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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Memorable concert moments of 2013

As I’ve discussed before, I’m incapable of ranking things like favorite or best concerts… but I do like to think back and remember all the most amazing, bizarre, and important live music moments of the year. A lot of them are more personal than musical, but I think they generally speak to the power of a live music performance anyway. So… in no particular order, some of the most memorable concert and concert-related moments of the year:

• Matana Roberts at the Issue Project Room, using the audience vocals as a third instrument along with her voice and her saxophone; combined with the acoustics in the room it was beautiful bordering on sacred.

• Not one, but two concerts where I was the only audience member to show up. Awkward…

• Sean Rowe & co. covering “That Feel” at Cafe 939, coming down into the audience and doing a perfectly imperfect acoustic three-way harmony of guitars and vocals.

• Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys’ incredible cover of “I Put A Spell On You” in the Spiegeltent at the Outside the Box Festival – it didn’t just make my day, it made my whole week.

• If it hadn’t been the Year of Zorn, it would have been the Year of Ceramic Dog – I saw them five times and every one was a memorable, unique show. My second most popular Youtube video of the year was from the second Ceramic Dog show I saw:

• Every time I convinced someone to see a show and they loved it. I convinced a surprising number of people to travel out of state or even to a different country for bands they’d never seen and/or heard before. (What can I say – I’m contagious.)

• Seeing the ever-intense Woven Hand at max volume from point-blank range at a little club in Boston when I felt devastated inside, but figured it was better than (more…)

Those ubiquitous end-of-year “best of” lists…

I was trying to think of something to write about this week since I’ve been sick and had to cancel some planned concert attendance. The obvious choice was one of those end-of-year best-of lists that all the music writers in the world seem to do sometime in early December. But… I just can’t bring myself to write one! There are a lot of great reasons to make best-of lists, I get that. You want to get the word out about great stuff people might have missed. And people write them in early December so “Santa” can get some ideas for Christmas gifts for music lovers. (Chanukah’s already over, so that’s a moot point for me.) But even when I sit down and seriously try to come up with a list of the year’s best concerts, I can’t do it. Plus, the more compulsive aspects of my personality refuse to let me do a “year end” list when the year hasn’t ended yet. And last, but not least: Art is not a competition! Music is not a game you can win (not even if you’re playing game pieces!). It’s a collaborative effort by everyone involved. That’s kind of nice, isn’t it? Let’s not ruin it by picking winners and losers.

However, for the last few years I’ve written up “concert year in review” posts, with a full list of concerts seen and various commentary/statistics. I’ve also done some “concert moments of the year” posts. I didn’t have a blog to post them on back then, so unless you’re friends with me you probably haven’t seen them. I’ll post the 2013 year in review here in January, when the year is actually over. (You’ve heard the saying “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” well… my motto is “the year ain’t over till Spiritual Unity plays Bells at midnight.”)

Now, all that being said… as I mentioned above, one of the reasons people post these things in early December is to give gift ideas to readers. And I have no problem giving a little extra promotional space to support good music, so here are some Concert Manic gift suggestions for the music lovers in your life. Completely useless to all of my fellow Jews, but we are all distracted by our latke-induced box grater injuries anyway. (…just me?)

I’ll start with a trio of recent John Zorn releases:
In Lambeth: Visions from the Walled Garden of William Blake – This one was released a few days ago, so your favorite Zorn fan probably doesn’t have it yet. It’s also a great place to start for a Zorn neophyte, as it is very accessible. Beautiful, gentle, but still interesting music featuring Kenny Wollesen (vibes), electric guitar (Bill Frisell), and harp (Carol Emanuel).
The Concealed – This one is about a year old, but it’s my favorite Zorn album in quite a while. It reminds me of a cross between the Dreamers and Bar Kokhba, but without the guitar. I love it, check out the samples and see what you think. Also, the artwork on the Amazon page I linked to isn’t accurate – the package is very cool and uses transparent/reflective inks. It would make a neat gift. Here’s a video I shot of this band in April, to give you an idea what they sound like:

If you want to really wow someone with amazing packaging, check out (more…)

A fresh start, and a look back

I figured I’d start my first real blog post with a look back at the year that just ended: 2012. It was a pretty epic year for concerts! Here are a few of my highlights.

The first concert of the year was in a small venue in my neighborhood, Lilypad. John Medeski played a solo piano concert (and I think everyone involved is probably still wondering why he picked such a small venue – it only seats about 60 people). I had an amazing seat – right next to Medeski, with a perfect view of every key he pressed. It’s really special to see a real virtuoso from that vantagepoint. You can actually watch and listen to the entire concert here – the person sitting next to me at the show combined both of our video footage with another friend’s audio recording to come up with a complete concert film.

Later in January, I saw Joe Henry for the first time – two nights in a row at City Winery in New York City. I lucked out and he asked my favorite guitarist, Marc Ribot, to join him for those two nights. Ribot also performed a short opening set. The undeniable highlight was a performance of “Tomorrow Is October” from Henry’s latest album, Reverie, in a stripped-down arrangement for voice and two guitars – Henry on acoustic and Ribot on electric. Much more beautiful and striking than the studio version, as much as I like the original.

In the spring I had the good fortune to catch the Underscore Orkestra, who describe themselves as “playing a blend of Balkan, Klezmer, Gypsy Jazz and Swing.” That was one of the most fun shows I saw all year, and I’d never heard of them before so it was a great surprise. They are currently on tour in Australia/New Zealand and will be on a lengthy U.S. tour later in the spring. Keep your eye on their tour page to see if they come your way – highly recommended!

Another surprise for me was (more…)