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.