Concert Review: Sean Rowe, The Handsome Family (6/20/2013)

I went to Passim’s in Harvard Square last week to see Sean Rowe and the Handsome Family. I have seen Sean Rowe a couple of times before but the Handsome Family was new to me – I was looking forward to hearing them for the first time because some friends of mine really like them (and I always listen to my friends!).

Passim’s is a solid place to see a show – it’s a small, fairly crowded seated venue that serves food and drinks to your table. I wish they would serve drinks cold (nothing quite like an 80-degree glass of white wine on a warm summer day!), but otherwise I have no major complaints. It’s on my “happy to see a show here” list of venues.

Sean Rowe was the opening act, and as usual he put on an excellent solo set for us. He did songs from both of his albums (“Magic” and “The Salesman and the Shark”) as well as some newer material, including one he told us he had just written in the last week or two. He also did a great cover of the classic Spoonful, which I caught on film an SD card:

Mr. Rowe has got tour dates scheduled in the US and Europe, you can check out his schedule by clicking here. You should try to catch him before he starts playing bigger venues!

The Handsome Family were the main act and they put on a great show, too. They were quirky – eccentric, even – and I think Brett Sparks and Sean Rowe are destined to star in a reality TV show on Discovery Channel which will inevitably be called (more…)

Concert Review (sort of): Sam Amidon (6/19/2013)

I’ve been putting off writing this review for days now, because I’m pretty confused about how to write it and what to say. It would have been a rant if I wrote it right away, so I gave myself a few days. It might be a rant anyway. Sorry.

I went to see Sam Amidon at a club here in Cambridge called T.T. the Bear’s Place. T.T.’s is both upstairs and next door to another music venue called the Middle East. They’re both well known on the local rock scene. They are both kind of divey, but in a way that many locals are fond of. I’ve seen good and bad shows at both of them.

The problem is that sometimes the Middle East likes to turn the volume up too high. And when I say “too high,” I mean loud enough that it is literally shaking the venue next door. We were all at T.T.’s eagerly awaiting an acoustic-guitar-playing singer/songwriter opening act (Alessi’s Ark, according to the website – I couldn’t hear her well enough to catch her name during the show). When the band downstairs started playing, it shook the floor so much that everyone around me got startled, looked around, looked at the floor, etc. because it was honestly alarming to have the building shake like that for no apparent reason. It quickly became obvious that it was due to the venue downstairs (the Middle East) turning their sound system up as far as it would go.

This music bleeding in from downstairs was so loud and distracting that it made it genuinely difficult to listen to and appreciate the concert we were trying to experience, and I’m guessing it made it even more difficult to play. Can you imagine being a drummer trying to keep your own beat while the band downstairs is shaking the room to an entirely different rhythm? How obnoxious that must have been. I really felt embarrassed for the Cambridge music scene. If I were them I would (more…)

Concert Review: Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Shahzad Ismaily, Marc Ribot (NYC, 6/11/2013)

Tuesday night found me in the same place as Monday night: in line outside Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, with some friends, hoping to get into the front row of a concert with a particularly unbelievable lineup. Guitar geeks around the world had been drooling over this one, an improvisational trio of world-famous guitarists, along with Shahzad Ismaily on drums (presumably he was brought in to keep the guitar players from getting out of hand ;)). All three of the guitarists – Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and Marc Ribot – are superstar performers in their own right, and this was, as far as I know, the first time they’ve ever appeared on stage together. Unsurprisingly, I recognized a number of guitarists (and some other musicians) in the audience. It was just that kind of show.

In the weeks coming up to the show, I was seeing a lot of comments from people along the lines of “Those three guitarists are awesome! And I’m sure whoever that other guy is will be good too.” And that’s a shame, because Shahzad Ismaily is awesome. I started paying attention to him a few years back when someone had asked me for a top five albums of the year list, and I realized that he was a major player on three of my top five – and they were all completely different genres of music. I really wish he had a website where I could see when he is playing concerts and stuff (hint hint!).

I feel like I don’t really have to introduce the guitarists, but sometimes my mom reads my blog (Hi Mom!) and she probably doesn’t know who Nels Cline is, so I’ll give a brief overview of them. Marc Ribot – my favorite – plays a very wide variety of genres, has something like twenty albums released under his own name and has contributed to countless other people’s albums, including Tom Waits, John Zorn, Joe Henry, Elvis Costello, John Lurie, Jolie Holland, and even Elton John. Nels Cline is currently best-known for his membership in Wilco, one of the biggest indie bands around, and he also leads his own projects, including the Nels Cline Singers and the Nels Cline Trio. Bill Frisell is – geez, the bio on his website is about 7000 words long, it’s hard to summarize this guy! Like Ribot, he’s played in extremely diverse genres, he’s got a huge roster of collaborators and a long list of his own bands and releases.

Photo by Petra Cvelbar
(Photo by Petra Cvelbar – check out more of her photos at her photo blog!)

