Archive for the ‘instrumental’ Category

Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part Two)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

The final set of performances we took in at Big Ears 2014 were all centered around the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich. It was all deeply thrilling, visceral, emotional stuff, the kind of thing that’s quite difficult to put into words. It might sounds like a cop-out to say so, but this is music that must be experienced live. I had never heard most of it in recorded form, so I claim no point of reference. But it was stunning and beautiful in ways I find myself unable to articulate. So instead I offer some photos. They don’t quite get at it either, but they’re cool nonetheless. If you find my writing about music at all resonating with you, just trust me when I tell you that this music was amazing. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead solo, then a couple other Reich pieces by Ensemble Signal.

I don’t consider the word “commercial” a pejorative term, but neither do I consider it an essential component of worthwhile music. Big Ears 2014 was for the most part far, far, far from commercial, but I sincerely hope that the organizers made their earnings goals. Because as festivals go, Big Ears 2014 was well-run, incredibly thoughtful in terms of artist selection, and user-friendly in the extreme. An unqualified success. I truly hope they schedule another one soon, and if they do, I’ll make every effort to cover it.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part One)

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dean and Britta
I had already seen Dean Wareham and his wife/collaborator Britta Phillips on Day One of Big Ears 2014. But what was advertised for their Sunday performance – this time at the smaller Bijou – was intriguing enough to get my attention. The plan was to project thirteen of Andy Warhol‘s famous “screen test” films while the musicians provided a real-time soundtrack. I figured it would bear a passing similarity to Marc Ribot‘s accompaniment to the Chaplin film from Day Two.

I was wrong. While Ribot was shrouded in total darkness, leaving our auditory senses the only ones to process his real-time work, Dean and Britta (and band) played on a lit stage. They also provided commentary between the films.

The music was good, but there was a definite self-conscious air about it all. As each piece wound its way toward the end, Wareham could be seen intently studying a flat-panel monitor at the foot of the stage. This, I suspect, had the films on it plus a time clock. So while the songs had been rehearsed out to follow the rough run time of each film, Wareham had to signal the band to (in some cases) vamp an ending a bit longer or (other times) end sooner than planned. That’s all well and good, but seeing the wizards’ goings-on behind the curtain did indeed detract from the experience, making it seem a bit stiff.

Britta’s lead vocal turn on Bob Dylan‘s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” (accompanying a Nico screen test) was a highlight. And the sight of Lou Reed onscreen moved some in the audience to give said screen a standing-o.

One other slight off-note: when I saw Wareham on Friday, he made a comment during the second song to the effect of “There are a lot of photographers up here.” It was said with what I took to be equal parts discomfort and distaste. But I decided to forget about it. Until Sunday, when Wareham took the opportunity between songs to approach the front edge of the stage, lean down toward the front row, and scold a photographer (not me) for shining a light in his eyes. (They weren’t using a flash, and were shooting during the proscribed first three-songs period.) Now, Wareham wasn’t pulling a Cat Power, and nobody likes having a light shone in their eyes, but as I say, the episode added an unsettling feel to the show as a whole.

Rachel Grimes
The vibe could not have been more different when Rachel Grimes took the stage for her shortish yet delightful set. Initially it was just her and a grand piano, with highly melodic and expressive instrumental pieces. It was good enough that – had that been all we got – it would have been well worth the time spent.

But then it got better. Grimes, who was clearly thrilled to be onstage at Big Ears, refreshingly seeming as much a fan as a performer, introduced Helen Money (aka Chesley) on cello. We were thrilled, since Money’s earlier solo show was one we hadn’t been able to make. As she sawed expressively on her cello while Grimes played more of her lovely tunes, it was truly a thing of beauty.

And then it got better still. Sax player Jacob Duncan joined the two women onstage. And – shades of Rashaan Roland Kirk – he played two saxes at once. It was amazing from a technical point of view, but none of that would have mattered if the music wasn’t breathtaking. It was. As was the entire set.

We then headed over to the tiny Scruffy City Hall for what would be our only show at that venue. The standing-room-only crowd there was – at least in terms of my own Big Ears experience – an anomaly, but we didn’t mind, since we were going to see and hear a buzzworthy band.

