Archive for the ‘live shows’ Category

Pugwash: “Don’t Expect One Direction. Expect no direction.”

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Pugwash haven’t become a household word in the United States, but it’s not for lack of effort. With their winning melodies, sharp hooks and winsome lyrics, the Dublin, Ireland-based group is a critics’ darling. The group made its southeastern USA debut at The Altamont Theatre on Friday, September 4.

No less than three separate record labels have compiled the best tracks from the Pugwash catalog (now six albums); the second of those, Giddy, was championed by XTC‘s Andy Partridge and released on his own Ape label. But until the 2015 release of the compilation A Rose in a Garden of Weeds (Omnivore Recordings), none of Pugwash’s music has gotten a proper release in the United States. The favorable reception to that disc has led to Pugwash’s newest set, Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) set for release on Omnivore the day of the band’s Asheville show.

“This album was made for America,” says Thomas Walsh, Pugwash’s lead singer, guitarist and songwriter. “We always make records first and foremost for ourselves,” he stresses, “but the excitement of this whole project was that we’re actually going to America and tour it, and meet our American fans.” The prospect of American release provided additional motivation for the band: “When you’re sitting in a studio in London in winter, and it’s very cold and snowy and icy outside, you can say to yourself, ‘We’ll be in Arizona or someplace soon, playing a gig!’”

Walsh ruminates on the music business. “Sometimes it doesn’t give you a lot back monetarily, and of course we’re fighting against all this modern-day technology that’s making music become cheap and/or free. So it’s great to still be able to fulfill dreams.” When asked how the music on Play This Intimately differs from the group’s previous material, Walsh breaks into a parody of a hyped-up commercial musician: “It’s the best stuff ever! Hello, Seattle!” After the laughter subsides, he gives a more serious answer. “The latest stuff is always your favorite,” he admits. “I’m always just happy to have written a song, full stop. All I can gauge is that my quality control has been on the ball.” He notes that the songs on the new disc have gotten praise from Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra) and Ray Davies (The Kinks), both of whom (plus Partridge) guest on Play This Intimately. “Things like that inspire you beyond belief,” Walsh says.

Thomas Walsh is ELO Fan Number One, so getting that group’s leader to appear on his album was a dream come true, even if Lynne’s contribution is a (largely unintelligible) shout midway through “Kicking and Screaming,” the album’s lead-off track. “When I was in Jeff’s studio in March – I had popped over for a cuppa tea – I brought over tapes of some early mixes,” Walsh recalls. “At the last minute, I asked him, ‘Would you be into doing something on the record?’ I said it because…well, we’re Irish, so we’re pretty forward.” Lynne happily agreed in principle, but scheduling never quite worked out. In the end, Lynne sent over a brief recording of himself shouting a variation on his spoken (yelled) piece from the outro of The Move‘s original 1971 version of “Do Ya.” In this case, he says, “Look out baby, there’s a pug a-comin’!”

Pugwash’s melodic power pop makes it to the USA largely on the strength of self-booking; though Omnivore helps as they’re able, the band has no tour manager as such. Pugwash is even relying on their opening acts to share their gear. The band is running on a very tight budget. “We’d never get to America if we had to bring our own gear,” Walsh admits. That chance-taking attitude is emblematic of the band’s collective personality. “We hate set lists,” Walsh says. “And we only rehearse for a laugh, because we enjoy it.”

So what should those purchasing a ticket to a Pugwash show expect? Walsh deadpans. “Morbid obesity, alopecia, leathery skin, weird colored faces, lots of hair in the wrong places, accents they can’t understand, and…good music. Don’t expect One Direction; expect no direction.” He adds, “Hopefully every time we count in a song and play it, it’s gonna change your life.”

Personal Note: Though the band I co-founded in 2012, The Glampas, broke up amicably in 2014, we reunited to play an opening-act set for Pugwash at their Asheville date. To say that this was an honor is to engage in understatement of the highest (lowest?) order. And speaking of “Do Ya?”, Thomas joined us onstage and helped me sing it. – bk

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Backstage with Led Zeppelin 2: The Songs Remain Quite Similar

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Recently, I traveled to Charlotte NC to take in a concert that I considered a double bill: tribute bands Led Zeppelin 2 and The Australian Pink Floyd Show. Both put on superb shows that brought the amphitheater crowd to its feet. Before the show started, I enjoyed a few minutes backstage in conversation with Led Zeppelin 2′s guitarist, Paul Kamp. We talked about the group’s approach to material, how they do it, why they do it, and how it all fits into the bigger picture.

Chicago-based tribute band Led Zeppelin 2 grew out of a power trio called Busker Soundcheck; the band actually got started over ten years ago. But at that stage, “It was only a Halloween thing,” says Kamp. “We would play once a year, maybe. And one time we didn’t even play at all for two years. It was a very loose thing; we didn’t even have a name. We were just ‘those guys that play those Led Zeppelin songs.’”

A local club owner in Chicago wanted to book them, but he told the group, “I don’t want it to be on Halloween.” So they booked a Saturday night, and it was a rousing success.

