My self-curated guitar festival with Aram Bajakian, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot and Stephen Ulrich

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks here in Concertville, having attended eleven sets of live music in the twelve days after I wrote my last blog post. (Edit: And I’ve attended four more concerts since I wrote that sentence because I haven’t found the time to finish this blog post all week!) I realized partway through that eleven-set run that I was in the middle of an inadvertent celebration of all things guitar, with several of my favorite guitarists playing multiple shows all in a row.

The main event was Aram Bajakian’s residency at the Stone. I only made it to seven sets (going to the Stone is a lot harder when the MTA does late-night construction on your concert commute, grrr!) but I heard some wonderful music along the way. I have a hard time narrowing it down to favorites, since the music was so diverse that it’s hard to compare one set to the next; but I think my top three were Dálava; music inspired by “The Color of Pomegranates,” and his duo set with Alan Semerdjian.

Aram did two sets of Dálava during his residency, one with a full band and one as a guitar/vocal duet. I saw the one with a full band, which was Aram Bajakian on guitar; Julia Ulehla doing vocals; Tom Swafford and Jake Shulman Ment playing violins; Frank London on trumpet; Shanir Blumenkranz on bass; and Ted Reichman on accordion. (It was funny since I’d had a fairly random interaction with someone the previous night on the subway, and said something about there not being enough good music written for accordions. And the very next night: great music with an accordion! Wish: granted.) I’d seen Dálava’s New York premiere a few months ago, and although I enjoyed that first show, I thought this set at the Stone was by far the better of the two. The attentive, appreciative audience at the Stone and the intimate space makes everything better, and I think the band was just feeling it more this time. The music is an unusual blend of old Eastern European folk music and modern downtown New York sensibility. Very interesting stuff. (Check it out here.)

The duo set with Alan Semerdjian was really very special; Alan would recite poems (written by him as well as some poems by Armenian writers, translated into English, in tribute to the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide) while Aram played music to underscore and illustrate the texts. The poetry was excellent and thought-provoking, and the solo guitar accompaniment was beautiful. I would love to hear more of this collaboration, it really worked well and was an emotionally powerful experience.
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Recent concert highlights: Erik Friedlander, Trevor Dunn’s PROOFReaders, Marc Ribot, Sean Rowe, and Zion80

I’ve had a light three weeks of concerts (well, light for me) between two head colds, a sinus infection and a round of antibiotics – yuck! Hopefully now that summer has arrived a couple of months early, the cold and flu season is over. I did manage to push through and get to a handful of shows, though I didn’t feel well enough to write about them until this week.

Erik Friedlander‘s solo set at Dixon Place, premiering his new album “Illuminations,” was a real treat. The new album is a must-hear – I’ve really been enjoying it (you can listen and buy it by clicking here). It reminds me a little of “Volac,” the album he did for John Zorn’s Book of Angels series, but with a bit more of a classical sound. I hadn’t been to Dixon Place before and it was an excellent place to see a very focused and intense solo set, with no distracting noise from the street or a bar. It was a beautiful concert, and I was happy to bring home the new CD afterwards for some extended listening sessions.

Here’s a piece from “Illuminations” that he performed in Krakow:

The same night, and with a slightly overlapping set time, was Trevor Dunn’s band PROOFReaders, with Dunn on upright bass, Darius Jones on saxophone, Nate Wooley on trumpet and Ryan Sawyer on drums. Luckily this show was just a few blocks from Dixon Place at the Skinny, so we were able to scoot over there and only miss a little bit of the beginning of the show. They played a double set of Ornette Coleman tunes, so we definitely got our money’s worth even though we were late (not always a sure thing these days with lots of sub-60-minute sets happening in avant-garde/jazz venues). It was a great opportunity to relax on some comfy couches and take in some high-quality acoustic jazz performed by very talented musicians. What more can a jazz fan ask for?

I don’t think the PROOFReaders have any recordings or videos available to share, but I will definitely go see them again if I get the chance.
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A pair of musical surprises: Jolie Holland at Bar LunÀtico & Dresden Dolls at Rough Trade

Part of the reason I’m such an enthusiast for live music is that the experience is always unique and, to some extent, unpredictable. Case in point: I’d had my concert calendar laid out for April since the first week of the month, but this week I ended up ditching my plans a couple of times for last-minute surprise concerts. One was announced just hours before the show, one was announced a few days in advance. Luckily, since I am a person who is relatively unattached to other people’s schedules, I was able to drop my plans and make it to both events. There was some kind of synchronicity at work, with two of my favorite female vocalists/songwriters announcing last-minute shows in Brooklyn two days apart; but the shows were pretty drastically different.

The first one was a Record Store Day concert kicking off the Dresden Dolls‘ release of the Virginia Monologues, a vinyl collection of their two albums Yes, Virginia and No, Virginia. They did a free concert at the Rough Trade record store in Williamsburg, which I think has a capacity around 250 in the venue attached to the store. It was the first time I’d been there when the balcony was open, so I took the opportunity to nab a spot up there – it was an unusually hot day and the GA floor area was unpleasant, temperature-wise, so I was hoping the balcony would have a bit more airflow (it didn’t, but I had a nice view, so that was OK).

The Dresden Dolls have been on hiatus for a while – I actually happened to catch their last performance, which was just a couple of songs at a benefit show in the Boston metro area in 2013. I’d enjoyed those two songs a lot so I figured it would be worth trekking out to Brooklyn early to check out a full set from them. Unfortunately the L train wasn’t running between Manhattan and Williamsburg on Record Store Day because the MTA hates us, so it took me close to two torturous hours to get there, including multiple trains, walking, and an illegal Uber street pick-up when I got desperate. I narrowly avoided taking the G train for the first time ever. But I got there, and I got in, and the awesome bartender gave me a free ice-cold non-alcoholic beverage, so it was all good.

