Three months of undocumented concert mania

I guess the comment in my last post about having an unsustainable lifestyle was pretty spot on. I’ve seen 57 concerts since the last one I reviewed. Between general lack of time, lack of sleep, and all-too-frequent illness I just can’t keep up with it. Plus I’ve been having bad writer’s block lately (I’ve been trying to write one concert review for over a week now and finally gave up to write this instead.) But I hate-hate-hate to just give up on these years of work, so I’m trying to come up with ideas for a slightly less intense blog that I could actually do without having to be institutionalized. Maybe a weekly or biweekly post with briefer reviews and highlights instead of the really in-depth stuff I’ve been doing. I don’t know. Ideas are welcome!

Anyway, I can at least give you some of the highlights of my winter concert schedule.

Dave Douglas & Uri Caine at Subculture: Whenever I go to this venue I wish they had more music I liked, because it’s a great space and in a great location. I’ve only been there a few times, but I really like it. And this particular concert was so nice – I don’t listen to a ton of music that I consider relaxing, but this was a rare gig that I found both engaging and de-stressing. Couldn’t have come at a better time as it was in the midst of a hectic holiday season and on my monthly work deadline. I bought their new album, “Present Joys,” after the show, and I listened to it quite a bit over the holiday season.

Winter Jazzfest: I only managed to see eight bands this year at WJF (compared to last year’s 12) but I had a really good time seeing shows with a group of friends (I won a couple of extra passes at the last minute so I got to bring extra concert buddies!). Highlights included a sort of reprise in miniature of the John Lurie tribute show that I saw at Town Hall last year, this time with Marc Ribot stepping in as a guest for a couple of pieces; Henry, Hampton & Low; Wooley & Vandermark; and the Young Philadelphians, who played a mostly-disco set which was difficult to take seriously, but a lot of fun if you pretended you weren’t at a jazz festival.

Jazz & Colors Festival: Hosted in the Metropolitan Museum, this was a great chance to get a quick taste of some bands I’d been wanting to hear. There were something like a dozen bands playing simultaneously, so you had to skip around from room to room to see them. My favorite was Jenny Scheinman’s ensemble (we ended up seeing about 2/3 of her set and spending the other 1/3 checking out other bands) but I also really enjoyed Amir ElSaffar’s group as well as Cellar and Point.

Jason Isbell at the Beacon: This show went on sale when I was still in Boston, and it was on sale so far in advance I wasn’t even paying attention to NYC shows. So I didn’t have tickets (so sad!). But… I never give up on concerts entirely, so I patiently checked Ticketmaster a few times a day for a few weeks until, hey look! Front row center, on sale the day before the show. (So happy!) I am so grateful for this bit of luck, because it was one of the best rock shows I’ve seen in ages. Isbell’s a great songwriter and a fantastic singer, and it was easily the best show I’ve seen him do. The quality on this isn’t super (someone else’s video from a few rows back in the orchestra) but the strength of the performance comes through, especially the powerful vocals:

The energy in the room during that song was almost tactile, growing steadily throughout the song and earthing itself in occasional audience outbursts, until it erupted into a several-minute-long standing ovation at the end of the song (in the middle of the set – not trying for an encore, just showing appreciation). I walked out of that show feeling better than I had in probably two months. (more…)

2014 Year in Review: Concert Highlights

The holidays got the best of me and I didn’t manage to write any reviews for the last … (counts on fingers) eight concerts I saw. My concert attendance is an unsustainable lifestyle, what can I say?

Anyway, it’s January 1, and for those of us with a smidge too much OCD to write year-end blog posts before the actual end of the actual year, that means it’s time to write a year-end blog post!

I saw lots of shows this year, including many kinds of music – bluegrass, metal, rock, folk, soul, experimental/avant-garde, country, classical, lots of flavors of jazz, and occasionally something truly indescribable. I always find it beyond impossible to pick the best concert, I can’t even begin to compare such different kinds of music – who can decide which is “better” between a marching band and a free improv jazz set? They’re worlds apart and I enjoy them in almost unrelated ways.

What I’ve been doing for the past few years is coming up with a year-end list of memorable concert moments – the best, the weirdest, the craziest and most amazing things that happened in 2014. So… here goes!

• The highlight of the early part of the year was undoubtedly the Marc Ribot residency week at the Stone at the end of January/beginning of February. Several friends and I went to every single set, twelve of them in six days, and we just about froze our toes off waiting in line every night to get the best seats. It was a real bonding experience! And the music was amazing – most of the sets were excellent, but the set featuring the Marc Ribot Trio with guest Cooper-Moore was one of the best things I saw all year. The encore especially will stay with me for a long time, with Henry Grimes heartbreaking violin solo and Ribot’s bluesy guitar. Also worth a mention were the gorgeous solo acoustic interludes in the 8mm film set, and the “Songs” night where he debuted a bunch of songs that I am absolutely dying to hear on a studio record. Maybe some of the best songs he’s ever written, what a pleasure it was to hear them live for the first time. E.g.:

It’s funny, watching the video back I can almost taste it, I remember where I was sitting and who was sitting next to me and how the place smelled and how cold we were and every little detail… memory is such a strange phenomenon.
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Review: Jon Madof’s residency at the Stone (Dec 2014)

Last week was Jon Madof’s five-night residency at the Stone. I managed to catch half of the sets: two Rashanim Acoustic sets, one Rashanim Electric set, and two Zion80 sets.