About all I can say regarding Earth is that they’re the perfect band for anyone who thinks Black Sabbath plays too fast, or doesn’t drop-tune far enough. The low groan of Earth’s songs offered little in the way of melody or variation. And please understand that I say this as rock fan who’s been to hundreds of concerts, but it was fucking LOUD. And, honestly, pretty boring.

Amusingly, a look around the packed room found countless heads nodding slooowly in time to the music, like a flock of stoner dippy birds. They all reminded me of someone struggling to stay awake but nodding off anyway.

After several samey songs, they announced that the next piece would be “a new one.” We decided to stick around and give it a chance. The piece started off every bit as monotonously slow, uneventful and deafeningly loud as the others, but what we heard felt like an extended intro. So we waited, half-expecting at any moment after an endless droning squall of feedback to hear the drummer count off a quicker one-two-three-four and kick up the tempo.

It never happened. We left.

Coming in the next installment: review of a set of Steve Reich compositions that capped the three-day festival, and some closing thoughts on Big Ears 2014 overall.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

After getting (respectively) a headache and a power nap, my sweetheart and I headed back to the Tennessee Theatre, remarking all the while how well-thought-out Big Ears 2014 is as a whole. The four primary venues all lay in a straight line in downtown, the farthest apart being no more than about six blocks. And while the lack of crowds might not have exactly been part of the game plan for the organizers, it sure made things nice for those of us who were attending. No lines, no jostling…just music and good vibes.

Wordless Music Orchestra
I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect from this outfit. The festival guide described it as performances of film music, mostly by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), and mostly from a handful of critically well-received films, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood among them.

Greenwood himself wouldn’t figure into this particular performance (that would come on Sunday), and what concertgoers got instead was a smallish ensemble mostly made up of violinists (with some celli, some basses), seated in rows facing each other. The sight of a projection screen above the musicians led me to anticipate scenes from these films flashing by whilst the players ran through the scores, but that was not to be. Instead, the screen merely indicated the name of each piece, its composer, and the film from which it came (if it was a film piece; some weren’t).

Overall, it was a bit monochromatic. The musicians were all fine; excellent, probably. But the music was less varied than I might have hoped, and a good portion of it was melancholy, sometimes almost dreary. The Greenwood pieces were the best; some of the other pieces bordered on the unpleasant. As a way to spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon, it was worthwhile, but the excitement quotient was largely nonexistent.

Steve Reich’s Drumming
Another case of the putative marquee name not being part of the performance, this one was nonetheless a stunning showcase. Featuring a pair of ensembles called So Percussion and nief-norf Project, this concert was one nonstop piece of percussive music. The work started from nearly nothing – one person hitting some small tuned drums – and built to a climax. Then it ebbed, flowed, swelled and receded. Players were added. Players sat down. The music never stopped, and the audience was held in thrall.

Occasionally vocalists were added to the mix; while the piece was totally scored, it had an organic, seemingly improvised feel to it. The vocalists, for example, seemed to seek out the patterns and melodies as opposed to merely react to them. A recognizable pattern would emerge, and then as soon as a listener such as myself started to groove on it, it would disappear into the percussive maelstrom. I’d never seen nor heard anything like Drumming before (and no, the drum circles here in Asheville don’t compare), and felt honored and awed to be in the presence of such an amazing performance.

It was quite a temporal shift, then, to remain in our seats when the next act came out. New wave / no wave/ punk heroes Television took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre. With three-fourths of the classic lineup – guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith – the band was joined by longtime Verlaine associate Jimmy Rip (guitarist Richard Lloyd left the band amicably in 2007).

Television have long held an odd place in rock history; they’re often (rightly or wrongly) lumped in with the late 70s NYC scene that included The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the like. But with two stellar lead guitarists (there’s rarely any “rhythm guitar” in Television songs) the group came on more like the era’s answer to Thin Lizzy. Or something.

Guitar heroics without all the histrionics and posing: that was a big part of what made Television great then, and it’s what brought the house down this night. Rip is an ace player, and did a great job of both satisfying those who wanted to hear the songs done the way Lloyd woulda done ‘em and making sure that people knew he’s his own man with plenty to say in his own playing.

