still being a college student who wants to get laid and milk his parents for the money he can and you expect it to build to a punchline or, well, something, and it never does.”Roger’s Beard” by Jimmy Mak is two people about to go on a date with the married couple they’re both sleeping with, and ends in a reversal that has you going “Huh?” more than anything else.  “Forever Again” is about trying to move past the mistakes you’ve made and embrace the love you’ve found, with the personification of the two wronged-lovers interrupting an important moment and muddying the action as it happens, the kind of thing theater does great… but you don’t feel like you know the motivations that well.  “His Return” is about the return of a soldier but from which war?  His uniform looks like World War I or II, the clothes are Victorian, he mentions “joining up with the Canadians” which sounds like Spanish Civil War, and the fact that I’m thinking about all of these things means the text didn’t engage me (though having seen the latest revival of Mourning Becomes Electra with Lili Taylor probably made me judge this a little harsher).

Also, while I realize this wasn’t written for Club Diversity, and there’s a great diversity of ages and races among the characters, every single relationship we see depicted is straight.  Who in the year 2009 trying to write about the perils and pitfalls of romance thinks in terms of it being solely heterosexual?  In seven pieces?  Maybe they didn’t get any gay-themed submissions, but it feels like laziness somewhere.

The acting’s quite good on average in all the pieces, especially Sam Blythe in two pieces, Jennifer Nitri in “Forever Again”, Elizabeth Huff-Williams and Robert Foor in “Fast, Light, and Brilliant”, Heather Fidler in “Rock-a-Bye Bullet”, Shantelle Marie in “Walking Distance”.  And the direction of the individual pieces have a surprising amount of grace and creativity with the paucity of things the actors have to actually do, especially “Forever Again” and “Fast, Light, and Brilliant”.  But the overall direction seems weirdly sloppy in sequencing the skits, and is plagued with   loud, obvious pop songs (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? “Find Me Somebody to Love”?).

But mostly you come out wondering what the point was besides having a night of theater for the sole purpose of having a night of theater.  I want to see something else they do, but hopefully with more thought to finding a script.

Available Light continues their trend of bringing emotionally and intellectually risky plays that no one else is bringing to Columbus and Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear is a home run, anchored by a heart-breaking performance by Michelle Schroder who spends most of the play trying to talk long-distance to her husband (Richard Furlong) who always seems like he’s on a plane to somewhere, could be Topeka or could be Purgatory. 

He’s collapsed in on himself after the death of their son by drowning, every person he meets also seems to have a dead son, the way when you have a “special circumstance”you suddenly see people with the same circumstance everywhere.  She’s coming undone and talking almost entirely in cliches, the ways you perceive the world that give soft comfort but don’t really say anything, they’re placeholders for content, and strung together, as in an amazing monologue, it’s like language is an ice-floe that’s cracking in the heat of her personality and the pieces are falling into the void of her mind, of the world.

By the time GI Joe and the Tooth Fairy have both shown up, the temptation would normally be to shout “Come on!” but it all feels like one mind busting open.  The feelings are an open wound and the surface is cracking day-glo, and it’s marvelous.  If you leave and you’re able to speak in sentences other than effusive fragments, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am, or you’re dead inside.

Catco this year had two plays I wanted to see, and didn’t make it to Sarah Ruhl’s the Clean House, but I made a point of getting out to see Blackbird.  the David Harrower play about the fallout of child abuse and the danger of trying to bury who you are.  It’s nice seeing this theater troupe do a piece on one set, with two actors, that’s all tension and ferocity.  The language, as everyone’s said, is derived from Pinter and Mamet, but it seems to be less interested in language as a tool to conceal and reveal the way those two writers are and more interested in the lies we tell about our past.

