Concert Review: John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (9/15/2013)

On Sunday I went to the Skirball Center at NYU for one of John Zorn’s spectacular Masada Marathons. I’ve seen a number of them before (five, IIRC) and every one has been both different and wonderful in its own way. This one featured more bands than any I’d seen before, a total of thirteen – including a couple I hadn’t seen before. In order of performance: Bar Kokhba, Banquet of the Spirits, Mycale, David Krakauer & his band (billed on the program as simply “Krakauer”), Erik Friedlander solo, Secret Chiefs 3, the Dreamers, Malphas, Roberto Rodriguez Octeto Masada, Uri Caine solo, Abraxas, Masada String Trio, and the grand finale, Electric Masada.

If you’re not familiar with Zorn’s Masada music, it’s basically a songbook of tunes that he wrote based on certain rules – they are all short (and meant to be improvised/expanded upon by the musicians interpreting the tunes) and are based on certain scales/modes that have a Judaic feel to them. He’s released dozens of albums based on the hundreds of tunes in the Masada songbooks, and in recent years he has put together a number of Masada Marathon concerts where he gets together a large number of bands to play Masada material.

For this article, I’m going to write about the bands I thought were particular highlights, instead of trying to be completist – thirteen bands in one post is a bit overkill even for me. I really thought all 13 of the bands were at the very least good and/or interesting, but sometimes a blogger has to make tough choices…

Bar Kokhba was first up, and they are always a favorite of mine. It’s a real all-star band: Marc Ribot on guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and the Masada String Trio (Erik Friedlander, Mark Feldman, and Greg Cohen) on cello, violin, and bass, respectively. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better band, and they’ve been playing together for about fifteen years as a group (some of them have been working together since the 80s) and they are always really tight and throw down a fantastic groove. I thought the first piece was a bit tame, understandable when they’re warming up the crowd. But in the second piece they really knocked it out of the park – especially Marc Ribot, with a few fiery solos. He just flipped that “It’s Time To Be Awesome Now” switch somewhere in his brain and cranked out some crazy, fun stuff. Bar Kokhba is a band that can be pretty laid back – surfy and groovy – but it’s a slow burn that can really go over the top when they have a chance to stretch out on stage. I think sometimes the limited time they get in these Masada Marathons works against them, since they have to stop playing almost as soon as they really get going.

I had terribly unfortunate camera problems on the night of the show (and me sitting front row center, too! What a wasted opportunity) so you’ll have to settle for audio with no picture:

Banquet of the Spirits was up next, and their set was a lot of fun. They are pretty much a band designed for fun: Cyro Baptista, the Brazilian percussionist who seems like he must have rhythm flowing through his veins; Brian Marsella, a fantastic and wild keyboard player (who you can also hear playing in Zion80, a band I’ve mentioned before); Shanir Blumenkranz, a talented multi-instrumentalist who played in several bands throughout the evening; and Tim Keiper on drums… I always feel a little bad for someone playing drums in Cyro’s band, how can you keep up with him?! But Keiper manages to do just that. The band only played a few tunes, but they changed the tone considerably, from Bar Kokhba’s sunny surfy grooves to something darker, weirder, and more exotic. The very beginning of the set started with some deep rumbling, strange and difficult-to-identify percussion noises, and some slightly creepy piano. Very atmospheric, and totally different from the band we’d just seen. But after that eerie introduction they launched into some faster, more rhythm-focused music, featuring a lot of interesting bass textures and some wonderful work on the keyboards from Brian Marsella. It’s a bit hard to pin them down into a genre, I guess you could call it “world jazz.” I’ve seen them 4-5 times and they are always exciting and fun.

Another favorite from the first half of the night was Erik Friedlander – I’ve always been impressed with his solo performances, but he’s taken these Masada pieces so far beyond the (more…)

Concert Review: Ceramic Dog (Shahzad Ismaily, Marc Ribot, Ches Smith) (New York City, 5/5/2013)

On Sunday night, some friends and I caught the record release party for Ceramic Dog‘s new album “Your Turn” at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I was excited enough to get in line around 6PM to ensure top quality seats, and we ended up at just about the best possible table in the front row. As you can see, it was a pretty good view:


I’ve always liked this venue, both for the room itself (sightlines, sound, etc.) and the consistently interesting and high-quality music they book. I wish they would open a branch here in Boston! (Le Poisson avec des Chaussettes Rouges?) I’m always happy to catch a show there. (more…)

Concert Review: Ceramic Dog (Amsterdam, 2/23/2013)

