Concert(s) Review: Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog in Brooklyn and Philadelphia (10/4, 10/5/2013)

I decided on Thursday night to grab some last-minute travel deals and head down to Brooklyn and Philadelphia for the last two-thirds of Ceramic Dog‘s three-date east coast tour. They’d announced the dates not too far in advance, and I already had all this travel planned for Zorn@60 concerts (see: my last two bazillion blog posts) so I didn’t think I could go. Then after all the Zorn concerts were over I started getting that concert itch, and I cobbled together bus schedules and Amtrak points and figured out that I could see two shows while only missing three hours of work if I tried really hard, so… yeah. I booked it all about 16 hours before I left, and e-mailed my mom to let her know I was traveling out of state on short notice.

When people ask and I need an easy answer, I always tell them that Ceramic Dog is my favorite band. Which is sort of silly, since the people who ask me questions like that tend to have simpler tastes in music and the response is always “who?” Those people clearly don’t know what they’re missing – everyone should see this band! They’re a rock band, and they ROCK, but there’s also a lot of experimentation and improvisation, which means they’re way more interesting than just a rock band. Their live shows rarely disappoint.

I had never been to the venue they were playing in Brooklyn, Union Pool, and I really liked it. They have a separate bar and outdoor areas where the less-interested attendees could talk without bugging those of us watching the band. I was in the front row so I can’t complain about the sightlines, and the sound was good (but not outstanding). They had a guest percussionist (didn’t catch his name – leave a comment if you know it!) but otherwise the lineup was as usual: Marc Ribot on guitar and vocals, Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Moog, and Ches Smith on drums. I had left on such short notice that I didn’t have time to charge my camera before the show, so I just have a couple of pics from before it died, and no video:

Marc Ribot at Union Pool

Shahzad Ismaily playing Moog

Although I have seen and liked him in another band – and although he seemed to be having a lot of fun – I didn’t quite think the guest percussionist worked in this band. Part of the reason I like Ceramic Dog so much is the incredible rhythm section and Ches Smith’s masterful, powerful drumming. Having a second percussionist in the mix muddied things up a bit and felt sort of unnecessary. But with experimental bands, sometimes you will get an experiment or two! The goal is not perfection, after all.

Some highlights from the Brooklyn set included a hard-driving version of “Your Turn,” the title track from their latest album; their fabulously heavy cover of “Take Five” (always a crowd-pleaser); and they took a rare crowd request for “The Kid Is Back” from someone in the crowd who seemed entirely intoxicated, but really really wanted to hear that song. They also did a few new songs I didn’t know and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” (I am only 80% sure on that title, the lyrics were not so intelligible).

The next night I was in Philadelphia, at the Boot & Saddle. I liked the the place from the start, when I stepped out of the subway and saw the awesome antique-looking cowboy-boot-shaped sign (it apparently used to be a Country & Western bar). Sweet. The music venue in back (capacity around ~150, I’m guessing) was separated from the bar, so once again the music-lovers were unbothered by the bar-chatting types – always a good thing. My friend Scott and I went in really early because we are big ol’ live music geeks and wanted to stake out a spot at front row center. This unfortunately meant that we were standing right in front of the subwoofers for the opening band, Split Red, who describe themselves as “art punk.” I can’t really review their music with any sort of fairness, since they had the sound and especially the subwoofers turned up so high that I found it unpleasant to even be in the room, in spite of my earplugs. I’m not going to waste your time by making you read a rant about irresponsible volume levels, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Luckily, Ceramic Dog are professionals who know how to put on a good, loud, slamming rock concert without actually injuring the audience, so their set was played at a much more reasonable and enjoyable level. (Hooray!) I thought the Saturday-night Philadelphia show was far and away more fun than the Friday-night Brooklyn show, although I will say I wasn’t feeling too well on Friday, so that may have impacted my enjoyment somewhat. It just seemed like they were tighter, more together, and having more fun on stage. They started out strong with a couple of instrumentals (including an unusually good version of “Prayer”) before playing the single from their new album, “Lies My Body Told Me,” which I absolutely love. I had my camera running for that one – it starts a little slow but the guitar solos are worth the wait:

They did particularly good versions of “Girlfriend,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Masters of the Internet” and a couple of instrumentals I wasn’t familiar with. They also played “Your Turn,” which is one of my favorites from the album of the same name:

I’m not sure at which point during the song it happened, but at the end Ches Smith had to take a break to replace one of the drums in his kit since he’d broken one of the drum heads during that piece. (I’ve seen broken strings, broken drumsticks, knocked-over equipment and cymbal-related bloodshed – but I think the broken drum head was a first for me.) I’ve seen him play with other bands, and he can be as delicate as anyone, but when he plays in Ceramic Dog, he is a real powerhouse of a drummer. I especially enjoyed his playing during this set – often while I was filming I was pointing the camera towards Marc Ribot and turning my head the other way to watch the drums. He looked like he was really enjoying himself, too.

The enthusiastic crowd quickly brought them back for an encore, and Marc Ribot sat down to start playing a quiet guitar piece (the beginning of a song I’ve heard before and really like a lot). He bent down to fiddle with a pedal or something on the floor, and then apparently changed his mind, saying “FUCK THAT!” into the mic and starting to play an entirely different song – “Pinch,” from their 2008 album “Party Intellectuals.” It was a little disjointed in parts, but also funky, a lot of fun and full of energy – and the band looked like they were having a ball. Ribot on the right, intently bent over his guitar as usual, contrasted by the extremely relaxed-looking Ismaily on bass, sitting back in his chair with a foot propped up, casually grooving along – and Ches Smith over on the left looking almost maniacal at times as his “having fun” face collided with his “intensely drumming” face. I had the camera running:

That song might have been the most fun seven minutes I had all week! (Maybe you had to be there… or maybe I had a bad week… or maybe it was really THAT good!)

Ceramic Dog doesn’t have any more tour dates on the calendar (awww…) but here’s hoping they’ll announce a few sometime soon; and maybe they could even make it up to New England this time so I won’t have to spend six hours on a bus to see them!

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