The songs were long, but never meandering; the guitar dialogue between Verlaine and Rip was electric, and Ficca and Smith provided a thrilling yet rock-solid foundation for the guitarists. The group even pulled out a new song that will hopefully show up on a new Television album…some day.

Stay tuned for more Big Ears 2014 coverage.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 1

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Dean Wareham
We arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to grab front-row seats in the beautiful Tennessee Theatre. It certainly helped that attendance for Wareham’s set was light (the venue filled in pretty well as the performance got under way). A relatively low-key performance free of any sort of visual effects, Wareham’s set included songs form his new (and first) solo album, titled Dean Wareham (“I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” he deadpanned).

The set also included some numbers from his Luna and Galaxie 500 days; the crowd helped the relatively uninformed among us (myself included) know when one of these was beginning by helpfully applauding a bar or two into the tunes. Wareham’s spouse and musical collaborator Britta Phillips held down a nimble bottom end on her p-bass, while the second lead guitarist added plenty of tone color via understated but highly effective lines on his SG, and some lovely slide work.

Wareham’s tunes hit the sweet spot between indie-rock and catchy, hooky pop, providing a surprisingly accessible opener for what I had assumed would be a rather avant garde festival.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
That assumption was confirmed, however, with the second set we witnessed this evening. At the Bijou (conveniently located mere steps form the Tennessee Theatre; Big Ears is nothing if not an intelligently laid out festival), thanks in part to the later start time, a relatively larger (adjusted for venue size) crowd turned up.

In general, I often equate seated musicians with low energy, laconic performances (see: Grateful Dead, 1987). But Ribot and his band mates – drummer Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily on bass, percussion and electronics – put the lie to that assumption. Tearing through a set of mostly original material, the trio served up what will stand in my memory as one of the most musically unclassifiable performances I’ve ever witnessed. There was punk-skronk, avant-jazz, and even a sort of weird rethink of heavy 70s rock done in some bizarre time signature that would threaten to break the ankle of anyone who dared try to tap their foot along in time.

While Ribot’s original material was fascinating – especially his acerbic “Masters of the Internet” – for me the highlight was a heavily rearranged take of Dave Brubeck‘s “Take Five.” The basic structure of the tune was there, but the band headed off into myriad exploratory directions, making the chestnut truly their own.

Most assuredly not the easiest of listening, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog brought together the experimental and accessible in a way that was at least intriguing, and at best thrilling.

The Norwegian thrush is possessed of a crystalline voice and stately, regal manner. Seated at her grand piano on the dimly lit stage of the Tennessee Theatre, she delivered her icy-cool yet emotionally wrought songs with the subtle aid of a drummer who as often as not played mallets and provided splashes of percussive color rather than a beat) and a guitarist who was equal parts understatement and finesse.

Susanna’s songs conjured strong images in my imagination: cold, grey, desolate landscapes that are somehow beautiful in their own way…that kind of thing. Her songs about death and whatnot are designed to produce just such a reaction, I suspect. Early on in her set, Susanna explained to the crowd that “I am Susanna, and,” gesturing to her bandmates, “we are Susanna.” She further explained that she has released many albums in the last decade, under her own name and other guises as well, and that she has something of a reputation for doing unusual covers (reinterpretations is a better word) of other artists’ material.

She proved this last point by performing an elegaic rendering of Thin Lizzy‘s “Jailbreak.” Slowed to the breaking point, and punctuated with simple yet lovely piano melodic lines, she offered a wholly original concept of the hard rock classic.

More Big Ears 2014 coverage throughout the next several days.

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Album Review: Volker Kriegel — Mainz 1963-1969

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Consider yourself forgiven if you find yourself unfamiliar with the name Volker Kriegel, and even more forgiven if you’re unfamiliar with his work as pioneering artist in the soul-jazz genre. I mean, who would expect a mild-mannered German guitarist born in 1943 – the same year as George Harrison, for goodness’ sake – to make serious inroads in a musical style more closely associated with Americans, specifically African Americans.

In fact Kriegel’s earliest material finds him working in more of an electrified Django Reinhardt style. Only around 1967 did he begin to develop a sound more in a soul jazz vein. But when he did, the results were thrilling. The latest Jazzhaus release – another in its “Lost Tapes” series – collects 29 studio recordings Kriegel made in the early parto f his career. Mainz 1963-1969 is a 2CD set of pristine studio tracks featuring smallish jazz ensembles with Kriegel leading the way on amplified hollow body electric guitar.