Those who heard the unnamed group liked what they heard, and encouraged the band to take things more seriously. So Kamp and his bandmates did just that. “The very first time that we went on the road to Houston, it was a real eye opener,” Kamp recalls. “It was an 1800-seat venue – we had never played in Houston before – and the place sold out! We don’t even know how people heard about us, because there are other Led Zeppelin tribute bands, too.”

As soon as they went national, Led Zeppelin 2 was drawing big numbers for their shows. “There still are some towns where the crowds are pretty small,” Kamp says with a sly grin, but those are becoming fewer and farther apart these days.

Drummer Ian Lee and bassist/keyboardist Matthew Longbons are relatively new to the group, but vocalist Bruce Lamont is, along with Kamp, a founding member of Led Zeppelin 2. And in addition to getting the sound right, the group pays attention to the gear they use onstage. “Visually, a Gibson Les Paul works the best,” admits Kamp. “Sonically, it works the best, too. And you need to have that double neck guitar to play ‘Thank You.’ And then you need it for “Stairway to Heaven.’ And then you realize you need it for ‘The Song Remains the Same,’ and ‘The Rain Song,’ and so on. Sometimes,” he laughs, “I’ll just pick up that guitar and play it, because it’s pretty cool.” Kamp uses vintage 1970s-era Marshall amplifiers “because I think they sound the best. Not necessarily just because Jimmy Page used them.”

The group draws upon all available resources to inform their performances of the classic Led Zeppelin catalog. “We listen to every recording of a song that we can get our hands on,” Kamp says. “We do some of the songs close to the studio recordings. But even when we’re playing the notes close to the recordings, I think that you’ll find that the dynamics are more like a live rock’n'roll band.” He notes that their version of “Thank You” is “similar to the version that was on the BBC recordings. We do our own thing with sections of it, but we try to capture the tones and the highlights of all the riffs.”

As needed, the band makes some practical compromises to fit the music into a shorter set, such as the hour-long opening set they delivered this night in Charlotte before headliners The Australian Pink Floyd Show took the stage. “’Dazed and Confused’ is twenty-eight minutes long in The Song Remains the Same version,” Kamp laughs. “And there are many other [recorded] versions where it’s thirty-three or more. People may have been willing to sit through the real Led Zeppelin doing that, but honestly, I’m not sure even I want to hear a thirty-three minute version!” Onstage, Led Zeppelin 2 manages to distill the essence of Zep’s songs into more compact readings; their version of “Moby Dick” – complete with obligatory drum solo – is quite satisfying even in a six-minute arrangement.

That approach keeps them connected to their audience. “Sometimes we think, ‘We’ve been flying by the seat of our pant for five minutes,’” Kamp says, “’And we’d better pull it back together so that the audience can feel pulled back together.’ And then you can see it on their faces: ‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting this!’”

Not every Led Zeppelin song is right for a show. “The only Zeppelin song that we just don’t like playing is ‘Fool in the Rain.’ Great drum part, okay vocal part. The guitar riff is – meh – it’s okay. The solo is cool. People like it. But it’s just one that we played four or five times.” The Song Remains the Same‘s “D’yer Maker” is another iffy one for the band. “It’s super popular, and it goes over really well,” Kamp concedes. “But we personally just don’t like playing it.” On the other hand, deep cuts like “Hats Off (To Roy Harper)” is a band favorite. “We’ve played every song on Presence except ‘Tea for One,’ but we cop little licks from that, and throw them into other songs.” All in all, the foursome balances their set with hits and a few less well-known numbers, and in the process they please concertgoers who want an experience that feels like a 1970s-era Led Zeppelin concert.

Even though Led Zeppelin 2 is a popular draw on the concert circuit – the band stays busy – it’s not an all-consuming endeavor for Kamp and his bandmates. “My wife and I have four companies, and we have three kids,” he says. When he has spare time at home, Kamp still comes up with riffs and original songs that might – at some undefined point in the future – find their way onto a recording.

Kamp is driven to do what he does by a simple and straightforward motivation. “Robert Plant once said that music is supposed to be about people having a good time and celebrating. There’s some kind of magical appeal that Led Zeppelin has. But I think that it goes through Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Right down south to the old acoustic Delta blues. And that music came from another continent where drums and music were about celebration. They represented memories of things and people, and rejuvenation.

“People have said this to me many times: ‘I’ve worked all week, and my friend dragged me along to this show. I thought it was gonna suck! But you were really good! I’ve got to admit, I had a really good time!’ And,” Paul Kamp smiles as he picks up his guitar to take the stage, “that’s the best possible kind of reaction we can get.”

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Concert Review: Jaga Jazzist — Asheville NC, 23 June 2015

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Demonstrating yet again that – more than sixty-odd years after the dawn of rock’n'roll – popular music idioms remain fertile ground for experimentation and cross-fertilization, Jaga Jazzist combines rock, jazz, electronica, trip-hop, and who-knows-what-else into music that is all and none of those things at once. And as their recent show at New Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina illustrated, modern-day audiences are open to musical journeys of the sort undertaken by the group, even if those audience members don’t always completely understand what’s going on.