Anna Paniccia is terrific, stumbling over words and losing her nerve then exploding.  Jonathan Putnam is fantastic, every word and every nuance seems measured, like a man who’s been keeping everything about himself deep inside.  And the rhythms are perfect, especially culminating in the moment full of terrible ambiguity at the end.  But I don’t have much to say about this, it’s a good play, well-acted and well-directed.  It’s easy to see why Catco’s the gold standard for theater troupes in town, and it’s just as easy to see the joy of the risk=taking the smaller companies are doing.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sounds That Need an Audience – Amir-El Saffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble, Wexner Center; ? And the Mysterians with Vegas 66, Rumba Cafe; both 04/10/09

Some music you’re better served listening to you in your room.  The too-delicate pop of Ariel Pink, or the strange soft-focus songs of Blank Dogs who underwhelmed me at the Summit but whose records won’t let me be.  The more ambient side of noise and solo-electronics records that just lead to fidgeting and coughing in concert.

A lot of the jazz I first came to love was like that for me, and then I found the descendents of ‘60s free jazz and there was something for me in the ecstatic quality of feeling some thing with everyone else in the room, being uplifted and heartbroken en masse, with that physical intensity blended with the thought and concentration it takes a lifetime to get down. 

And Amir El-Saffar’s group was the kind of thing where you want to have the record to dig deeper into the compositions and the connective tissue, the fine details, but you want it after the show.  I have to confess, as we all have blind spots, of genre, style, and even instrument tonality, I’ve kind of had one against the alto saxophone, unless you’re Ornette Coleman or Anthony Braxton it’s a rare case that I don’t prefer the dark fire of the bari or the greasy snarl of the tenor.  But Rudresh Mahanthrappa comes closer to winning me over every time I hear him and never better than in the set I saw, where he coaxed a gospel purity and a vocal quality at the same time out of his horn, finding ways to dialogue with El-Saffar’s trumpet and santour was as beautiful sax playing as I can ever remember hearing.

And that’s no slight on the rest of the band.  Nasheet Waits is a force of nature and an orchestra all on his own, sculpting intros, cueing other players, guiding the shifting, undulating music through a series of very organically-linked parts until it ended up somewhere that felt both surprising and inevitable.  The upright bassist and percussionist, whose names I’m forgetting, both of whom soloed tastefully and fleshed out the overall feeling of the works, and Zaafir Tawil on oud, violin, and dumbek, whose music I last heard on the Rachel Getting Married score, plus of course the leader, creating a music seared in the heat of feeling but excavated from layers of knowledge and understanding.

After, all I really wanted to do was go home, it had been that kind of day and that kind of week and I knew nothing else would be as strong musically, but I was already promised to Rumba to see ? and the Mysterians, legends of a different stripe. 

First, a brief note on Vegas 66, they have chops for days and can play anything they feel like, and going back to Th’ Flyin’ Saucers you’d be hard pressed to find a better drummer than Rex, of any style.  And I understand, with genres like rockabilly, most of us were inspired to get into it by bands several generations down the line.  As well, when you’ve got a classic band playing, you want a suitably retro opener who isn’t too much like the headliner.

But when your roots-rock trio does three Stray Cats songs, two Reverend Horton Heat songs, “Summertime Blues” and “Play Something Else”?  Really?  All of it executed with note-perfection?  Exhausting.  Fun dance music robbed of its exuberance and chewed till it’s lost its flavor.  But the playing’s so good I’m curious what their own songs are like and odds are pretty good I’ll check them out at Ravari next weekend with my pals The Beatdowns opening, after the Dave Alvin show at the Maennerchor.

By the time ? and the Mysterians, featuring original members this time, not the usual well-rehearsed sideman ? picks to tour with him, hit the stage, the room was packed, shots were downed, and old friends had come out of the woodwork, and they didn’t disappoint.  Despite the super-modern digital keyboard, it pulled off the farfisa sound just fine, and “96 Tears” and its cousins sounded just as catchy and soulful as ever and the best of the surprises, a cover of James Brown’s “Try Me” that brought the goddamn house down.  Lord almighty.  I can’t wait to see them again at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans in a little more than  a week.