They came out pretty darn close to on-time (which was impressive and greatly appreciated as I was dripping sweat before the show even started – damn, Rough Trade, do you not have air conditioning??) and as expected, the show was intense. I have a bit of a weakness for melodramatic/cabaret type rock music, and the Dresden Dolls are pretty much the epitome of that. The whole set was good, but most of my favorites were towards the end – “Half Jack,” a cover of “War Pigs,” “Sing” and the explosive encore, “Girl Anachronism.” When I wasn’t watching the stage, I was enjoying watching the crowd up front – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an audience enjoying themselves that much at a show! Dancing, singing, smiling. The joy on their faces was visible all the way up in the balcony.
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Early April Concert Highlights: Doug Wieselman; Jolie Holland; Nels Cline Singers w/Jeff Parker

As usual, I’ve been seeing too many concerts to review, but I thought I’d take a night off and cover a few highlights of the last couple of weeks – just pulling out my very favorite performances among the ten or so bands/performers I’ve seen.

The first really great set I saw in April was Doug Wieselman‘s solo performance at a house concert. I think he performed music exclusively from his recent album, From Water, which features pieces he wrote after being inspired by specific bodies of water. Some have obvious inspirations like “Pacific 1″ and “Pacific 2,” and some had more involved explanations – like “Train” which was inspired by the train that goes along the Hudson River (which is the one I take to my parents’ house, so I know it well – it’s beautiful) and even as far afield as “Kepler-22b,” which is an exoplanet that astronomers believe has a lot of water on it. Mr. Wieselman performed on solo clarinet and some electronics/pedals.

I found this music to be particularly enjoyable in such an intimate and friendly setting. It was so easy to fully focus on and lose yourself in the sound. I’ve seen him play a few times before, but this set felt really special.

Later that week I went with a friend to see Jolie Holland. Kind of a nice musical segue, because although these two concerts could hardly be more different, Doug Wieselman played a lot on her most recent album, Wine Dark Sea. And the lion’s share of her setlist was from that album, including one of my favorites, “Saint Dymphna.”

For this particular live set, she had an unusual lineup featuring three electric guitars and no other instruments (although one guitarist swapped out his guitar for a harmonium on a couple of songs). Electric guitars are one of my favorite instruments, so I thought it made for a pretty fun band. It was a short-ish set, but the setlist was very well-chosen and included a new song that I really liked. After hearing it, I’m already looking forward to the next album! (She tends to go a few years between albums, but hopefully I don’t have to wait TOO long for it.)

Edit for a late addition: My friend Mike W. sent me this great pic he took at the Jolie Holland concert from our vantagepoint at the corner of the stage:
Jolie Holland at the Bowery Ballroom

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Last week’s concerts: Mat Maneri, Lucien Ban, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Banquet of the Spirits, Marc Ribot, Emeline Michel, and last but not least, Sex Mob

…in that order! I had a pretty busy week, including checking out four new-to-me music venues in four days. It’s amazing how many different venues there are in New York – I’ve gone to 200+ concerts in this town and there’s still so many places I haven’t been. (I just checked my list, I’ve been to 18 different venues since January 1st this year.)

The first concert of the week was a last-minute decision after being sick in bed for a couple of days. I made a swift recovery on the last day and decided I was OK to go downtown to the Cornelia Street Cafe to see Mat Maneri and Lucien Ban‘s new quintet. Unfortunately, since it was last minute, the early set was already sold out… but I decided to hang out and see if I could get in on the waitlist. Concert karma won out and I ended up being the last audience member allowed in, and yet somehow got a second row table. Score!

I stayed for both sets and really enjoyed it. It’s a somewhat unusual mix of instruments – Lucien Ban on piano, Randy Peterson on drums, Tony Malaby on saxophone, Bob Stewart on tuba, and Mat Maneri on viola – but it worked really well. It’s hard to even pick favorites among the band – they were all so good.

This video is a duet and not the same quintet we saw live, but perhaps it will give you an idea of the sort of music that Mr. Ban and Mr. Maneri come up with together:

(OK, that sounds so nice that I just opened a tab in my browser and bought the album from Amazon MP3 so I can listen to it while I’m writing the rest of this article. I love the 21st century sometimes!)

The second concert of the week was Tuesday evening at the Jazz Standard: Rudresh Mahanthappa‘s quintet playing “Bird Calls”. Believe it or not, this was my first visit to the Jazz Standard! I liked it a lot more than I thought I would – in my imagination, every jazz venue with table seating is overcrowded and annoying, and every jazz venue that serves food is terrible and overpriced. Happily, this venue turned out to be an exception to the rule, and we had a really nice time. I look forward to seeing more shows there.

Venue aside, the concert itself was also very enjoyable – we’d seen (and liked) this band at Winter Jazzfest, but in this more relaxed and intimate venue, with better sound quality, it felt like a whole different ball game. As you may guess from the title, “Bird Calls” is heavily influenced and inspired by the music of Charlie Parker. (If you want to read about the album in-depth, check out this great article from All About Jazz.) Mr. Mahanthappa’s saxophone was clearly the star of the show, although he was supported by an excellent band. He made the intricate melodies and ideas seem effortless, and as the show went on, it just got better and better. Check out one of the tracks from “Bird Calls” here:

The next night was a show I’d been particularly looking forward to: Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Another new-to-me venue, it is a pretty nice place to see a show and gets a lot of bonus points for being walkable from my apartment. Double bonus points: it was a free concert. (NB: you need to RSVP in advance for their free shows, so make sure you reserve a spot early.)
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