If one were to have polled the June 23 audience at New Mountain, asking each person whether they enjoyed jazz, my own guess is that most would give a noncommittal answer of the “Some of it’s okay, I guess” variety. Yet the audience reaction to Jaga Jazzist’s performance was enthusiastic and attentive. With eight members onstage (drums; bass/keyboards; guitar/keyboards; guitar/vibraphone/analog synthesizers; brass; brass/synthesizers; synthesizer/guitar; and synthesizer), the group occupied a very busy (and busy-looking) stage; the musician setup was obviously based more on facilitating visual and auditory communication amongst the musicians, and made few if any concessions to visual-aesthetic considerations.

Save for the odd bit of wordless vocalization from the two-person brass backline, the music of Jaga Jazzist is completely instrumental. The lengthy tunes – typically six minutes or more, and sometimes much more – allow the band to engage in multiple musical dialogues, and while the pieces seem designed to allow plenty of space for the individual players to express themselves, the music always seems to be headed someplace specific. Jaga Jazzist are not a “noodling” band; while what they do might be categorized as experimental jazz, the music is firmly rooted in conventional styles; that built-in contrast lets the group weave unique works on the fly, but it also keeps the group grounded enough so as to not lose an audience weaned on more conventional music.

Lars Horntveth took center stage, but rather than acting as a front man, he busied himself musically, constantly switching (often multiple times within a given musical piece) between guitar, Korg analog synth, and vibraphone. And all the while, Horntveth engaged in only an occasional quick and subtle meeting of eyes with the other players; the level of unspoken communication among the seven men and one woman onstage seemed to operate at a very high level.

Drummer (and co-leader with brother Lars) Martin Horntveth handled the daunting task of laying down a thick and solid backbeat for the group’s exploratory music; his approach drew upon the finesse of a jazz drummer, the precision of a percussionist in a metal band, and the sheer power of a straight-ahead rock drummer. His duties also included acting as the band spokesman; other than an occasional quick smile and nod of recognition and appreciation, the other seven members of Jaga Jazzist opted not to speak to the audience during the set.

The group showcased several numbers from their latest, 2015′s Starfire (reviewed here), but they also dug into their back catalog, pulling out winning tracks such as the title work from 2009′s One Armed Bandit. Expanding a bit upon the studio version, Jaga Jazzist wrapped the work’s signature melodic lines around a dense, thickly-layered arrangement that featured plenty of crosstalk between instruments. The group skillfully juxtaposed classical/acoustic instruments with throbbing synthesizers, sinewy electric guitars, and the buttery intonation of the vibraphone.

Combining such disparate instrumentation could easily result in a sonic mishmash, but the carefully arranged music of Jaga Jazzist brings those disparate instruments together in a way that suggests deeply evocative soundtrack music. Yet unlike soundtrack scores, pieces that are designed to complement a moving visual image, Jaga Jazzist’s music serves as a soundtrack to whatever mental images it conjures in the mind of the audience members.

I noticed one guy who was clearly getting into the music, trying to follow the beat. He never quite could manage to hold onto the (often tricky time signature) groove for more than a few seconds here and there, but his thorough enjoyment of the music was nonetheless manifest. In that way, he was a fairly typical audience member this night.

There really aren’t many groups to whom Jaga Jazzist can be likened. Their synthesizer-centric instrumentals occasionally call to mind the psychedelic jam of Ozric Tentacles; their inventive arrangements and hypnotic guitars coupled with modern jazz ideas suggests some of Dungen‘s work (most notably on One Armed Bandit‘s “Banafluer Overalt”). But ultimately, this eight-piece group from Norway charts their own musical path.

All photos © 2015 Bill Kopp

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Preview: Led Zeppelin 2

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. My dad was transferred there in February 1972 when I was in grade school, and I lived in and around Atlanta until 2000. Although the American south has never really been a major concert destination for rock acts, Atlanta was – even then – big enough to rate inclusion on megatours. I remember when Wings came to The Omni (“don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore”) in 1976. A mere lad of twelve, I called the TICKETS hotline in hopes of spending $7 on a seat. The only tickets remaining were behind the stage, so I demurred, telling myself, “I’ll see Paul McCartney the next time he’s in town.” I actually did, but I was married with two young kids by that time.

A lot of the really big concerts were booked at the Atlanta Stadium (also now gone). The Beatles played there in 1965 (fifty years ago yesterday, in fact!); there exists a decent audio bootleg of the show. I recall one particular week in the mid 1970s, though for the life of me I don’t recall the year. Both Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had scheduled dates at the stadium. I didn’t go to either, as I was still too young for such things. (My first concert was Electric Light Orchestra at The Omni in October 1978.)