Lay Down Your Head - Scrambler/Seequil, The Abandoned House EP; Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone – Thin Air

In the last three or so years, the Brooklyn scene I associate with the Tea Lounge and Bar4 and Issue Project Room has taken a turn towards embracing song forms, especially the folk song, with improvisation and extended technique shot through its veins to mutate it into the latest breed of creature sharing lineage with everything from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s readings of “The Old Rugged Cross” to Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”.

Scrambler/Seequil, principally the work of guitarist Mike Gamble and vocalist-painter Devin Febboriello with assistance from Walker Adams (and, live, occasionally Ari Folman-Cohen and Conor Elmes) grew out of Gamble’s solo guitar and loops project Scrambler and this debut EP is evenly split between instrument tracks and those with vocals.  Forgive me, on my copy, the vocal tracks have names but the instrumentals do not. 

One of the great pleasures of The Abandoned House EP is that every time you’ve got it pegged it finds something else in the landscape to which it can draw your attention, without making you feel like you don’t know where you are anymore.  When “Rest For Now” kicks in with its playful taunting vocals, lilting finger-picked guitar and loping country rhythm, it’s easy to settle in for another record on the mainstream edge of freak-folk, but by the following instrumental track that rhythm reappears in a haze of reverb and these chopped cymbal sounds worthy of prime-era Squarepusher and you realize it’s a stranger bird flying around your house. 

Lyrics about the absence in our lives and the effort to build new experiences out of the building blocks of what we already knew delivered with a voice like old leather cured in bourbon and layers that eschew lo-fi for a series of shifting branches that let the light hit each step down in a different way until its dancing patterns can’t be ignored.  The record of a work-in-progress, sure, but watch out:  there’s something here that’s going to to be so dazzling when it blooms in full that you’ll be scrambling to figure out how it got there.

I remember the first time I saw Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone as a duo, at the ACME Art Company on one of the fantastic shows Gerard Cox books periodically in town and I was stunned by the sympathetic interplay and also by the bursts of aggression.  This was music that deserved to be heard loud and listened to intently at the same time.  I’d previously seen Halvorson melt faces with Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant and may have seen Pavone that same trip to NYC in a different group, but the potency of this duo was something else.  I’ve seen them a number of times since, together and apart, and I never fail to check in on what they’re up to.

Thin Air, their third album as a duo and first release on Thirsty Ear, drifts through similarly dream-tainted space as the Scrambler/Seequil record, but comes there from a place of having played together and worked with each other’s vocabulary for a long enough time the moves are more intuitive and the timing sharper.  The lyrics are almost always sung in unison, and often buried in instrumental harmonies so you have to strain and when you do catch them, it’s an under-layer of orange against the colors of blue and brown you already saw, it’s what’s darkening and deepening the tunes.  If you want to remind yourself what it feels like to hear a record and think you’re flying, Thin Air

The gap between expectation and reality – Continuous City, Wexner Center, April 17, 2009

I remember the moment when I felt like I had to redress the disparity of my friends.  For dozens of folks I would talk to for hours on line, by phone, by e-mail, those were hours I wasn’t meeting anyone, wasn’t even exposing myself to the chance to meet anyone outside.  But at the same time, most of those online friends are friends to this day, and seeing them a couple of times a year or every couple of years is a joy. 

So I don’t think there’s an easy answer to how readily we can be connected with technology but how that method of connection seems to hollow the connection out.  But that was my trouble with Continuous City, that it didn’t feel like it was trying to reconcile those two ideas at all.  Or making any commentary besides just stating those things over and over again.

All of the Builders Group pieces are beautiful, and this is no exception, the use of video for distance and time and the differing grain and visual quality to represent different kinds and levels of webcams, and there’s a moment with speed lines like a sunset and the same sentence in three different places at once that’s one of the purest, most beautiful pieces of theater magic I’ve ever seen.

But I wish it had been an installation.  The de rigeur new theater technique of addressing the audience as though we’re another person in the room, a group being presented to, is tossed off and the attempts to work in the city where the play is being performed felt tacked on to the rest of the action so it wasn’t bringing the theme closer to home so much as it was the equivalent of a rock start shouting, “Hello, Columbus!” or working Broad Street into a song lyric that used to be about Ventura Boulevard.

