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: Ches Smith’s residency at the Stone (9/30 – 10/5/2014)

In the interests of my health, hearing, and sanity, I did not go to every single set in Ches Smith‘s 12-set residency at the Stone… but I did manage to catch ten of them. (It turns out that those 12-shows-a-week runs are a lot easier when you’re on vacation and not working a full-time day job at the same time.) Ches is one of my favorite drummers, but having been up in Cambridge for most of the last 15 years, I hadn’t had a chance to see that many of his bands. I’d seen him in Ceramic Dog and as a sideman in a few other people’s bands, but out of his own bands I’d only ever seen his trio with Mat Maneri and Craig Taborn. I loved that trio when we saw them at Winter Jazz Fest, so I was really looking forward to seeing what he would do with all of these other projects. And I was looking forward to seeing them all at the Stone since it’s such an intimate, up-close-and-personal venue with a great vibe. (As an aside, I’ve never been so happy to have fancy musician’s earplugs in my life as when I saw 10 drum-heavy sets in a row at the Stone while sitting as close as possible.)

Ches Smith with Ceramic Dog

These were the ensembles I saw:

1. We All Break – a meeting of Haitian Drums and Creative Music: Matt Mitchell (piano) Daniel Brevil (traditional Haitian percussion) Markus Schwartz (traditional Haitian percussion) Ches Smith (drums, percussion)
2. These Arches: Tim Berne (alto sax) Tony Malaby (tenor sax) Mary Halvorson (guitar) Andrea Parkins (accordion, electronics) Ches Smith (drums)
3. Ches Smith Quartet: Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) Craig Taborn (piano) Stephan Crump (bass) Ches Smith (drums)
4. Congs for Brums: Ches Smith (drums, electronics)
5. A free improv trio: Matt Nelson (tenor sax) Henry Grimes (bass) Ches Smith (drums)
6. A different free improv trio: Tyshawn Sorey (drums, piano) Randy Peterson, Ches Smith (drums)
7. Ceramic Dog: Marc Ribot (guitar, vocals) Shahzad Ismaily (bass, drums, electronics) Ches Smith (drums, electronics)

I’m not sure if you really get the scope of the variety and breadth just from reading that list, but it was a wide-ranging week of music. Percussion instruments alone spanned all the way from traditional wooden drums made with leather and rope to electronic effects played via a smartphone and tablet. Genre-wise there were several flavors of jazz and new music as well as a more-or-less rock trio (Ceramic Dog).
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Review: Sean Rowe at Rockwood Music Hall (9/25 & 9/26/2014)

Back in NYC (for good this time – we finally closed our old office in Massachusetts and opened a new one in Manhattan!) and I’ve seen four concerts in the last five nights. I’m starting to wonder about the sustainability of a 1:1 ratio of blog posts to concerts in a city with this many good shows, but we’ll see how it goes.

Two of the four concerts I saw were Sean Rowe performing on two different stages at Rockwood Music Hall. I was coming in to the shows a bit blind, not having heard his new record, Madman, yet (I pre-ordered it, but didn’t manage to get my hands on it for a few weeks because of reasons I won’t bore you with). I’d been hearing lots of good buzz about it from some of my more music-savvy friends, so I had high expectations.

I’ve seen Rowe perform three times before, always solo, but this time since it was his big record release party, he had a full band with him (please forgive me for not remembering all of their names, I was exhausted and forgot to write anything down). He had an adorably excited-to-be-playing band member named Rex on accordion, percussion, his mom’s roasting pan and a gyill (I had to look up the spelling of that one: it’s a wooden xylophone-type instrument from Africa involving gourds, leather and spiderwebs – really!); a female vocalist; and someone playing bass and flute (but mostly bass). Rowe himself sang and played guitar. The band added a lot of fun and variety to his show, but the main attractions for me are his songs and his voice, so don’t hesitate to catch one of his his solo shows!

I’m not sure if one of the nights was really better than the other, but I was feeling a lot better on Friday so I enjoyed that show a lot more. I also had a nice spot to take some videos of some of the quieter songs he played (the louder/more energetic ones distorted my camera mics too much).

This was (IIRC) the last song he played on Friday night, “Signs” from his second album, “The Salesman and the Shark.” It was a great closer and was a nice way of getting the band back on stage for the finale after he did a few songs solo.


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Review: John Zorn’s “Angels at the Vanguard” (part one)

Faithful readers of Concert Manic will have already read about John Zorn’s week at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, thanks to an in-depth guest post previewing all of the concerts (click here if you haven’t read it and would like to). This week I relocated to my new apartment in New York City approximately 28 hours before the start of “Angels at the Vanguard,” which I swear was a complete coincidence. An hour after my parents dropped me off with the remainder of my belongings, my Zornfest companion for the week arrived from Spain, and the rest is history…

We’re now halfway through the Vanguard residency, and I’ve gotten internet access installed at my new apartment, so I am back in the business of writing concert reviews!

The first set of the first night was one I was particularly looking forward to: Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier on violin and piano. Their Book of Angels album, “Malphas,” is one of my favorites in the series (I think it was the first one I stumbled across in a Tower Records store bin back in the day) and I’m never disappointed when I see them live, whether it’s performing their own compositions or those of John Zorn. I had just picked up Sylvie Courvoisier’s latest album, “Double Windsor,” that afternoon* and was really excited to see her play. (*At the world-famous Downtown Music Gallery, because I live in New York now! It’s exciting.)

It was a Tuesday night and therefore not as busy as some of the weekend sets will no doubt be, but the room was more or less full and I think everyone was excited to be kicking off Zorn’s debut appearance at the Vanguard. I think the two musicians on stage were a perfect choice for the first set – they made one of the really classic Book of Angels albums, and they have played together enough that there was very little chance of nerves or pressure marring their set. In the end, I think they set the tone for the rest of the week, performing brilliantly and beautifully throughout – among the very best sets I’ve seen them play. Several of us in attendance at these shows have remarked on what a pleasure it is, after so many Masada Marathons and shuffle concerts, seeing these talented performers really spreading their wings and playing a full hour or more instead of 10-15 minutes at a time. It feels almost decadent to sit back and revel in these long sets.

The second set of the first night was one I was quite curious about: Eyvind Kang (on viola) and his large band (Mark Feldman – violin; Erik Friedlander – cello; Doug Wieselman – clarinet; Graham Haynes – cornet; Hidayat Honari – tar & guitar; Shahzad Ismaily – bass; and Ches Smith – drums). His recent Book of Angels album, “Alastor,” frankly confused me from the start, although I started getting into it after a few listens. The Vanguard set had an almost entirely different lineup from the album, so it was a bit of a mystery as to what we would get (especially when I’m looking at the list of musicians and thinking: “two-thirds of the Masada String Trio on stage with two-thirds of Ceramic Dog? What!?”). The set turned out to be quite beautiful, I liked it (at least in terms of first impressions) a lot more than I liked the studio album. I’m not sure if it was the different line-up/instrumentation/arrangements or if it’s just something that works better live, but I really enjoyed this set a lot. If I had to find a complaint about it, I would say it was maybe a bit restrained, which is perfectly understandable as it is a very new ensemble and they may not be fully ‘broken in’ yet, as it were. (At least Shahzad Ismaily looked relaxed, barefoot and sitting on his own amp in the back of the room.)
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