I’d seen Rashanim twice before… sort of. The first time I saw them was five years ago when they participated in a Marc Ribot tribute concert, and they were playing Cubanos Postizos covers. (Historical concert review since I still have some of my notes from 2009: “They did a really fun set of covers from Ribot’s Cubanos Postizos albums. I loved all of the Cubanos cover set, it was really fun and you could tell the band was really enjoying it too, especially the guitarist.”) The other time I saw them was a Christmas Eve concert three years ago, where they were billed as Rashanim with three guests. But, surprise surprise, it turned out to be the first Zion80 concert (before they had a band name). So before this residency I’d never really seen Rashanim playing Rashanim, and I was looking forward to it!

All three of their sets were really high-quality live versions of music I’d previously only enjoyed on CD, which made me very happy. There’s just nothing like the energy and sound you get from a live performance. The electric and acoustic versions were somehow less different from each other than I’d expected – I guess when you think of acoustic guitar and bass vs. electric guitar and bass you have a certain internal stereotype of what kind of music that represents, but in this case both nights were distinctly Rashanim-y. It was cool to see them playing different instruments each night and comparing the sound (and of course the sitting vs. standing debate was played out with an all-seated acoustic set and a standing electric set). The most important part, of course, is that all of the music was great!

rashanims(L to R: Jon Madof, still Jon Madof, Shanir Blumenkranz, Mathias Künzli, and Shanir Blumenkranz again.)
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Review: Masada Marathon at Nublu (12/4/14)

So, I’ve seen a lot of Masada Marathons. I’ve lost count, really – three nights in Rome, Montreal Jazz Fest, NYC Opera, two nights at the Abrons, Book of Beriah at Town Hall, twelve sets at the Vanguard, Nublu (twice now), the Skirball Center, 92nd Street Y… it’s a long list. But even with all that competition, this little mini-marathon (we have to call a 6-hour set a mini-marathon because it was “only” five bands, right?) probably wins the top spot for the weirdest Masada show I’ve been to as well as featuring one of the best Masada sets I’ve ever seen. It was a hell of a night!

The night started out worryingly slow – the first set (Uri Gurvich Quartet) was at 8, and I showed up about 2 minutes before 8 to find that the place was almost entirely empty. Uh-oh! I had suspected it was going to be a tough night – Marc Ribot was playing at the same time in Brooklyn, Henry Threadgill was playing at the same time, Jon Madof was down the street at the Stone… a lot of competition for the type of audience that might come to a show like this. Not to mention that people were worried about transportation and other issues due to heavy protests around the city… it had taken me almost twice as long as usual to get home from the Stone the night before.

People did trickle in and when they finally started the set, about 20 minutes late, there was a little bit of an audience forming. Uri Gurvich’s quartet was the first band and I’m happy to say I found their set to be a lot more fun than the other time I saw them. I think they played better, and I think they’re better suited to play first and gently warm up an audience than they are to play after a really raucous band like they did at the Vanguard.

The second set of the night was Erik Friedlander playing a solo “Volac” set. Always a favorite of mine, and he somehow managed to outdo himself again. (How good can “Volac” get? Shouldn’t there be some kind of upper limit on how good you can make the same piece of music? It’s beginning to defy logic at this point.) There was a bit of a bigger audience by this point in the evening, although in the way of crowds everywhere they were lurking in the back, not wanting to appear too eager. My friend Tom and I had no such misgivings and eagerly parked ourselves front and center in the middle of the floor. Nublu is a pretty small and intimate space for this kind of concert (it somehow felt much more so than the Vanguard, maybe because of the tiny stage?). It felt like a very special moment, with the nearly dead-silent audience, the intimate atmosphere, and music that I need to invent new superlatives for. I had fleeting thoughts that it should be recorded for posterity, but the moment was too perfect and I didn’t dare break it by pulling out a camera to sneak a video or even a photo. Sometimes even an obsessive concert documentarian has to just let things be.
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Review: John Zorn’s Cobra – 30th Anniversary (11/29/14)

On Saturday night I headed to Brooklyn with some friends to catch John Zorn’s 30th anniversary performance of Cobra at Roulette. Cobra premiered at Roulette in 1984, so it was certainly the perfect place for the anniversary concert. (It’s one of my favorite NYC venues, I’m always happy when something I want to see is happening there.) Zorn put together an all-star cast of his usual suspects including a lot of my favorite downtown musicians: Cyro Baptista on percussion; Sylvie Courvoisier on piano; Trevor Dunn on upright bass; Mark Feldman on violin; Erik Friedlander on cello; George Lewis on trombone; Eyal Maoz and Marc Ribot on electric guitars; John Medeski on organ; Ikue Mori on electronics; William Winant on percussion; and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

The night kicked off with a Q&A which was supposed to be Anthony Coleman asking John Zorn questions about Cobra. It deteriorated quickly into a bit of a tirade when Zorn saw someone in the audience taking a picture with their cell phone. He went on at some length about how there should be no record made of this concert in any way – no recordings, no photos, etc. I hesitated to even write this blog, but I guess us writers still have that whole ‘free speech’ thing going for us. Since there was such a strict ban on photography I am forced to give you only this artist’s representation of the concert:
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