The text references Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and in the short descriptions and an amazingly sweet long-distance game of Marco Polo, it almost works but where Calvino can use a brief glimpse to show everything imbued with meaning and magic, the people in this aren’t only ciphers, they aren’t coherent enough to represent anything, they exist to say their lines. 

I’m glad I saw it, not unhappy about the ticket cost, and glad the Wexner Center continues co-sponsoring and and bringing things like this to town, but I left bored and surly, when previous productions by this company had me staring at the stars to confirm the world was still in its right place.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Waves of Nostalgia, Undertow Warning – Gaslight Anthem, Newport; Garotas Suecas, Rumba Cafe; 03/30/09

“Well it’s past quarter to three
And it’s past the midnight hour
Mustang Sally’s left the building
And we’re so much worse without her
If I could put down this old hammer
I’d take you somewhere new”
-Gaslight Anthem, “Casanova, Baby!”

I’ve said a million times that Gaslight Anthem reads on paper like a band I’d hate, from the pop-punk guitars so bright, clean and sharp you could shave with them to the cliché-riddled lyrics to the delivery that shifts from one influence to another as easily as if it was a G. Love and Special Sauce record… but the songs are so ingratiating, the hooks so big and swinging and they so adroitly walk the line between wistful and anthemic, between songs of death and desperation sung by what looks like the happiest guy on the planet, between the Saturday night at the party and Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week, that I was charmed when I saw them at Bernies and I’ve been charmed since.

And last night at the Newport, after a perfectly fine Heartless Bastards set - especially the steel-seared soaring title track from the new record, The Mountain – Gaslight Anthem walked onto a darkened stage before a damn-near-sold-out audience, and hit the first notes of “Great Expectations”… then lost the thread.

In their defense, sound was classically Newport-bad, within two songs shrieking feedback and completely dropped out vocals and a snare louder than everything else on the stage all made an appearance.  And maybe they were just overcompensating for that.  Maybe they’ve been on tour for a while and were worn out and drifting.  Maybe they choked on headlining this size of venue and suddenly being that band when a couple of months ago they were opening for We March at venues this size and a month or three before that they were playing rooms a quarter of its size or less (the aforementioned Bernies).

But regardless, everything came out in the same full-bore assault, a torrent of words and riffs and shout-along gang vocals that smoothed everything subtle or reflective out to one impenetrable surface.  I was surrounded by good friends to whom I’d, in many cases, talked this band up, and the room was packed with people raising cups and singing along, to a bunch of songs I’ve wanted to hear live since the last time I heard them live and I just couldn’t connect.  The guy who’d let the drummer ride the rockabilly swing a little longer, or bring a punk rock club down with “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” was there, but his persona had a face lift.  Orpheus got an image consultant.

But maybe it wasn’t cynical, maybe it was them giving a crowd what they think the newer, bigger crowd needs and trying to be all things to all rock and roll kids.  And the packed pit crowd, shouting along and eating it all up, didn’t seem to mind.  But I couldn’t help but thinking those crazed joy-junkies were singing along to the version of the band in their hearts and minds and not the version on stage.

Needing to believe in rock and roll again, I bummed a ride and made my way to Rumba for Garotas Suecas (Swedish girls), the Brazilian band in the US for SXSW touring behind one 7” and some T-shirts, and heart and balls to spare.  Brazil has a particularly rich tradition of taking outside tradition, breathing new life into its lungs and showing it off richer, stronger, and recognizable but also recognizably new, from Villalobos to Jobim to Gil to Tom Ze to tropicalia to baile funk.  And this tradition carried on through Garotas Secuas (Swedish Girls) who hit the stage with two guitars, bass, drums, keys, and a frontman who took Otis Redding and James Chance and Greg Cartwright and turned the voltage up too high until Frankenstein’s stitches melted, such a perfect amalgam it didn’t feel like an amalgam at all.