I did manage to see Pink Floyd in the David Gilmour-led version, both in 1987 (The Omni again) and 1994 (Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech). And I saw Jimmy Page with The Firm in the early 1980s. But this coming weekend, I’ll have the opportunity (of sorts) to make up for that missed mid 70s opportunity. I’m seeing a pair of acclaimed tribute bands – Led Zeppelin 2 and The Australian Pink Floyd Show – in Charlotte NC.

In recent years, there’s been a sharp rise in the popularity of tribute bands overall. Maybe it’s down to aging baby boomers wanting to recapture the excitement of their younger days. Maybe it’s because today’s rock – at least in its most commercial variant – isn’t very compelling. Whatever the reason, tribute acts are all over the place, and the general standard to which they hold themselves is rather high. Our hometown venue – Asheville’s Orange Peel – books a staggering number of tribute bands, and they’re always well-attended. So well-attended, in fact, that many of them include Asheville on their circuit once or even twice a year. That’s somewhat amazing.

In the past, I’ve interviewed the members of Pink Floyd tribute group The Machine not once, but twice. And I interviewed the members of Beatles-themed 1964: The Tribute as well. I’m interested in what they do, how they do it, and (besides the cash) why they do it. So it’s with great pleasure that I will be interviewing the Led Zeppelin 2 guys right before the show this coming Friday. Look for a feature based on all that, coming soon to Musoscribe.

Here’s a clip of Led Zeppelin 2 performing “Immigrant Song.” These guys aren’t messing about.

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Six Years of Musoscribe: Ponderosa Stomp Festival

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Today and for the next several days, I’m celebrating the six-year anniversary of the Musoscribe blog. I launched the site in summer 2009, and once I got into the swing of things, I began a schedule of posting new content every business day. I’ve kept to that goal ever since.

But the beginning of my music writing predates the blog by many years. When I first began to collect my writings – interviews, features, essays and reviews – I hosted them on a website, the “main” part of There you’ll find my archive of material from before and up to June 2009.

A sequence of events that led to my launching the blog was the sudden and unexpected demise of the print magazine for which I served as Editor-in-Chief. In spring 2008, I had traveled by train to New Orleans to attend the Ponderosa Stomp music festival, a showcase of unjustly-forgotten and/or overlooked figures in music. (The annual festival continues to this day, and I highly recommend it.) While there, I saw many impressive sets of music, attended several fascinating discussion panels, and did some of my most memorable interviews (more on those in a moment). When I arrived home after the festival, I received a message letting me know that the magazine had shut down, and that no, the many thousands of dollars that I was owed would not be forthcoming.

Work on the next-scheduled issue of the magazine was already done: stories had been written and edited, and the entire layout of the magazine was complete. I had the unhappy task of contacting my team of writers and letting them know that they would not be getting paid for their work, either. The good news was that they could have their stories and reviews back; they were free to do with them as they liked. Small comfort, I know. Happily, several of my writers deservedly went on to much bigger things.

Speaking for myself, I had conducted interviews in New Orleans for features to appear in future issues of the magazine. I was fortunate to place one of them in London-based Shindig! Magazine, and that fine publication also ran an abbreviated version of the other story. Both full-length features are archived on my site. Also archived here is an interview/feature that’s related to one of the acts I saw at Ponderosa Stomp 2008.

Green Fuz
In the history of 1960s garage rock, there’s a story that’s equal parts typical and unlikely. A group of Texas teenage boys came together to make a recording that has been described as “no-fi.” The a-side – a sort of band anthem called “Green Fuz” – is among the rarest of all one-off singles of the garage era. And the story behind the band and their recording is interesting. I met with the re-formed Green Fuz while in New Orleans, and got to attend their triumphant show. Here’s the Green Fuz story.

? and the Mysterians
Speaking of oddities, the band of Latino rockers from Michigan who scored a classic hit with “96 Tears” is a curious tale, too. Though the band didn’t manage a successful follow-up hit of any great measure, they persisted. And they still persist today, nearly fifty years later. I met and interviewed the group’s leader (known only as “?” without the quotation marks), and to this day that interview remains the strangest one I ever conducted. The tapes of that interview were lost shortly thereafter, but I am happy to report that they turned up earlier this year, some seven years after they went missing. Here’s the story of my meeting ? and the Mysterians.

Roky Erickson
One of the headlining acts at Ponderosa Stomp 2008 was Roky Erickson, former leader of the group many consider to be the first “psychedelic rock” band, the 13th Floor Elevators. His life story is a troubling, often sad tale, but these days he seems to be in a much better state than before. A documentary called You’re Gonna Miss Me was made about his life, and I interviewed both the director of that film, John Scheinfeld, and a man who produced some important studio sessions for Roky. That man is better known as the bass player for Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stu Cook. Here’s the feature on Roky Erickson.

My Musoscribe retrospective will continue tomorrow and beyond. As always, thank you for reading.

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Girls Rock Asheville: Musical Chairs, Instrument Petting Zoos, and Heavy Metal Yoga

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Girls Rock Asheville ( is a six-day camp for girls ages 8 to 16. With no previous experience required, campers learn about making music, and working as a team. The 2015 camp culminated in a pair of showcase concerts at The Mothlight on Saturday, June 27.