Many of the tracks feature Kriegel accompanied by one of a few upright bassists and a drummer; and while those are interesting and a delight to hear, they’re not revelatory in the manner of the other cuts. Those other ones feature vibraphonsits (either Claudio Szenkar or Fritz Hartschuh) and show a dazzling interplay between Kriegel’s nimble guitar work and the vibes.

On the vibes-less tracks – mostly recorded in a November 1963 session – Kriegel’s clearly enunciated single note guitar lines lead the trio through appealing jazz arrangements; the rhythm section is able enough, but is rarely called upon to do much beyond supporting the guitarist. This they do well, but listeners will have no trouble deciding who the star is here. Kriegel’s guitar mimics the sound and feel of a jazz vocalist. His lightning runs (and dissonant fills) on Thelonius Monk‘s “Rhythm-a-Ning” are the undisputed highlights of the 1963 set of recordings. The spare accompaniment on a reading of “Autumn Leaves” is lovely, and the track subtly points the way toward the future.

Because once Kriegel began working with vibraphonists on his Mainz recordings – mostly in three sessions from 1967, 1968 and 1969 – the band became a more democratic institution. His own playing is even more fascinating, and now that he’s joined by soloists of comparable skill and invention, his own playing improves. The interplay between guitar and vibraphone is a study in economy and taste. From the first cut of this era – a 1967 reading of “Tea and Rum” it’s clear that Kriegel has arrived; he’s barely recognizable form his sound of just a few years earlier. Even the rhythm section charges harder. And so it’s here that the soul jazz leanings come to the fore: on cuts like “Soul Eggs” – a tune he’d cut for official release with The Dave Pike Set in 1970 – there’s a thrilling, soulful feel to the entire affair. Even the more contemplative numbers — like “Morandi” — feature more in the way of texture.

The less well-known cuts that make up Kriegel’s ’67-’69 sessions on this disc are nearly as exciting. Surely the highlight – perhaps second only to “Soul Eggs” – is Kriegel’s unexpected cover of “Mother People,” a manic Frank Zappa track that originally appeared on The MothersWe’re Only in it for the Money album (and a tune which Zappa memorably “performed” on a TV episode of The Monkees).

Jazzhaus archive curator Ulli Pfau recounts in the accompanying booklet how he stumbled across the tapes that make up this set. Readers are left wondering what other treasures may yet lie undiscovered in that archive. And Pfau’s editorial note tantalizes further: “This double CD contains only a selection of the recordings. Others are available for download online.” Anyone who enjoys the CD tracks will doubtless want to pursue the other cuts.

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What’s Old is New Again in November 2013, Part Two

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Three more capsule reviews of new-to-you live albums, continuing from yesterday’s blog entry.

The Modern Jazz Quartet – Lost Tapes: Germany 1956-1958
Where modern jazz is concerned, taste and restraint need not be synonymous. And there’s no better exemplar of the first without the second than The Modern Jazz Quartet. Throughout its forty-plus year history, the MJQ created some tasty, vibes-centric jazz that was classy yet never staid, adventurous yet rarely abstract. And their fame and influence extended beyond the borders of jazz: even The Beatles were fans, releasing a pair of MJQ albums in the late 1960s on their signature Apple label. This newly-released collection of early Modern Jazz Quartet sessions features studio (Stuttgart 1956 and Baden-Baden ’56 and ’58) and live (Pforzheim) recordings from the period that heralded the group’s European breakthrough. As ever, Milt Jackson‘s warm and mellow vibraphone is the centerpiece, though John Lewis‘ piano work is prominently featured. But perhaps the most fascinating tracks here are the three numbers on which the MJQ is backed by orchestra and/or a large ensemble; “Midsömmer,” “Bluesology” and “Django” are all afforded more nuance and greater texture by such arrangements. And at the behest of Joachim-Ernst Berendt (to whom the MJQ’s “J.B. Blues” is dedicated), Milt Jackson turns in a solo reading of Walter Gross‘ “Tenderly.”