They played to the faithful on a Monday night in a tiny club and if there were 60 people there, 50 of us were dancing, completely lost in the perfect craft of the acid fried songs and the grooves you had to trust your body to follow, give yourself over to or get lost in more than one sense.  By the walk home every bone in my body was sore and I wanted to hug anyone I saw and shout, “Did you see this?  You need to see this!”  First quarter over, already great as showgoing goes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saturday Night Desire Comes in All Shades – Larkin Grimm at Cafe Bourbon Street, 02/07/09

“Pouring on the garbage and it’s filling up my car
My suffering is meaningless and sticking like the tar
That smothers all grass and lets me drive it to the bar"
And if you want to handle me, just tell me who you are”
-Larkin Grimm, “Dominican Rum”

The weather finally broke and broke so hard it felt like I was some kind of desperate explorer staggering over the cracking ice-skin of the world and just trying to keep my footing Saturday night.  But I might have been staggered in other ways, when I think about it.

First to Ruby Tuesday for the second night of the Lost Weekend 6th Anniversary weekend, after last night’s terrific sets by Night Family and Sandwich, caught the frontman of Moon High doing a solo set that was beautiful.  Maybe colored by news of her death, but he carried the sense of a Blossom Dearie or Peggy Lee in his restrained, smoky delivery. 

The Beatdowns did one of the best sets I’ve seen them break out in a while, 10 songs, one cover, no fat.  In an era where we’re choked with bands regurgitating past trends and genres without any away-from-the-scene conceptualization or care, Matt Benz’s songwriting has taken up Ray Davies gauntlet and grafted heavy emotional content and the weight of his experience to the music of his childhood.  That he does this without the songs getting too weighty or didactic is a testament to the songs and the band.  They can be inconsistent, but it’s a beautiful thing when it’s working and it was working Saturday night.

After that, trekked north to see Larkin Grimm at Cafe Bourbon Street.  Her new record, Parplar, is probably my favorite thing out of the Young God stable since the last Angels of Light record and she stopped in Columbus en route to Knoxville’s Big Ears festival.  Through a dismal, largely indifferent turn-out, she and her three band members wrung some beauty out of what was basically a public rehearsal.

And good lord, what a band.  Elizabeth Deviln, used her voice for percussion and high-pitched hillbilly shape-note singing, and her autoharp for chiming, mandolin-like runs and percussive thickening behind Grimm’s sweet snarl and guitar.  John Houx getting both pizzicato string-section stabs and low-end dulcimer-like plucking recalling Joni Mitchell’s playing on Blue, and bringing a whole drum choir out of a tiny hand-held tambourine, his leg, and a microphone, knowing exactly when he needed to be a conguero and when he was manning tympani.  And the violinist introduced as “Sha-nay-nay”, painting backgrounds out of razor-blades and orchids, somewhere between Henry Flynt and Jessica Pavone.

But as with anything, the best band in the world doesn’t matter without the songs behind it, and Grimm’s songs are a wonder.  In form, they can conjure Kurt Weill and Indonesian gamelan and echo through Hazel Dickens and Nina Simone but the singularity of the vision and the intensely individual quality never wavers.  The songs are full of a mystery that teeters on the precipice of anticipation and dread, never quite knowing where they’ll land when they inevitably fall. 

At the same, time, there’s that sense of being in love with the falling, with the tragedy.  Embracing everything that matters, spiritual and sensual, while watching the world crumble around you.  When she sings, on “Blond and Golden Johns”, “This mouth has wrapped around some things / More delicious than the songs I sing”, followed with  a sigh and a hum, it’s boastful as much as or more than seductive, you know exactly who’s in charge, and she doesn’t ever let you think she needs you for anything.  The perfect show for a night when the climate shifts suddenly and it looks like everything’s falling apart.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Cry of Dreams – Antony and the Johnsons, The Southern Theater, 02/04/09

“I wonder, in all of science fiction, if there have been
two universes this discordant, or what it means
that there can be a suffering so intense its balance only
exists somewhere in the next life.”
-Albert Goldbarth, “The Elements”

No, I didn’t go to the Antony show in 2002.  At the time I’d heard that record but thought it was a novelty, it didn’t click for me until the second album but that, and the new one The Crying Light, are both wonders.  So even though he’s playing in NY at Town Hall while we’re there, I wanted to see him at the Southern and support something like this coming to Columbus in the first place.