They played two sets, and did a variety of duos and trios – each set had an all-guitar trio, and at various points in the evening all of the guitarists did duets (Ribot/Frisell, Cline/Frisell, Cline/Ribot). I think Shahzad Ismaily only joined in for pieces with the full quartet, but I may be misremembering something (I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, which is never good for remembering gig details later!). The entire night with the exception of one song (as far as I could tell) was improv. The non-improv piece was a song with Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, introduced by Marc Ribot muttering something about how “Frisell is making me sing.” I have a video of (more…)

Concert Review: Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, Edmar Castaneda (NYC, 6/10/2013)

On Monday I went to the second concert of my four-day NYC vacation: Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street. The first time I ever saw that band was at the very same venue in 2009, and to this day it stands as one of the most fun concerts I have ever been to, so I was very much looking forward to a repeat performance. Every time I’ve seen them, the band has had a different line-up – this time we had a fairly pared-down version: Marc Ribot on guitar; Anthony Coleman on keyboard; EJ Rodriguez on percussion; Brad Jones on bass; and Cougar Estrada on drums.

The Cubanos Postizos are sort of a genre unto themselves – I guess I’d have to call it Cuban jazz put in a blender with punk, a dance party, and that distinctive Ribot guitar flavor. What comes out of that blender is an awful lot of fun. Happily, Le Poisson Rouge removed all the tables and chairs from the main floor to make room for those of us who wanted to do some dancing – I’ve seen the Cubanos at a nice, seated venue and it just doesn’t feel right…

Mr. Ribot started the evening with a bang, saying: “You may have noticed something: there’s no chairs! There’s no tables! SO YOU BETTER DANCE!” Then he let out a wordless shout (out of sheer enthusiasm, from the sound of it) and launched into the fast-paced and light-hearted Los Teenagers Bailan Changui from the Cubanos’ debut eponymous record. After treating us to 15-20 minutes of fast music to get our feet moving, they shifted down a gear and played a more slow-burning song, Fiesta en el Solar, from the same debut record, and then Dame un Cachito Pa’Huele from their followup album, “Muy Divertido!” After a few more dance-friendly tunes, they moved into one of my very favorites: Aurora en Pekin. The studio version of that is not just one of my favorite Cubanos tunes, or one of my favorite Ribot pieces, but really one of my favorite all-time pieces of music ever. Pure perfection. Naturally, when I realized they were playing it, I filmed it, and since I had gotten there really early, waited in line in the pouring rain for 40 minutes, etc., etc., I was right at the edge of the stage in front of Marc Ribot:

Also included in that video is (more…)

Concert Review: Sylvie Courvoisier Trio (The Stone, NYC, 6/8/2013)

I had been vaguely planning to go see John Zorn & co. at Le Poisson Rouge on this particular night, but at the last minute I changed my mind and decided I’d seen enough of him lately and should check out Sylvie Courvoisier‘s trio at the Stone. I absolutely love her piano playing, and I haven’t seen her perform for quite a while. The last time I saw her at the Stone, she played the single most fantastic piano solo I have ever seen in my entire life, so suffice it to say: I am a fan. On this particular night, she was accompanied by Kenny Wollesen on drums and Drew Gress on upright bass.

The Stone is pretty bare-bones as far as venues go, but it’s one of my favorite places in the world to see music. Partly because they attract such uniquely talented performers, and partly because of the purity: no drinks, no bar, no food, no stage. People play music, you get a chair to sit in, end of story. There are few distractions beyond the occasional city sounds from outside. The audience members are there for serious music listening and always show great respect for the performers.

I got the exact seat I wanted for this performance – there are ten or twelve seats located behind the area where the instruments are set up, and they are just behind and to the left of the pianist. I took the middle of the front row of these seats – I sacrificed most of my view of the bass and drums, but in exchange I was able to see every single key she played on the piano, which was wonderful. I took some surreptitious video, as usual:

Sylvie Courvoisier is an unusually creative pianist, using a variety of extended techniques in addition to her intense keyboard skills. For this show, she used duct tape, mallets, and metal spheres on the strings and piano interior to elicit a wide variety of sounds. The duct tape, stuck across a series of strings, changed the sound of those particular piano keys into a sort of wood-block sound. The metal spheres were able to bring out something almost slide-guitar-y. I love seeing these kind of techniques – for me, it takes the instrument to a higher level when I see someone coming up with sounds that I didn’t even know a piano could make. But aside from the extended techniques her more conventional piano techniques are simply spectacular. Veering from absolute delicacy to near-violence in any given piece, the passion and intensity of her playing always leaves me in awe. The whole concert was excellent from the first note to the last – my only regret is that I couldn’t stay for the second set!

Ms. Courvoisier is currently scheduled to play dates in New York and all over Europe (and I even spot a couple of 2014 dates in Australia and New Zealand) – check out her tour schedule here: