Concert(s) Review: John Zorn’s Song Project & Moonchild (9/29/2013)

Sunday night was (sadly) the last night of my New York Zorn@60 adventure – and it was the end of a rather remarkable run of shows for me. I ended up going to 18 concerts in September, 10 of which were Zorn@60 events. (I didn’t have a chance to write about some of the shows, unfortunately – it’s hard to combine that level of concert attendance with a full-time job, travel and blogging.) I was a little worried that after the big blowout week of music we’d just seen, this night would be a bit of a let-down, because I have kind of mixed feelings about both projects. But I’m not the sort of person who would skip a Zorn concert (under pretty much any circumstances you can think of) so I went along and hoped for the best.

Both of the concerts on Sunday were at Le Poisson Rouge, a venue I really like in Greenwich Village. The early set was the Song Project, which is more-or-less the Dreamers with a replacement keyboard player (John Medeski instead of Jamie Saft) with the addition of a few vocalists. The full band line-up: John Zorn (conducting), Marc Ribot (guitar), Kenny Wollesen (vibes), Trevor Dunn (bass), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Joey Baron (drums), and John Medeski on keys. The vocalists were Mike Patton, Jesse Harris, and Sofia Rei. They play some Dreamers material, but they also play a bunch of other stuff ranging anywhere from Filmworks to Naked City.

The reason I have mixed feelings about the group is that they take a lot of great, great instrumental tracks and add conventional lyrics and vocals to them. It’s kind of weird. Some of them I would rank pretty high among my all-time favorite pieces of music in the world, so they’re not songs where I’m thinking “gee, this really could use a little something extra to spice it up.” On the other hand, it’s still a chance to hear some of my all-time favorite pieces of music in the world, so I’m not exactly complaining about that!

I’d woken up that day feeling pretty awful after pushing myself to limit during the 11-hour Zorn ultra-marathon the day before (you can read about it here if you missed it). I had also come down with a bit of a head cold. I’d gone to bed secretly thinking I might skip Sunday’s concerts (!) but then I had a hilarious dream about Marc Ribot playing a concert on my wedding day that convinced me I should not give up so easily. (In the dream I was frantically trying to reschedule my own wedding at the last minute so that I wouldn’t have to miss Ribot’s show. Good to see my dream-self has her priorities in order!)

I headed downtown after sleeping most of the day and luckily, my friends Mike and Senija (who I met at the Village Vanguard and the Stone, respectively) had saved me a spot close to the front of the line. Thanks to them I ended up with the dream/nightmare front row spot directly in front of John Zorn. Dream – because I am a huge Zorn fangirl, and how cool is it to be right in front of him! Nightmare – because I’m trying to stealth-film, and he doesn’t like people sticking cameras in his face. Therefore all of the video I shot was done completely blind, holding the camera down by my waist and aiming up so that it wouldn’t bother him (or anyone else).

As for the show… my misgivings about the lyrics/vocals proved to be largely correct. There were three vocalists, and they were of varying quality. Jesse Harris – I really wasn’t a fan of his work that night. Neither were my friends. I think he is a little too gentle and mainstream sounding for the Zorn crowd. The lyrics were a bit insipid (I understand it’s not easy to rhyme things with Kafiristan but maybe we could do better than a man with a plan – and did we really need a Christmas song in September?). Mike Patton was better, I thought some of his songs were quite good and some were just OK. I couldn’t understand a lot of his lyrics, which might be for the best because I can’t make fun of them! Sofia Rei was my favorite of the three, possibly because some of her singing was not in English and therefore I couldn’t tell if the lyrics were terrible or not. But I’ve seen her sing a bunch of other times and she’s very good, so I think she is probably just the best of the three regardless of lyrics.

Aside from the singing, though, wow, the band was FANTASTIC! It was absolutely worth seeing the show just for the music. I unfortunately didn’t get a lot of vibes in the mix where I was standing, which is a shame because Wollesen is so great – but other than that I could hear everyone and they were all playing very well. Marc Ribot especially had a lot of great solos, and I could see Zorn signalling him to play longer or add an outro a few times because he was having such a good night. And the song choices! I can’t believe I got to hear Besos de Sangre and Our In-House Dostoevsky live. Two of my all-time favorite Filmworks tracks, and I’d never heard them before in the ~50 Zorn concerts I’ve seen previously. Beautiful stuff. They also did some really good Dreamers tracks and one of my favorite Bar Kokhba tunes from “Lucifer” and my favorite piece from “The Gift.” An incredible setlist, honestly.

I took a video of Besos de Sangre, although it’s a bit out of focus because I was shooting blind, as I mentioned before. (Well, the musicians are out of focus, I think the camera decided it was supposed to be looking at John Zorn’s chair or pants or something.)

I took a better-quality video of Mike Patton singing “The Man in the Blue Mask”, which was formerly a Dreamers tune called “Of Wonder and Certainty (for Lou Reed)”.

Overall I really did enjoy the Song Project, although I probably would have enjoyed it even more if the vocalists stayed home. It must be almost impossible to find a lyricist who is up to the task of writing lyrics as good as this music, and as a result the singing/lyrics tends to be the weak spot in the program. But it was still very much worth seeing. There were very mixed reviews from my friends – some thought it was the best thing they’d seen all week, some put it at the bottom.

The late set was Moonchild (Mike Patton, vocals; Trevor Dunn, bass; Joey Baron, drums; John Medeski, keys) and I have to admit it: I totally failed on this show. I skipped dinner, I was sick and exhausted, I was on my 11th straight day of concert attendance, I’d just stood for three hours for the Song Project, and there was no way I could be on my feet and enjoying myself for another 2-3 hours for Moonchild. In the end my friends and I got some good seats in the little balcony area in the back corner. I ordered a plate of warm cookies and a glass of milk, because Le Poisson Rouge is awesome enough to serve that at an avant-metal show (or whatever the heck genre Moonchild is). And I leaned on the wall and listened to the music. I liked it more than I was expecting to – they tend to be a bit too intense and heavy for my taste – but I know I missed a lot of the experience by being in the back corner of the venue and not in the crowd feeding off all of their energy. I did particularly enjoy the encore, where John Zorn pulled up his hood (John Medeski followed suit) and conducted the band. For some mysterious reason, whenever he is on stage, things are just better.

moonchild-bw

I didn’t take any video since I was so far back, but here is one of the album cuts from their most recent release:

This concludes our coverage of Zorn@60, unless I scrounge up the cash to see some late-breaking concert somewhere. I am really looking forward to some non-Zorn shows in the next few months though, including Marc Ribot Trio at the Village Vanguard, Goblin and Secret Chiefs 3, Les Rhinoceros (they just announced a big tour!), Chris Thile, Man Man, Joseph Arthur, and John Medeski. Stay tuned!

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