The Girls Rock concept began as a college thesis project. “It started with a question,” says Girls Rock Asheville’s Executive Director, Erin Kinard. “’Can we do this?’ The answer was yes.” Soon thereafter, the first camp took place in Portland, Oregon. Today, says Kinard, “There are over sixty camps worldwide, including programs in Peru, Iceland, Austria, and twelve in Sweden.” Kinard got involved in the program through a friend. “One of my high school friends became the Executive Director of the organization in Portland.” After volunteering there, Kinard moved to Asheville with plans to start a camp here.

“I had been advised to take an entire year to plan,” says Kinard. “So we were originally thinking about 2015.” But once she put out the word out about her plans, “the momentum was so strong that we asked ourselves, ‘Why can’t we just do it now?’” The first Girls Rock Asheville (GRAVL) camp took place in July of last year. That camp included 34 girls; this year 36 girls will take part in the program.

GRAVL 2015 begins with band formation, an activity that Kinard calls “the craziest part of camp.” After soliciting musical genre ideas from the campers, the entire group takes part in a sort of musical-chairs activity. “When the music stops, you group up with the people around you, and have a little talk about [a specific music genre]. We do that four or five times, and then the last time, we tell them, ‘Now run to the genre you want to play.’ And then from there, groups are formed.” Kinard adds, “Maybe there are some tears, maybe not. Hopefully not. It went perfectly last year.”

Because no prior musical experience is required to participate in GRAVL, the camp features an “instrument petting zoo.” The girls take some time to explore various musical instruments. “Other camps assign the bands and instrument,” notes Kinard. “That might be smoother, but we feel that our way is more about the girls’ personal experiences.”

Each day’s camp experience includes band practice; instrument instruction; two workshops; and a lunchtime concert featuring female or female-fronted bands, followed by a Q&A session. Workshops include self-defense; media literacy; female-focused history; storytelling; performance techniques; and heavy metal yoga. Asked to describe that last item, Kinard laughs and says, “It’s just what it sounds like.”

Kinard emphasizes that GRAVL is “an organization for women and by women. A lot of times, [society teaches] women to compete, and to tear each other down. We feel it’s very important for girls to see women working together, leading, being strong in their roles.” The camp also offers full and partial scholarships to economically disadvantaged girls. “No questions asked,” she adds.

Erin Kinard and her GRAVL colleagues have even more ambitious plans for the future. “We’re hoping to launch a Ladies Rock Camp this fall,” says Kinard. That weekend event raises funds for scholarships. And they hope to expand the program to two sessions beginning in 2016. “The demand is there,” says Kinard. “It’s just a matter of staffing it.” If funds and resources allow, the Girls Rock Asheville organization hopes eventually to offer an after-school camp and an overnight program.

As a not-for-profit venture – Girls Rock Asheville is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status – the organization depends on community support. “Right now,” says Kinard, “the most pressing matter is food donations.” The need for donated – or even loaned – musical instruments and audio gear is a close second. There’s an especially urgent need for guitar and bass practice amplifiers.

Yet another way to support the work of Girls Rock Asheville is via purchase of tickets to the showcase at Mothlight. “Capacity is 350 people,” notes Kinard. “Last year, a lot of people were turned away. We definitely [didn't] want that to happen again. So this year, [we did] two shows on Saturday, June 27: one at 2pm, and one at 3:30.”

(An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress.)

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McQueen’s Pop Culture Mix of Music, Comedy and Multimedia

Friday, June 5th, 2015

“Is it comedy?” asks McQueen rhetorically. “Is it music? Is it the weird hybrid cousin of both who is 32 and still sits at the kids’ table during holidays?” The answer to all of those questions is most likely yes. Live dates in cities across the eastern USA in May and June will give audiences the opportunity to decide for themselves (McQueen played Asheville NC on May 21).

Performances by McQueen (Adams) draw deeply on today’s pop culture, and as a result, his humor resonates best with those who have at least a working knowledge of what’s currently popular; put another way, he probably wouldn’t play well in front of an Amish crowd in Lancaster PA. “When I was in the UK workshopping the show I had some ups and downs the first week,” he admits, with a hint of frustration. “Who doesn’t know who Conan O’Brien is? So you run into things going over someone’s head.” But such incidents are the exception, not the rule. “With the constant information we have access to,” McQueen says, “audiences are well-versed” in the pop culture references at the core of his show.

That show incorporates projected visuals, live music performance, and vocal impressions. In both concept and execution, a McQueen performance is consistent with the ethos of sampling. He takes content from a variety of disparate sources, and reprocesses them through his own sensibility, creating something new and unique yet oddly familiar in the process. McQueen describes what he does as combining “parts of movies, songs, and moments [into] a soundtrack for scenarios that didn’t exist and giving them life. He explains, “This show is a culmination of finding a balance of my love of music and my offbeat humor.” And the friends with whom he collaborates in developing the material are “musicians, not comics,” he points out.