Flash Featuring Peter Banks – In Public
Even the notoriously truculent Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979) gave Flash props, comparing them to Yes: “Anyone hearing Flash in 1972 would have given them equal chances for success.” In fact this British group – led by Yes’ original guitarist Peter Banks – sounded a lot like Yes, although Banks was a more aggressive player than Steve Howe. This recording of a 1973 Kansas City date shows Flash living up to their name. With Colin Carter, a strident vocalist in the Jack Bruce mold, and Ray Bennett playing (of course) a thick, trebly Rickenbacker 4001, Flash deliver the goods. This set is quite well recorded, though Banks’ liner notes (penned days before his fatal heart failure at age 65) make needless apologies for the sound quality. In places, Flash sound a bit like Islands era King Crimson, balancing technical prowess with thundering, ballsy 70s rock approach. The songs are knotty and complicated, yet still heavy; the playing never feels like filigree, and it always moves the song forward. Michael Hough‘s drums are mixed surprisingly loud for an early 70s set, but that’s a good thing. The prog tropes of fast/slow, heavy/light, loud/quiet are all used to intelligent ends here.

Update: From the flurry of emails I’ve received, seems there’s disagreement amongst involved parties as to the ownership/legality etc. concerning this release. I’m staying out of it. — bk

Steve Hillage – Live in England 1979
Sure, in 1979 Steve Hillage looked like – and almost certainly was – a dirty hippie, but his wide-eyed brand of rock successfully combined progressive chops with the proto-jam aesthetic of Gong (a collective of which Hillage was a member 1972-76, 1994-1999, 2004-2006 and 2008-2012, effectively making him the Rick Wakeman of space rock). This 1979 audiovisual document was filmed at The University of Kent, and while the audio sounds indeed like the feed from a video, it’s not bad at all listeningwise. Miquette Giraudy shows off her impressive synth skills, and her vocals work well on the tunes alongside Hillage’s lead vocals. John McKenzie‘s bass lines are extremely effective as well, laying down a groove over which Hillage and Giraudy slather their ethereal psych leads. A couple songs from his then-current LP Open are featured, along with perennial cover favorites “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (Donovan) and The Beatles‘ “It’s All Too Much.” Modern-day fans who dig Ozric Tentacles should know that for however great the Ozrics are, many of their ideas can be found right here, a full half decade before Erpsongs. A bonus DVD features many of the CD’s songs plus other goodies, including a 2006 interview.

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Photoblogging: Mountain Oasis 2013, Part Two

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Some images from the second night of Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville NC. All photos © Bill Kopp.

Photos from the first night are here. More Mountain Oasis coverage to come.

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Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 2

Friday, November 1st, 2013

On Saturday — the second of the festival’s three nights — I took in two shows of note. I had tentative plans to check out some other sets, but these two were so compelling, I stayed for the entirety of the performances.

Gary Numan
Music fans of a certain age – and perhaps other, younger ones – will recall the left-field Top 40 hit of 1980, Gary Numan’s “Cars.” With its gurgling and keening synths, its stiff beat, and its cold, dispassionate lead vocal, the tune (from his second LP, 1979′s The Pleasure Principle) was quite unlike most of what was played on pop radio, then as now. And while Numan had a back catalog even at that point (as member of the even lesser-known Tubeway Army), the unlikely success of “Cars” would yield the dubious dividend of labeling Numan as that most dreaded of all things, the one-hit wonder.

Clearly Numan himself never got a memo to that effect. Likely he never had major commercial breakthroughs as part of his plan anyway; his musical approach was too unique for such a thing. Instead, he soldiered on, and unlike other lesser-talented denizens of the new wave era, he never went away. Between 1980 and 2013, he’s released no fewer than thirty(!) albums.

And while – as is to be expected with a catalog so deep – those albums vary in quality, and none were major chart smashes, Numan has charted his singular musical path, proving that while “Cars” may have been a fluke, he’s no such thing.

Numan’s latest album is 2013′s Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), and it’s among his finest efforts. While detractors in the old days compared him to “Heroes”-era David Bowie, Gary Numan has never been about aping the style of others. And to those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, those who might have expected him to glide onto a stage filled with synthesizers and drum machines, Numan provided a welcome shock to the system.

