Performer Spotlight: John Zorn (a guide to Zorn@60 in NYC)

(NOTE: I updated the Sept 28 Metropolitan Museum concert section after they posted the full schedule on 8/30.)

I don’t really have any big concerts for a couple of weeks (and the last few concerts I went to ended up unblogged due to a variety of factors like illness and a painful dental emergency) so I decided I would write up a little overview of one of my favorite performers/composers, John Zorn, and the line-up of concerts he’s got going on in the next month or two.

Zorn is in the middle of an incredibly prolific part of his career – he’s released five albums this year, and I think there were eleven last year. It can be hard to keep up, and even harder to know where to jump in if you’re just starting out. (I usually tell people to start with the Bar Kokhba triple-CD live set – absolutely great music, and very easy to get into.) As far as genres go, he does anything from twinkly Christmas music to stuff that will scare the neighbor’s dog if you play it too loud. (I’m also told that Anulikwutsayl freaks out my friend’s cat. But what do cats know, anyway?) Anyway, he covers a lot of territory: classical, jazz, rock, world(ish), improv, avant garde, noise – there’s hardly anything he hasn’t at least briefly touched upon.

As part of his 60th birthday celebrations, he’s arranged a wonderful array of marathon concerts around the world – I believe he’s hit 14 countries plus a couple of cities in the U.S. so far this year, with a couple more European dates still to come. I’ve managed to see a couple of different marathons in 2013 already, and I’m very excited about all of the upcoming shows in New York – during the next month or so he’s got a truly spectacular series of concerts lined up in his hometown. I understand that not everyone aspires to my level of concert mania, so I thought I’d go over the list of upcoming NYC shows and make some recommendations for the more casual fan or the curious listener who wants to try live Zorn for the first time.

  • August 29: John Zorn & Fred Frith at the Stone. As far as I know, this will be a fully improvised set. Frith mainly plays guitar and has been in many bands, including Henry Cow, Naked City, and Cosa Brava. This show is recommended for the more hardcore fans and those who have a particular love of improv. Probably not a great introduction to Zorn’s work, if you’re looking for that.
  • Sept 2: John Zorn improv birthday party at the Stone, with guests including (more…)

Concert Review: The Nines Festival (8/10/2013)

My friend Jen won a pair of tickets to The Nines Festival in Devens, MA this weekend. Thanks to Boston Emissions for giving them away and thanks to Jen for bringing me along :) I don’t normally go to outdoor festivals (partly due to not having access to a car, partly because the sun hates me and my ghostly pale skin) so it was a bit of a novel scene for me. There was a pretty eclectic selection of music and a lot of them were not bands I would have seen if left to my own devices; but it’s always good to open your ears to something new and remind yourself that there’s a big world of music out there.

This was the inaugural Nines festival, so we didn’t know exactly what to expect, aside from what was on their website – ten bands on two stages, a comedy tent with half a dozen comedians, and art installations/exhibits. We were in the unusual position of being most excited about the very first band of the day, Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys. (Regular readers of my blog probably remember them, as I have reviewed them twice already this summer – here and here.) They put on an excellent show as usual, although it was distinctly weird to be seeing them at lunchtime, outdoors on a hot and sunny summer day. Not their natural habitat. The sound was far too loud for my little camera to deal with, so I’ll have to pick a random awesome Youtube video for you to watch:

After this first set, I went to get some lunch and then caught the end of the Air Traffic Controller set. Like the Army of Toys, they are a local band, but I hadn’t seen them before. I liked them, but having only seen 10-15 minutes of their set, I don’t have much to write about. They’re a fairly light-hearted indie rock/pop band, from what I heard. Check out one of their songs here:

After ATC we headed back to the main stage for Shuggie Otis, whose career the New York Times has referred to as “baffling.” 2013 saw his first (more…)

Concert Review: Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Joe Fletcher (7/29/2013)

Monday night found me in line outside the Sinclair, a relatively new music venue here in Cambridge, along with about 100 other Jason Isbell fans hoping to get in early for a good spot. (The other however-many-hundreds of fans showed up after door time and didn’t wait in line. Amateurs!) If you’re going to a sold-out show at the Sinclair, I do recommend getting there on the early side – it’s a three-level space, and the best views are in the balcony and the front of the main floor. You don’t want to get stuck on the lower level.

I’d seen Jason Isbell once before in 2010, and while it was a good show, it was a little unsatisfying because the venue had such poor sound that I could hardly understand a word he said or sung all night. The concert at the Sinclair had excellent sound – even when I was literally leaning on one of the enormous subwoofers, the vocals and instruments were nice and clear and not muddied or obscured by bass/midbass. I really appreciate that we have a mid-size rock venue with great sound in Cambridge now!

This week’s Isbell concert was, I thought, a big improvement on the 2010 performance. I think the difference was mainly because his new songs are so good. I didn’t actually have any of his albums before this week (I buy a lot more concert tickets than CDs!) so I didn’t go in knowing any of the songs. Several friends had told me that the new album was really good, but I hadn’t gotten around to buying it yet. During the show I started jotting down notes about which songs were real standouts to me (Cover Me Up, Traveling Alone, Elephant, Different Days, Super 8, Live Oak), and it turned out that every single one of them was from his brand new album, “Southeastern.” Well, there’s no arguing with that. I had to buy the album from the merch table at the end of the show. I’m listening to it right now and it’s definitely worth a purchase.

Aside from the new tunes, he did some older ones and some Drive-by Truckers songs; they closed out the show with a four-song encore culminating in a Rolling Stones cover, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” He’ll be on tour from now until the end of October, so there’s a good chance he’ll be doing a show near you if you live in the U.S. You can see his list of tour dates here.

Here’s a live acoustic version of “Elephant”, one of my favorite songs from the concert. (Warning: Contains NSFW language and will break your heart.)

In addition to the two-hour Isbell set, we got two openers; Amanda Shires and Joe Fletcher. I have to admit up front that I have a hard time with (more…)