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…)

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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Review(s): A completely insane week of music, featuring Kenny Wollesen (3x), Marc Ribot, John Zorn, Secret Chiefs 3, and so much more…

For the record, I’ve pretty much given up on trying to review each concert I go to. In the last 30 days I went to 25 shows. Between that and working full time, I haven’t even finished unpacking from my move, let alone found time to blog about all those shows! I’m not sure if it’s best to write about only one in five shows (give or take) or if it’s best to write about more of them, but in less detail. Your feedback on this is encouraged…

Since my last review (a week ago) I’ve seen seven concerts in six venues in two states featuring roughly 20 bands/ensembles. I can’t write about them all, and it’s hard to even know where to start, but let’s go with 6:30PM, last Thursday afternoon. I’d been planning to go to the Stone for a relatively easy evening out, but I was feeling pretty well rested after staying in the previous evening and I made a very last-minute decision to take the PATH train to New Jersey and attend the HONK! festival event at Monty Hall in New Jersey. The main reason I wanted to go was to see Kenny Wollesen‘s band, the Himalayas, who were on the bill. I’ve seen him play vibes or drums or percussion many times, but only once before had I seen him lead a marching band, and it was over-the-top fun. Naturally, I was eager to repeat the experience.

Monty Hall is a new venue and I had never heard anything about it, so when I arrived to find a quite small venue with no seating, plush wall-to-wall carpeting, and a surprisingly liberal BYOB policy (…I’ve heard of “bring your own” but not “greet everyone at the door with directions to the liquor store and a suggestion that they go get something to bring back”), I just shrugged and tried not to think too hard about their carpet cleaning bills. Like pretty much every HONK! event ever, there was a great vibe to the place and the show was massive amounts of fun. There were a bunch of bands, my two favorites (very narrowly, but I’m trying to be brief, here!) were the Himalayas and the Chaotic Noise Marching Corps. CNMC were punky, loud, crazy, and fun. They overflowed off the stage and into the small audience area, making for a very intense and in-your-face set. The Himalayas, with Kenny Wollesen at their helm, were more percussion-focused than the other bands we saw, which I found very interesting. The rhythms seemed more subtle and sophisticated, and I really enjoyed that difference in a show that didn’t have a lot of subtlety going on. The whole concert was a lot of fun and we danced a lot. (Well, I only danced a little, I’m not very good at dancing. But other people danced up a storm and I had fun watching!)

Kenny Wollesen & the Himalayas

Kenny Wollesen & the Himalayas

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

(Continued from part one.)

We lined up a little earlier for Friday night’s shows, knowing that the presence of John Zorn on stage for the first set (Masada String Trio) would probably spur the fandom to greater heights of dedication. We ended up getting a front row table, and because of a rearrangement of seats due to the band configuration, I ended up sitting right against the stage; the band sat right up front due to the presence of a large percussion setup for the late set, so we ended up sitting about 1-2 feet from John Zorn and Erik Friedlander, which was a pretty crazy POV for this band. They sit in a tight circle with Zorn’s back to the audience, but my close-up sideways view let me see all of his conducting in detail. It was an amazing way to watch an amazing set – one of my favorites from the whole week. They played tunes from book 1 and 2 including the title track from their first Book of Angels album, “Azazel,” which was my favorite piece of the night. The string trio is one of the oldest Masada bands, and it shows – they are extremely talented musicians and about as tight a group as you’ll find anywhere. Zorn’s compositions show them off perfectly, with some pieces featuring lush melodies and others featuring sudden starts and stops and abrupt changes.

I didn’t take any photos or video during this set because it would have been disruptive to the musicians and other audience members to watch me be thrown out of the venue by John Zorn when I pulled out a camera two feet from his face 😉 but here is another live video of the band, from 15 years ago when they collectively had about 3x more hair:

The late set that night was Banquet of the Spirits, and my seat next to the stage meant that I had a faceful of Cyro Baptista’s large and complex percussion setup:

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This set was a lot of fun – it’s hard not to enjoy yourself when Cyro Baptista is playing, he’s almost in a class of his own when it comes to percussion. He brings not only technical mastery but also tons of creativity and a sense of humor. (In related news, I am really looking forward to his residency at the Stone in a couple of months!) The other members of the band are all excellent as well – Shanir Blumenkranz on bass and oud, Tim Keiper on percussion, and Brian Marsella on keyboards (he had a variety of instruments I couldn’t see in addition to the piano, I think there was a harmonium and a melodica as well). I had a great under-the-table photography spot during this set so I took a few nice photos…
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