Ably backed by a standard – yet industrial(!) strength – rock lineup (two guitars, bass, drums, and two keyboardists), Numan held the audience at Asheville’s Civic Center transfixed. Rocking much harder than anyone could have expected, he moved about the stage ominously yet without artifice; though he occasionally played bits of keyboard (and did a thing or two with an electric guitar), his role was largely to sing the songs and draw all of the attention. This he did well, performing several songs from the new album, plus a scattering of older material, stylistically updated just enough to blow away any nostalgia.

That said, the room came even more alive when the band launched into “Cars.” A group of concertgoers dressed as garden gnomes initiated a conga line through the crowd; their internally-lit pointy caps danced through the packed floor. This was perhaps the only time during which Numan and band commanded less than full attention, and they seemed pleased enough to continue.

Numan didn’t speak to the audience once during his set, preferring to let his music be the medium, and after a quick bow and wave he was gone. But those who witnessed the set – a rarity in the southeastern USA – won’t soon forget it.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
If Gary Numan wasn’t thrillingly downbeat enough for you, all you needed to do was stick around while the stage crews set up for the next act. Unlike nearly anything else in rock – and they’re not really rock at all, come to think of it – Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor can best be described as detached.

It’s not fair to judge them by the standards generally applied to rock acts; they don’t speak to the audience. There weren’t even microphones placed onstage in case one of the nine or so players wished to toss out a spontaneous “Hello, Asheville!” But then that wasn’t likely to have happened anyway. With a semicircle configuration of amplifiers – lots of ‘em – and chairs and stools for the players, it was clear from the outset that this would not be a set filled with visual pyrotechnics from the musicians.

No, as they began their set – initially just a violinist and upright bassist – their slowly-building compositions groaned into being, like an ocean liner being launched into the sea for its maiden voyage. The men and women of GY!BE use volume and dynamics as their tools rather than beat and melody. You won’t come away from a GY!BE show humming their tunes, nor is that the band’s goal. Instead they conjure a set of emotions (perhaps unique to each audience member) that includes horror, dread, joy, exhilaration.

Some players were seated on the floor, working pedals. Some were in chairs. They occasionally seemed to communicate among themselves via nods (or rare whispers) but for the most part, they wordlessly delivered their compositions, shrouded in darkness. Above them, a large screen depicted strange, disorienting and lo-fi images, but these were clearly carefully chosen to match the sounds that GY!BE were making onstage.

When they finished, they left the stage as they had entered it – one by one – and left their instruments droning and groaning behind them. As modern chamber music with more than a hint of influence from no-wave composer Glenn Branca, it was thrilling in its own way, and the audience’s reaction was appreciative yet muted. Anything else would have been incongruous.

If you missed it, coverage of night #1 is here.  And a bunch of photos from night #1 are here. More Mountain Oasis coverage to come.

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Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 1

Monday, October 28th, 2013

My sweetheart and I enjoyed the first night of 2013 Mountain Oasis together; while I’d cover nights two and three on my own, this night we managed together to take in all or part of sets by five acts; here’s a rundown of the three most notable.

Half Japanese
We arrived at the Thomas Wolfe Amphitheater ahead of Half Japanese’s show start, and settled into seats a few rows back. But while sitting there waiting – and as the venue began, slowly, to fill – we decided that we’d move up to the balcony. The thinking was that since I’d be in the photo pit for the first three songs, I’d see the band up close for a bit, and then after that we’d prefer seats from which we could view the set more comfortably.

As it happened, the term “photo pit” would be a misnomer insofar as the Thomas Wolfe venue was concerned. Yes, there was a gated-off section up front, between the front rows of seats and the (covered) orchestra pit. But no, we shooters wouldn’t be allowed in it. I never did learn why.

But that was okay; from my vantage point I was still able to snap off some decent pics. The band’s focal point, as always, remains singer/guitarist Jad Fair. Wearing a candy-colored guitar (one that employs his, er, signature tuning), Fair led the band through bursts of songs that were unfailingly short, catchy and silly, all in turn. Half Japanese songs are a mixture of childlike wonder applied (at least sometimes) to adult subject matter.