Even though it’s more or less a solo performance (“I have a lot of interaction with the fox,” says McQueen cryptically), the show is interactive, involving the audience. “Trial and error is this show’s best friend,” he admits. “Technology is a testy bitch; sometimes you are going to have mishaps, and sometimes it’s spotless.” Further, he notes that the audience is transfixed on the screen, “so I can definitely hide out during the show” if needed. The show’s elements of the unknown are an asset, not a liability. “I think the ability to improvise and move on the fly is what makes this show what it is,” he says.

The limited amount of traditional storyboarding and choreography means that there is plenty of space in a McQueen show for spontaneity. “It’s a constant evolution,” he says. “It’s a lot like songwriting. I work on a piece and I always want to add to it.” He admits that while parts of the show are loosely scripted, it’s “also is heavy on improvisation.” He laughs, “Like a guitar solo that goes ten minutes too long.”

For those who still wonder what a McQueen show is like – it’s definitely not traditional brick wall and bar stool stand-up, and it’s not exactly a concert – he offers a pop culture point of reference. “It’s been compared to watching Adult Swim Live.” He says that reviews of his shows in England sometimes likened him to The Mighty Boosh, “but I think that was out of how different the show is.” McQueen has an ace in the hole for making sure that his audiences don’t get too lost among the media culture references. “That’s why I have a cat in my show: everyone knows what a cat is.”

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David Torn: The Audience is Here (Part 2)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Continued from Part One

“So,” continues guitarist-composer David Torn, “I don’t intend to recreate any of the pieces on only sky in live performance. However, I can accurately recreate the process. Because,” he laughs, “I’m really good at over-intellectualizing anything I do, after the fact. But inside the fact, all I’m really doing…is playing.”

“When I talk, sometimes people expect that they’re going to get this huge intellectual stew out of me,” he says. “But it’s not [the case]. This is what I say, and that is what I play. And they’re very different things. For me it’s all about finding the feeling that needs to be expressed, and following the fairly curvy lines to get there.”

Torn’s method of creating only sky was somewhat unconventional. “It was made in a 1500-seat theatre,” he says. “It was done that way on purpose. I was trying to expand the idea of playing like I play at home. But I love the sound of a big room, so we went to the most incredible theatre that I know of [the EMPA Concert Hall in Troy, NY], turned the lights down, set up all my stuff, and just recorded for two and a half to three days. No studio, no multitracking. None of the professionalism that goes along with being locked in a small room with headphones on. I had no headphones on for this.”

David Torn’s upcoming “house concert” at Streamside provides an interactive experience that differs from the one audiences would find in a traditional concert hall. “On this tour,” he says, “because I haven’t toured in so long, I wanted that. I probably should have looked for even more house concerts. If there are sixty to a hundred people in a room, it’s a much easier way for me to feel what they feel, for them to feel what I feel. And there’s something really appealing about knowing that people are there to engage. It doesn’t feel so much like a show.” Though he’s a fan of the house concert format, his enthusiasm has its limits. “I did one in my own house several years ago,” he laughs. “I’ll never do that again. But I love the idea.”

The guitarist/composer allows that trying to recreate that ambience in a house concert setting is “strange, but it actually fits together. What I was trying to get out of the space of the big room was a space in which I felt free to move around musically. Because that is precisely what I feel when I’m in my little studio at home. I wanted the sound to be able to accommodate that.”

Thinking beyond his solo work, is there anyone new with whom Torn would really like to collaborate? “There are a few, yeah,” he says. “There are a few regrets. I had an opportunity to work with Joni Mitchell in the late 80s or early 90s. But it was impossible to work out schedules. The same thing happened to me with Sting in the early-to-middle 2000s. And,” he grimaces, “I missed working with Ani Difranco because I was an idiot.”

“In terms of the future,” Torn says, “there are a few people that I would certainly like to work with. And they’re not people whom everybody would expect me to say. And…I don’t know if I should even say it, but I’d love to do something – even if it were live – with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I also have an idea for a duet project with–” he pauses,  “somebody whom I’m not going to mention.”

But for now, Torn’s immediate focus is on the tour nominally in support of only sky. His website lists early June dates in Washington DC, Baltimore, Carrboro NC, Asheville (June 6) and Atlanta, with others – says the site – “TBA.” Musing on the difference between American and European audiences, Torn sums it up in one word: familiarity. “The audience has always been here in America,” he says. “The problems in the past were amplified by the nature of the business and the size of the country. In one way, it’s easier to advertise in America to everyone. In another way, if you want to experience real live music, it has been very difficult if not impossible for, say, jazz musicians to make a living, not work a day job, and go out and tour the United States. I can easily put a little thing together around my hometown, but these are compounding problems: if I can’t spend a lot of money on recording and distribution and packaging – the look of the thing – then I’m not going to be able to necessarily steadily build a career.

