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.