Or, at least, teenage subject matter. Witness “Sex at Your Parents’ House” (originally on 1987′s Music to Strip By), a delightfully simple and representative ditty from the band’s set. Featuring few lyrics, and featuring them repeatedly, the song nonetheless gets its point across, and expresses a worldview that most of us have espoused, even if only for a brief time many years ago. Half Japanese’s sonic approach is solid: put Fair out front and let him sing his songs and call the tunes, and back him up with a tight, muscular band. One can’t help but think that this is what The Modern Lovers were supposed to sound like, but rarely did.

To cover a moment while a few offstage technical issues were addressed, Fair lit into an atonal “guitar solo” that was little more than random bashings upon his guitar. But y’know what? It was kinda fun. And who knew that Fair’s band – with its off-kilter musical approach centered around a front man with a musical skill set somewhere inside the triangle of nonexistent, savant-like and studiously unstudious – would turn out to be the most conventionally “normal” (and enjoyable) music we’d take in this evening.

Silver Apples
The next set would be wildly different. First of all, the venue was the relatively tiny Asheville Music Hall, a (save for a half dozen bar stools) standing-room-only club about four blocks from the Thomas Wolfe. In its previous incarnation, the space was StellaBlue, a dumpy, dingy dive with dodgy stage equipment, and vocal mics notorious for possessing a pungent odor best not described here. But StellaBlue often booked great music, and the much classier Asheville Music Hall seems to be doing the same.

The stage setup was, in one sense, quite simple. From the floor, Simeon Coxe‘s setup looked like nothing so much as a table with some stuff on it, and a mic stand. Ahead of his set, a few credentialed photographers actually jumped up on the stage to snap photos of Coxe’s rig from the business side. Eventually I did, too, but it was too dark to get anything of value.

Once Coxe took the stage, things lit up both visually and aurally. Simeon Coxe is – there’s no other way to say it – an older gentleman (he’s 75); and with his longish, thinning white hair and spectacles, he looks a bit like a professor. Or a mad scientist. And of course it’s the latter guise that best suits a man who creates music onstage on the fly, using no keyboards. A variety of oscillators and looping devices were the tools at Coxe’s disposal; he used them expertly to build sonic landscapes. There’s nothing especially melodic about what Coxe creates –it’s more about vibe and texture — but neither is it slavishly reliant on overbearing “beats” to the degree that so much modern synth music seems to be.

In fact the drum parts that audiences hear are sampled bits from Coxe’s late partner in Silver Apples, Danny Taylor (he passed away in 2005). While the duo’s groundbreaking self-titled debut album was released in 1968, they went on to release a number of albums well into the 21st century (with a brief respite of some 29 years in the middle). Coxe and his Taylor-in-a-can proved that the older crowd can still teach modern-day knob twiddlers a thing or six. Coxe’s library of modern psych projections suited his sounds quite well, too.

This duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael seem to be the exception to fraternal discord in pop music; unlike the brothers Gallagher or Davies (to name but two), this pair seem to collaborate without disharmony. While they’ve enlisted the on- and offstage help of auxiliary musicians throughout their multi-decade career, at Mountain Oasis, it was just Russell on vocals (no instruments) and Ron on keyboards (no vocals). The duo cut an odd-duck profile onstage; minimal lighting – no fog or such things – and no additional visuals meant that audiences at the tony Diana Wortham Theater had two things to look at. Ron sat stonily at his 88-key machine (and rarely changed his settings from a sort of grand piano-plus-strings soundbank) while Russell emoted – often in soprano or falsetto – and strode in wide circles around the stage.

Their music can best be described as a sort of highly theatrical, stagey keys-and-vocal delivery, with more than a strong whiff of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in both compositional style and arrangement (they’re big in Germany). They did manage to contain themselves in the face of persistent difficulty with their in-ear monitors; several times during their set, both men left the stage briefly, presumably to insist upon correction of the problems. From all available evidence, in the end they simply made do with the substandard monitor mix. But as one audience member called out to them in response to Russell’s explanation, the house mix sounded fine.

The evening’s most memorable number – like it or not – was “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” a repetitive tune (“Practice! Practice!”) that originally appeared on Sparks’ 2002 album Li’l Beethoven. Some listeners find them zany; I’m not sure that word quite gets at their essence. Doubtless an acquired taste, Sparks remained a must-see if only because they’ve never once before performed in North Carolina in the years since they began some 43 years ago.

More Mountain Oasis coverage to come, including lots of photos.

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