Matthea Baim opened on electric guitar and her voice and guitar, including loops and delay, set up a low key expanse of silence and expectation, the rhythms yawned wide and stretched, and I didn’t leave struck by any of the songs specifically but I also left intrigued to hear more of her.

Antony came out on piano and vocals, backed by Julia Kent on cello, Maxie Moston on violin (who I last saw playing with Baby Dee at the Knitting Factory last fall), Rob Moose on violin, acoustic guitar and vocals,  Parker Kindred on drums and vocals, Jeff Langston on bass, and Doug Wieselman on reeds and electric guitar.

The arrangements and orchestrations on record, many done by Nico Muhly and Moston, sculpt landscapes and cityscapes out of ice and spun sugar so the songs are light filtering through them, the arrangements sometimes work as a lens and aperture, changing the granulation and field of vision of the writing.  In this smallish group, every move had a chamber music purpose, the two violins dueling like two guitars, or one setting up the line while the other scraped dark maroon and brown behind the lit main imagine, like a Rembrandt painting or a Hogarth etching. 

The text matters, matters deeply, if you don’t believe in the desire to carve someone’s name on the back of the sun or a boy shedding his self like a chrysalis and becoming a girl, then not only am I sorry for you, but the songs just won’t work.  At the same time, it’s a mistake to confuse his keening, swirling vibrato and octave jumps for sadness, the cry in his voice gathers people like the preacher on the mount and as it acknowledges the way the world will fail you and betray you it reaches for the sky because things can be different and better, even if it’s only inside ourselves.

I had chills and gooseflesh all over and found myself in tears during “The Crying Light” and wanted to dance the Slim Harpo hipshake during “Shake that Devil” replete with vintage jukejoint shout-vocals and a sax solo worthy of the late Lee Allen or David “Fathead” Newman.  And the cover of “Crazy in Love” may have been the best cover of anything I’ve ever heard.  If there’s a better show this year, it will have been a great year.  And with Chuck Prophet, last night’s Larkin Grimm, and some top-notch local sets by El Jesus, The Beatdowns, Night Family, and Sandwich, the year’s already shaping up to be aces.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Favorite Live Shows 2008

"I bought a whiskey for the gypsy
And she turned my leather back into skin
Just a fleeting sense of that rare suspense
I once thought made the world go 'round
But now there's no one to talk to
When the lines go down"
-James McMurtry, "Hurricane Party"

So yeah, like everybody else, I'm trying to blog somewhere that's not Livejournal. Also, since this is standalone and not principally social networking, my hope is that it'll force me to write more often and more substantially.

So if you don't know me, welcome, if you know me, welcome back. This'll be basically about what I'm experiencing culturally, mainly but not limited to the Columbus area. A possible detour or two into what my friends are doing but I can't imagine anyone not me would really be that interested. Not that they're much more interested in what I thought of a concert/movie/etc, but if nothing else, it helps me remember.

Last year was the first year I've felt like I missed more concerts than I went to but even so I had a hard time narrowing this down to 15 and there were definitely shows that in any other year probably would've made a top 10 list (Supersuckers at Ravari, Fleshtones at Bourbon Street, Chris Thile at the Southern, Zakir Hussain at the Southern, David Torn and Tim Berne at the Wexner Center, Gaslight Anthem at Bernie's, Robert Forster at the Wexner Center). Anything you think I'm wrong on or if there's a show I should be kicking myself for missing, leave a comment (already kicking myself about, so you'd just be throwing salt in the wound: Nalle at Skylab, Nelson Slater at Skylab, The Cute Lepers at Bernies, The Black Hollies at Carabar, and both times the Golden Boys played in town).

