Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/13) – Part 1: Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra, Composer Q&A

The John Zorn marathon concert day at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis looked like the sort of lineup that would challenge even the most dedicated concert-goer’s stamina. A composer Q&A at 3PM, a concert at 4PM (Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra), a concert at 7PM (Erik Friedlander solo, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba), a concert at 10PM (The Concealed, Nova Express, Aleph Trio), and a solo pipe organ performance at the church across the street at midnight.

After picking up our tickets and wandering around the galleries for a while, we got in line for the Q&A. It turned out to be a very enlightening and funny 45 minutes or so, with the ever-charismatic Zorn taking relatively few questions, preferring to just go on his own tangents. He got more and more animated as he talked, touching on a lot of topics about his community of musicians and how he brings out their best work, the nature of creativity and the writing process, what it takes to put together these marathon concerts, what it means to be 60 years old, how he deals with critics, and more. I am a really big fan of his (both musically and as a person), and I found the talk very interesting and illuminating. One of my friends said afterwards that she could have listened to him talk all day, and I’d agree – we would have stayed and listened for hours if there hadn’t been another event at four o’clock.

After the talk was over, we hurried over to the McGuire theater, where the concerts were taking place. We didn’t have long to wait before it started, and Zorn had decided to start the day with some of his stranger material: Marc Ribot playing selections from the Book of Heads. This is a collection of short pieces that thoroughly explore the possibilities of extended techniques for the guitar. (For those not familiar with the term, ‘extended techniques’ refers to playing an instrument in ways not intended – say, knocking on the side of the guitar, or rubbing balloons against the strings.)

There is not a lot of melody going on, and in my experience when one listens to the studio recording, you’re liable to spend half the album thinking “what is he DOING to that guitar?” It is much more fun to watch since you can see what he’s doing – licking his finger and making squeaky noises on the guitar with it, playing or muting the strings with various objects, stamping on the balloons that were on the floor around his chair… it’s fascinating to see. He was taking it very seriously (with the exception of a couple of reactions to the crowd being surprised by something he did) and looked very studious and reverent, bent over and peering at his notes/sheet music. I imagine it is a pretty challenging sort of music to play.

I unfortunately was unable to film or photograph any of the first set due to being seated next to some sort of venue personnel with a flashlight and walkie-talkie, but here is a Book of Heads piece filmed at the Kessler in Dallas a couple of years ago:

The next piece being performed was Hockey. I’d never seen or heard it and didn’t have much of an idea what to expect, other than knowing that it was one of Zorn’s game pieces. (His game pieces are essentially sets of rules that he has written for musical games, where one or more people direct the music by signalling to each other while playing.) Hockey turned out to be a trio… and a very unusual one! John Zorn played an assortment of duck calls, Erik Friedlander was there with his cello, Kenny Wollesen had a table full of percussionish objects as well as something in his mouth that may have been another duck call. The three of them performed and Zorn conducted. (more…)

Two weeks, no concerts.

Sometimes the randomness of my life and concert touring schedules means that I find myself without a good concert to go to for weeks at a time. I’m currently halfway through a two-week concert desert, but I didn’t want to let my blog sit here with no new posts! So here’s an update on the goings-on of the temporarily concertless concert blogger.

I just finished reading Bettye Lavette‘s autobiography, “A Woman Like Me.” I picked up a copy at her last concert in Boston. It was a fun and easy read, and I found it to be written very much in her own highly unique voice. Assuming everything in there is true, she has lived quite a crazy life! I really can’t decide if I think she is a great bullshitter or if the book is brutally honest. Maybe some of each, who knows? Most people will probably find something controversial in the book – drugs, sex, prostitution, domestic violence – but it’s a good read nonetheless.

I have also been obsessively stalking (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:
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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…)

Concert review: Border Music – Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo (1/26/13)

I took a somewhat ill-fated trip to Burlington, Vermont this past weekend to catch a concert at the Flynn Center: Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo‘s “Border Music” project. (I won’t bore you with the ill-fated parts of the trip, but if I ever start talking about going on a long bus journey again, please remind me of the time we broke down in rural New Hampshire in the dead of winter.)

I’m not entirely sure what “Border Music” is supposed to be, but judging from the music I heard that night, their definition seemed to be pretty fluid. There was a lot of Latin music – unsurprisingly, given Hidalgo’s background in Los Lobos and the Latin Playboys and Ribot’s Cubanos Postizos – but there were some other selections that were a little less clear on where they fit in to the concept. I’m sure that if I had a chance to ask, they would have had fascinating explanations of which borders those songs would be straddling.

The equipment on stage was intriguing me even before they started playing: two electric guitars, three acoustic guitars, a cello, and a ukelele. There was, needless to say, a lot of tuning going on throughout the set (along with the obligatory “we tune because we care!” jokes and one or two “shouldn’t we have roadies for this?” comments).

Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo

The setlist seemed to be mostly improvised, with the two performers taking turns to pick which song they wanted to play next. The first piece to be performed was one of Hidalgo’s picks, a song he did with the Latin Playboys called Manifold de Amour. It was a gorgeous start to the concert – Marc Ribot playing acoustic guitar, David Hidalgo picking out a bass line on the cello, both singing the single repeated verse: Voy a navegar / Al puerto del alma / Cruzando el mar / Hasta que llegaré
The internet informs me that the translation is something like: “I’m going to sail / to the port of the soul / crossing the sea / until I arrive.”

The next song was The Dying Cowboy, a song that Marc Ribot has recorded more than once – most recently on Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings album. He talked about his unusual arrangement of the song in an interview with the L.A. Times: “I was surprised at the dirgy, depressing, very non-cowboy chords of this version/arrangement. Pretty soon I figured out that I was misreading it (chalk up another one for Harold Bloom). In contemporary [musical] notation, a minus sign means minor chord; in the 30’s, it meant dominant 7th, a completely different vibe. But I liked it so much that I kept it minor, more or less threw out the original melody (ah, it’s good to be an American!) and turned it into a kind of free-jazz cowboy raga.” The “Border Music” interpretation of this was a haunting duet with two acoustic guitars and Ribot doing the vocals in a more-or-less spoken-word style. Really lovely.

The next couple of pieces were fairly predictable choices – a Los Lobos song called La Pistola y El Corazón and Fiesta en el Solar, an Arsenio Rodriguez song that Ribot recorded on one of his Cubanos Postizos albums. I sneaked a video recording of La Pistola just for you:

After this we got the first song choice that made me wonder exactly what sort of border this music was on: David Hidalgo sang a quite lovely version of Jim Reeves’ Put Your Sweet Lips Closer to the Phone. Marc Ribot switched from his acoustic guitar to his Fender Jaguar for this one, giving us our first taste of his electric guitar style (of which I happen to be a very big fan!). (more…)