“On top of which, yes, it’s true that we have very little funding for the arts in the United States. Very, very, very little funding. Whereas in European countries – and in South America now – there is governmental assistance and patronage to the arts via people’s taxes. And it’s not – as many Americans seem to believe – useless drivel. It’s something that feeds culture and civilization. And [without that] America suffers in a grand way.”

“However,” Torn adds, striking an optimistic tone, “that doesn’t mean the audience isn’t here. I believe the audience is here. My own tour of the last three weeks show me that my audience is here. There are other things I could do: I could put together a group and play Lars and the Real Girl; that wasn’t just in the film; it was played at the Olympics. I could play Madonna songs. There are lots of thing that I could do that are more commercially attractive – and easier – than what I’m doing now. And yet, people are here. These are some of the best audiences I’ve ever experienced in America. They’re sitting. They’re listening. André [Cholmondeley, tour manager] said to me, “No one’s on their cell phone. There’s no texting going on. No one’s leaving!’ I’m not avant-garde – never have been, never will be – but this isn’t pop music. It isn’t Taylor Swift.” and his working friends – artists like Torn’s best friend Tim Byrne – report similar experiences. “Tim told me, ‘I can’t believe it. The audiences are there!’ People want to hear music that isn’t simply meant only to be sold. I feel very encouraged. It gives me the freedom to explore more; I am going to continue reaching for something to express. And we can all benefit by that.”

David Torn will appear in a solo performance at Streamside Concerts on Saturday, June 6 near Asheville NC. Tickets for the intimate event (a strongly suggested $25 donation) are available here until they run out; at press time, nearly all spaces were filled, so hurry. The event includes a communal covered dish meal (BYOB and a dish to share) before the performance.

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David Torn: The Audience is Here (Part 1)

Monday, June 1st, 2015

As I would discover within the first moments of our conversation, it’s inaccurate to describe the music made by David Torn as “avant garde.” Which is fine, really, because as the ever-quotable John Lennon once said, “’Avant garde’ is French for ‘bullshit.’” And he would know.

That does leave the challenge of describing Torn’s music, for the benefit of those who haven’t heard it. The thing is, in all likelihood they indeed have heard it. His work for film and television is extensive: beginning in the 1990s, Torn has provided music for major Hollywood films including Lars and the Real Girl, Friday Night Lights, Drumline: A New Beat, and That Awkward Moment. And he’s played on soundtrack sessions for The Big Lebowski, Velvet Goldmine, A Knight’s Tale, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and many, many others.

David Torn will appear in a solo performance at Streamside Concerts on Saturday, June 6 near Asheville NC. Tickets for the intimate event (a strongly suggested $25 donation) are available here until they run out; at press time, nearly all spaces were filled, so hurry. The event includes a communal covered dish meal (BYOB and a dish to share) before the performance.

Torn’s music often veers toward what one might term ambient, but his compositions bear a quality not often found within that music-as-wallpaper genre: melody. His early influences were rooted in the popular and classical music traditions. “I grew up in a house with a mom who wrote off-Broadway (and was trying to write Broadway) plays. I was surrounded by theater people. I went to classes with Leonard Bernstein,” he recalls. “Who is more melodic than him? And what was more melodic than the Motown that my mom listened to for years?”

“Maybe,” he suggests, “I could isolate this down to a single thing: I don’t consider myself [ambient]. I certainly don’t consider myself an experimenter. Some of my music has very strong, very slow textural and atmospheric things that could be considered ambient, but in the end, I’m just a musician and a composer. And I do what I think needs to be done.” He chuckles, adding, “I prefer not to have to label it for more than the few minutes we’re having a discussion about it.”

In addition to his work for visual media (the aforementioned film and television projects) and for and with other artists (a partial list: David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Tori Amos, Laurie Anderson, Madonna, Jan Garbarek), Torn has recorded and released more than fifteen solo albums under his own name or his sometime nom de musique, splattercell. His latest, only sky (ECM, 2015) continues his blend of textural sounds wedded to a strong sense of melody. Working only with electric guitar, electric oud and an assortment of effects, Torn’s only sky showcases a wide array of sounds that evoke as wide an assortment of listeners’ thoughts and emotions.

Torn concedes that he brings a different mindset to his solo albums than to soundtrack work. Allowing that making music for the movie business is “a service industry,” he says that while “many things are different, it’s the same me. So [while on a film project] you are working to serve someone else’s purposes, in the end you’re often left free to come up with something that they like. In many cases – though not the cases I enjoy – somebody wants something very specific. And I won’t do it if I don’t think I can achieve it. I won’t take the job.”

He expands on the subject. “The logistics and timeframe are completely different. But because it is a service industry, there’s something beautiful about having music serve, for example, a story line. I hate to sound uncommercial,” he laughs. “I’m not a scientist, right? I’m a musician. If you like a story line as a human being, and you see ways in which you can make elements of that story line — character, character development, atmosphere, general meaning of the story – come forward, then that’s exciting. And then I’m me. Thomas Newman once said to me – I’m paraphrasing – that anytime you’re having problems on a film score, find the one thing you love about the film. And then keep your intention attached to that at all times during writing.”