Without futher ado, my favorite 15 live shows of 2008. Venue is here in Columbus Ohio unless stated otherwise.

1) The Pogues, Roseland Ballroom, Manhattan - A band that first set my hair on fire when Tun Kai Poh loaned me a Best Of while I was in high school but I never thought I'd get to see them live with Shane Macgowan fronting them. And not only did I get my chance after the last few years of reunions not syncing with my ability to get to the East Coast, they were better than I ever hoped they'd be. With Macgowan in strong voice and the band playing with an energy that would make most bands half their age green. Reveling in those songs and just being together, while a crowd mirrored that, people moshing one row away from people making out. Perfect.

2) Jimmy Scott, The Iridium, Manhattan-Much the same, I remember when I first heard Jimmy Scott on Lou Reed's Magic and Loss and the next weekend went to Singing Dog and bought that compilation with "Everybody's Somebody's Fool". I'd never heard anything so ethereal and potent at the same time, with the clean enunciation of Sarah Vaughan and, later, the raspy emphasis of Ray Charles (who produced my favorite Scott record, Love is a Wonderful Thing). And there he was, in a wheelchair with a five-piece relatively anonymous but perfectly adequate and charming behind him, singing "I"m Afraid this Masquerade is Over" with so much force and heat my bourbon aged in the glass. I'd tell you I didn't cry but I'd be lying.

3) Terrastock, Mellwood Arts Center, Louisville - Fou nights of psychedelia in a broad sense but even more than that, all the acts at this festival - the first I'd ever made it to - were creating a personal language out of their grappling with tradition. The tradition of Celtic and Scottish balladry in the case of Sharron Krauss and United Bible Studies, with Krauss sounding the way I always wished Lorena McKennitt did rich and warm and dark and UBS not only joining her for a righteous stomp through her song about mid-Summer but doing a set of thier own that was all mystery and fog and beautiful misdirection. Motorpsycho, I wish would've done a little more of their three-minute Husker Du-ish material amidst the jams, but when the jams are that righteous, who really cares? MV and EE and band taking Neil Young's lead and drip-painting with the raw sonic material, with a rhythm section including the godlike Tim Barnes on drums and a bass player with a tone so rich and distorted it sounded like the tuba in Louis Armstong's Hot Sevens. Weather threatened but never got terrible, the food was good, I got to see Clayton Oliver who I hadn't seen in years, and hang out with some Columbusites I like a lot but that ol' debbil shyness always kept me from really getting to know, a perfect weekend.

4) Jandek, Wexner Center - Friends I talked to after this were to varying degrees annoyed by how little vocal presence there was in this show, with at least one suggesting he was phoning it in to make for easier touring since his bands are always pick up bands. And I think that's a fair accusation, but the songs he did, a linked suite it seemed, were more spacious by their nature. Words bob up and reveal themselves and then disappear in the storm. I thought it was gorgeous, and there couldn't have been a better band for him, with Ryan Jewell on drums and percussion, C. Spencer Yeh on violin and vocals, and Derek Dicenzo on bass. For the hour and a half they were on stage I was somewhere else but also couldn't take my eyes off Jandek.

5) Wiley and the Checkmates, Ravari Room- God bless Funkdefy. Since transitioning from their already great DJ nights to booking shows, they've brought in at least one of my shows of the year every year, usually more. And this, with the great Herbert Wiley backed by as good a band as you'll see everywhere of any genre, tearing through a set from the new record they've done together, his '60s classics, and covers of his contemporaries like Joe Tex and Clarence Carter, including a blistering 10-minute Bo Diddley medley? I don't know anyone there who wasn't losing his or her mind and dancing the whole time.

