It took us a while, but here we are: the final chapter of the Marc Ribot residency blog series. In this post we’ll be covering the “Songs” night (early set on Friday) and the John Zorn improv benefit (early set on Sunday). These two nights featured the largest line-ups of the residency, with 6-7 musicians per set. If you’ve missed the last few posts, you can read them here: one (improv duos), two (8mm film night), three (Marc Ribot Trio sets), four (solo sets/Zorn/Cage). But first, the gratuitous guitarist photo… here is George Spanos (left) and Marc Ribot performing at the benefit improv set:
The “Songs” set on Friday was kind of a tricky one for me, which is why I’ve saved it for last. The band consisted of Ribot on guitar (acoustic and electric), Melvin Gibbs on bass, Tony Lewis on drums, and a three-piece string section of Christina Courtin (viola), Pico Alt (violin) and Christopher Hoffman (cello). It was quite a grab-bag of styles, everything from Philly soul to punk to delicate ballads. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Ribot putting together a collection of songs like this, really, but if you’ve ever heard a Ceramic Dog album you’re probably familiar with this eclectic approach to songwriting. (He commented wryly at one point that “you bring in charts for one night out of the whole week, and they write in ‘Time Out’ that you’re a singer-songwriter! The nerve of those people!”)
Some of my favorites of the night: the third song they played, La Noyee, was a cover/translation of a Serge Gainsbourg song. The translated lyrics were really well done (I looked online to see if I could find it in order to quote some for you, and found only some other people’s translations which are nowhere near as good). It was a sweet and gentle sort of song and took advantage of the strings with a nice instrumental bridge. Maybe my #1 favorite of the night was Death of a Narcissist, which I was unreasonably excited to hear since I’d heard him play it way back in 2009 and thought it was completely amazing. Five years is a long time to sit on a great song like that! The gist of it is that the narrator has been looking his whole life for a female reflection of himself, figuring in some egotistical way that someone just like him would be his perfect mate. And he finally finds this person, has some kind of revelation, is horrified, and runs away. It sounds a bit comedic but the song is quite dramatic and poignant. I had a slightly weird angle since I was basically sitting behind the violinist, but I did manage to snag this one on video:
Among the more uptempo songs, I really liked the one with the “I’m so tired of being a boy…” lyric (I don’t think he announced the title of it). Like several other songs he did that night, it had an unusual approach to gender politics – basically the narrator wishes he could be female so he could really be close to the woman he wants to be close to, because she treats him differently due to his maleness. It ended with something like “Maybe we could be, really be together / If I was a girl, and I wasn’t me / And tattoos came off like water / And washed away” – it’s poignant and slightly weird at the same time, but kind of refreshing to hear a song that asks some interesting questions about modern-day gender attitudes (I know, I know, that sounds ridiculously over-analytical). It’s hard to know exactly how he intended this song to sound since he started off acoustic, broke a string almost immediately, said “fuck that one [the acoustic guitar] anyways, I’ve got this one [the electric guitar] and it’s BETTER, not to mention LOUDER!” So it turned into a loud song whether it wanted to be or not.
The last two songs were big hits with me and my friends – “Map of A Blue City” was a really nice, catchy ballad with lyrics that I found particularly evocative… the kind of phrases that really conjure up a vivid image in your head. And the last song – played after someone yelled “MORE!” and Marc Ribot answered “I’ll take that as a quasi-semi-kind-of-encore” – was “Mr. Death,” apparently a favorite of the band (and a hell of an earworm, it was stuck in my head all night). “Mr. Death” is a humorous look at how death will take everyone, even the song’s fictional characters Jack and Jill, who bend the world to their whims by using sex and violence. I know, that doesn’t really sound humorous… you’ll have to take my word for it 😉
The reason I called this set “a tricky one for me” was because I have kind of mixed feelings about it. As a big fan, it was awesome: we heard lots of brand new songs, some of which I think were never played live before. And he was playing with an unusual sort of band (with a string section and pump organ), and just generally doing lots of things that were new and exciting for us. But for a casual fan I’m not sure the set would have been such a success – some of the songs were a bit rough, some of the lyrics seemed like they needed a bit of work, and I’ll be a little surprised if one song in particular ends up on a record in its current form due to being almost certain to offend quite a few people (although you never know what Mr. Marc “Yo, I Killed Your God” Ribot will put on a record…). So… I don’t know? It feels weird to say I really liked it but at the same time admit that it had a lot of faults. I guess it was kind of like the 8mm film set that way, it was unpolished but we loved it anyway. I’m not even sure if it’s “in spite of” or “because of” the lack of polish. At any rate, I’m very much looking forward to hearing studio versions of some of these songs.
And finally, the 12th set of the residency (well, it was 11th, but I wrote them out of order – sue me!): the John Zorn Stone benefit improv night. There were seven musicians in attendance: John Zorn and Ned Rothenberg on saxophone; Sylvie Courvoisier on piano; George Spanos on drums; James Ilgenfritz on bass; and Ikue Mori on electronics. Marc Ribot walked in with his guitar partway through the set and joined in on a couple of pieces towards the end. I only got one piece from this set on video, partly because I’m afraid of John Zorn and his hatred of cameras, and partly because I was saving my batteries for the late set. But it was one of my favorite improvs of the night, with Sylvie Courvoisier, George Spanos, and Ikue Mori:
I think my very favorite piece of the whole set was the trio with Marc Ribot, George Spanos and James Ilgenfritz – that one was really good. I guess guitar/bass/drums is a pretty classic lineup that everyone felt comfortable in. They only played for about five minutes, but everyone got a little time to shine and it was just a great and very cohesive bit of improvisation.
And that’s the end of it. Twelve sets in six nights – I had so much fun and it was such a great experience for a live music fan like myself. I was thinking about it in relation to the other major live music series I attended recently, Zorn@60, and it’s almost a yin/yang complementary-opposite version of it. One was impressively ambitious, grand and sprawling, taking place at major venues around New York City and all over the world; the other was extremely intimate, focused and intense, six nights straight standing on the same street corner and sitting in the same row every night. Zorn@60 was somewhat of a career retrospective, digging out some real oldies from the 70s/80s, and the Ribot residency felt like more of a present-day snapshot. Differences aside, both events are now special memories that I will cherish for a long time. I’m so glad my work schedule was (barely, barely) able to accommodate me taking so much time off for both of these. Although I think my boss is going to get skeptical if I have to take any more time off because “my favorite musician is turning 60 and they’re doing this incredible once-in-a-lifetime concert series!” True or not, there’s only so many of those that can believably happen in such a short period of time… 😉