Last Saturday at the Bimhuis was a special night for me, for a lot of reasons. In part it was because I have a special love of introducing people to amazing music, especially live music (hence the blog!), and I had about 10-12 friends attending the show with me, many of whom had never heard Ceramic Dog before. I was really excited for all of them to see one of my favorite bands, and I was excited to be at the Bimhuis, which is a venue I’ve been hearing good things about for years. (In fact, I was so excited to be in the Bimhuis that I slipped on one of their many stairs and sprained my ankle while entering the venue…)

Ceramic Dog is a trio consisting of Marc Ribot (electric guitar, vocals), Shahzad Ismaily (electric bass, electric guitar, Moog, percussion), and Ches Smith (drums, percussion). They are all three brilliant musicians and endless fun to watch – I never know who to look at since they are all so interesting when they play. For this concert I ended up sitting right in front of Marc Ribot on guitar:

As an introduction, Marc told us that tonight was very special, because half of the band members were feverish and sick (as were two of my friends, as it happened – not a healthy night at the Bimhuis), because the show was going to be broadcast on the radio, and because they had their new record, “Your Turn,” available at the merch table.

The show started out with a particularly good five-minute instrumental, with Ismaily’s bass line powering it like an engine. Marc Ribot let out a couple of yells, which is always a good sign that he’s really into whatever he’s playing 😉 They made an abrupt cymbal-smash-bang transition into the next song, “Prayer,” which is from their new album. It starts very quietly and simply and builds gradually into a huge loud smashing peak – and then does it again; and again; before finally launching into several minutes of frenzied — well, I’ll just let you watch for yourself, because I filmed this one!

After the assault of “Prayer” is resolved into a quiet outro, the next piece was eased into very slowly, with a couple minutes of quiet, repeated guitar themes over a background of spare drums. There was a bit of a reggae flavor to it, but just a bit. It morphed into something a little noisier and Ceramic Doggish, losing the reggae feel and going in more of a rock direction, with a different sound to the guitar and a bigger bass presence. As is often the case with this band, it ended up turning into a huge, driving, pounding wall of music, with some really beautiful power-drumming carrying it all. Towards the end it quieted down again and turned quite abstract and spacey in order to segue into a cover of Hendrix’ “The Wind Cries Mary.” As usual, this cover bore little resemblance to the original and has relatively little emphasis on the electric guitar. I guess they like to turn expectations upside down sometimes.

They actually paused to let us applaud for a few seconds before launching into a light-hearted piece from their new album, “Mr. Pants Goes to Hollywood.” (I’m told Mr. Pants is a dog belonging to the band’s management…there’s a photo of him in their new album’s liner notes.) This one has been a live favorite of mine for a while – it’s a lot of fun. They transitioned from that into another fun instrumental that ended up turning briefly into something very Latin-sounding that would have been right at home at a Cubanos Postizos concert.

After an intermission, they played a short instrumental piece that was one of my favorites of the night – a beautiful and quiet guitar melody, slowly overtaken by (more…)

Concert Review: Ceramic Dog (Fontenay-sous-Bois, 2/19/2013)

This is my first jet-lagged blog post, but it probably won’t be my last 😉 Just got back from a week in Europe where I saw a handful of excellent concerts. The first concert of the trip was Ceramic Dog, a strong contender for my favorite live band. Ceramic Dog is Marc Ribot (electric guitar, backing vocals), Ches Smith (drums, percussion), and Shahzad Ismaily (bass, Moog, percussion, backing vocals, guitar, etc.).

In theory, Marc Ribot is my favorite musician on the planet, but the rest of this band is so much fun, and so fascinating, that I often find myself watching them instead. And when I happen to be standing directly in front of Mr. Ismaily, I have a hard time paying attention to anyone else. This was my view on Tuesday night:

Shahzad Ismaily

…so I mostly watched him. Which is just fine, because he is astounding. He plays a ton of instruments, he composes, he produces, and he’s involved with a lot of great bands and musicians (Secret Chiefs 3, Jolie Holland, Carla Kihlstedt, etc.).

The concert started with some somewhat spacey instrumental music which got a lot heavier when Ismaily’s bass kicked in (that bass amp was LOUD! plus I was standing right in front of it). They had a great groove going for a few minutes and then deconstructed the piece back into the spacey instrumental stuff; this segued smoothly into a second instrumental piece, which involved a lot of sudden crescendos and decrescendos before settling into something pretty heavy again and then eventually devolving into some serious noise, courtesy of Ismaily’s Moog. (“Noise” as in “noise music”… it’s a good thing!)

After a brief break to let the audience offer some appreciation, they headed in a slightly more retro direction and did a cover of (more…)