6) The Dirtbombs, The Basement - One of my favorite rock bands today who had a big year, at the end of a leg of another long tour, coming out and kicking into "Wreck My Flow" off the new record until by the end long free-jazz vamps turned into INXS covers, the opening bands had joined them on stage, and one of the drummers had drug part of a kid into the mosh pit and was hanging from the rafter, keeping time on a cymbal in the middle of the floor? Sweat-soaked and righteous, full of the past but unmistakable.

7) Lewis and Clarke with Jerry Decicca, Surly Girl Saloon - One of the best solo sets I've ever seen Decicca do, followed by a band with members of Rachel's and Man Man playing delicate folk that wasn't shy, keening strings and spacious piano, a drummer playing banjo and beautiful, honey-dark songs.

8) D. Charles Speer and the Helix, Surly Girl Saloon - Speer made one of my favorite records of last year (and what would it take to get his main gig, the No Neck Blues Band, to town?) and his band took what could've been great straightforward baritone-voiced Kris Kristofferson poetic country and opening it up to include a piano player with hints of Art Tatum and Monk in his comping and solos, a guitarist and steel player who understands warm ambience and also played some leads that reminded me of Jerry Garcia in the early '70s, and a boiling rhythm section.

9) Gnarls Barkley, The Newport- THere's no songwriter or frontman I love more than Cee-Lo, and I liked the Gnarls Barkley records, especially the second one, but I wondered how it would work live. Two drummers, two players alternating between organ and guitar, an upright bassist, Dangermouse on everything else, and Cee-Lo taking everybody to church. The songs were recognizable but transformed, exactly what you want a big pop show to do.

10) Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, The Summit - I wish more than 15 people had come to this, but trust me, when the record comes out on Lost Highway produced by the guy from Spoon, you won't forget this voice. Neo-soul with a garage scrappiness that most bands are a little too reverent to pull off. Amazing Don Covay songs and originals, a horn section that wasn't too seamless and a drummer that knows you know more than one kinda dance. Fire.

11) Baby Dee, The Knitting Factory, Manhattan - Baby Dee was great with her full band playing with the Black Swans at Rumba Cafe here in Columbus in March, but this show with her playing piano and harp and accompanied only by a violinist in a small room, produced these hymns of sadness and the joy of discovery. Hearing her sing "Just because I can't have you / Doesn't mean that I won't love you just the same" might have been the most haunting thing I heard all year.

12) Gal Costa, The Blue Note, Manhattan - One of the great Brazillian singer-songwriters of the Tropicalia era and beyond, accompanied only by Romero Lumbambo on nylon string guitar was so phenomenal it overpowered the worst club I've ever been to, swinging and doleful, perfectly simpatico.

13) Raphael Saadiq, SOBs, Manhattan - This year Saadiq found something perfecty fresh and of the momet from a deep devotion to the soul of his childhood, and he executed it so beautifull with his five-piece band and two backup singers in NY that it proved how much his earlier work, with Tony Toni Tone and Lucy Pearl ("Dance Tonight" was a set highlight) was of a piece with and leading up to what he's doing right now.

14) Donewaiting 5th Anniversary Show, Skully's/Carabar - As with anyhting that's a good cross-section of Columbus' music scene, there was as much stuff I didn't like (Miranda Sound) as stuff I did, but what was great was way, way beyond great. Deathly Fighter's narcotic live dubstep and Sinkane's post-Mwandishi pop backed by Slide Machine at Carabar, Blueprint backed by Brainbow and Bob Starker at Skully's making music full of strong rap and real rock that wasn't anything like rap-rock, and Mike Shiflet backed by members of Lambsbread, Scenic Railroads, Moviola and Black Canary doing perfectly subtle soundscapes that filled the room, built on Reich-like cells of melodic invention.

15) Polwechsel, Issue Project Room, Brooklyn- A quartet straddlng composition and improvisation but not in the way you'd expect unless you've been following their evolution. Focused so deeply on the gesture that their abstraction feels like the fractal freezing of nature and the soul-fields of Rothko and the wash of streetlights. I don't know how to describe it, I'm not sure I understand it, but I don't think any other music would take me to this place.