When I spoke with The Flaming Lips‘ composer Steven Drozd in 2006, he acknowledged that manipulation of listeners’ emotions was a goal of his songwriting. Because of the evocative qualities inherent in Torn’s instrumental works, I wonder if he aims for a specific emotional response when composing a piece. “No,” he says. “In the performance aspect of composing a piece of music, I’m simply starting something, and then just following the music. If it’s a direction that I desire to shape, then I’ll direct it again. I feel very specific things when I play; that’s for sure.”

Another signature of Torn’s music is the incorporation of “found sounds” – creative use of things like 60 cycle hum and crackling instrument cables – that lend a degree of spontaneity to his music, especially in live performance. As such, his compositions are less fixed works than platforms upon which he can take listeners on sonic journeys. “If you asked me to play any of the main themes from the films I’ve done, I would play them,” he says. “I would probably interpret them, because that’s what I do, but I would still play the theme.”

His approach to creating and recording the exploratory pieces on only sky is different. “I would have a few moments of silence before I played each piece, some time to feel some kind of intention. Any intention. I would do that for three to five minutes, and then maybe play one phrase on the guitar. One chord, two chords. Then I’d stop, take another few moments of breath, and then just…start.”

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Next, it was drone time. The minimalist work of the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen (joined by three additional musicians) was delivered in the bright, daylit room at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The hypnotic vibe of the group’s work lent itself to simply sitting back and closing one’s eyes. But AWVFTS was having none of that: mid-set, they stopped (“Usually, we never stop playing during a set,” they told us) and asked everyone to stand up instead. Fair enough, but I for one found it more enjoyable when relaxing.

Apparently the Kronos Quartet (described elsewhere as “the hardest working act” at the festival, and rightly so) didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse much with avant garde legend Laurie Anderson before their set. You wouldn’t have known it, though. A near-capacity Tennessee Theatre audience witnessed the somber “Landfall,” a work by Anderson that recounted her personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. There’s always a winking, slyly humorous undercurrent to Anderson’s work that belies her reputation as an avant garde performer, and the Quartet conveyed a similarly informal approach, even while following a written score.

Max Richter is a modern classical composer, and his “The Blue Notebooks” is a piece performed on piano with string accompaniment, and a seated woman in formal evening dress reading brief written passages in lovely “RP” English. Modern classical has an undeserved reputation for being solely atonal, angular and jarring; Richter’s work is nothing of the kind: it’s elegiac, stately, beautiful and evocative. “Infra” did not feature the spoken-word component but was equally enjoyable. The intimate setting of The Bijou (an old theatre that has been home to many great performances I’ve enjoyed in the past) was the perfect setting for Richter’s work.

Unfortunately, by this point in the weekend, the cold that I had been denying was starting to overwhelm me. I stuck around long enough to take in part of tUnE-yArDs‘ set, and I am sure that had I been able to stay for all of it, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. Brightly-colored costumes and a stage setup that put percussion out front (literally) were the hallmarks of their lively, uptempo set. They reminded me of a less-mannered Talking Heads with far more appealing vocalists, and their playful manner seemed focused squarely on having a good time and sharing that with the gathered audience.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was all I could do to stay vertical, the head cold having overtaken me completely. I ventured down by the railroad tracks to the funky Standard for a performance (“installation” might be a more apt term) by Tyondai Braxton, presenting a work he calls “HIVE.” Braxton’s avant garde bona fides are without question: his father is jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. The younger Braxton’s work is based equally on percussion and modern technology. “HIVE” was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, but its arty beginnings belie its modern, techno-leaning qualities. Five musicians, each seated atop a table-sort-of-thing, are armed with all manner of sound-producing devices. Lights and fog are part of the scene, too, placing “HIVE” somewhere between highbrow art installation and all-night rave soundtrack. And it was very loud.

Unfortunately, after that, it was home and bed for me. As a result, I missed sets by Bill Frisell and others, but my overall impression of Big Ears Festival 2015 was one of awe. Big Ears is easily the best-run major music festival in the region. Bringing together the best characteristics of a festival (wide variety of artists in a compact area and timeframe) while minimizing or even eliminating its less-appealing aspects (crushing crowds, intimidating security, AC Entertainment and everyone else involved with Big Ears continues to do an amazing job, and in doing so they attract not only discerning music fans, but top-notch talent the likes of which are rarely seen nor heard in such a setting.

Bringing together this caliber and variety of notable and groundbreaking musical artists is in and of itself a staggering feat. Doing so outside, say, New York or San Francisco is even more impressive. Taking the expertise gained from successful staging of massive festivals (Bonnaroo, for example, takes in more than 80,000 concertgoers) and applying those skills to a relatively small-scale, city-based festival, AC Entertainment has created and sustained one of the most remarkable festivals ever in Big Ears. For anyone interested in where “serious” music is headed in the 21st century, a springtime trip to Knoxville Tennessee can provide some clear direction. I hope I attend again in 2016.

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