Archive for the ‘live shows’ Category

DVD Review: Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland

Monday, October 27th, 2014

In 2012, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson mounted a tour to promote his latest solo album, Thick As a Brick 2: What Ever Happened to Gerald Bostock? The tour and album both represented a high point in the recent musical activity of the ever-busy Anderson.

I saw the Asheville date of that tour in my hometown, and got the chance to interview Anderson for a print feature in advance of the performance. At the time, however, I reviewed neither the album nor the live show. This new DVD (also available on Blu-Ray) is a document of the show, which is in part a document of the album.

While in the last several years, Anderson’s flute playing has actually improved (we discussed that in our first interview, back in 2007), his vocal ability hasn’t fared so well. In fact, a 2010 DVD (Jethro Tull – Live at Avo Session Basel) vividly illustrates what the ravages of time have done to Anderson’s pipes). Still, as the Thick As a Brick 2 album shows, his songwriting and arrangement skills (and, again, his flute playing) remain sharp, reliable tools.

It is clear that Anderson realizes his strengths and weaknesses. And his solution to this set of challenges is nothing less than inspired: he’s added a new character to the onstage lineup. The Yorkshire-born Ryan O’Donnell was born in 1982, the same year Jethro Tull released their fourtten studio album, The Broadsword and the Beast; around the time of O’Donnel’s fifth birthday, Tull received the dubious honor of a Grammy Award for “best heavy metal album.”

But while the young O’Donnell may not have grown up during the classic era of Jethro Tull (arguably 1970-77), his demonstrably understands and appreciates the Tull aesthetic. Leaping about the stage in a most theatrical fashion – and freed from the demands of having to play an instrument – O’Donnell is able to convey not only the sound of his voice (and let it be said that his vocal texture and phrasing are very similar to that of Anderson in his prime), but the movement and visual flourishes so critical to the narrative of Thick As a Brick 2.

O’Donnell’s onstage presence allows Anderson to have it both ways: he can play his delightful flute parts – including ones that overlay the vocal lines, something he’s obviously never been able to do before now – and he can sing the parts of his signature vocals that lie within his diminished range. And with O’Donnell’s help, it all sounds as good as it possibly can.

Thick As A Brick 2 picks up the story of the child character Gerald Bostock, now fully grown and full of modern malaise. Onstage, Anderson and his team make full use of video clips at key points in the story; these – starring Anderson in one of several character roles – show that in addition to his myriad other skills, the sixty-something Anderson is a fine and natural actor.

Thick As A Brick 2 is full of humor, sarcasm, wit, drama…and lots of good music. Similar to the approach used on the original 1972 Thick As A Brick, the work is presented more or less as a single piece (yet with its sections distinctly titled), and is built around a central musical motif. But unlike, say, Roger Waters‘ three-note riff that represented most of Pink Floyd‘s 1979 The Wall, the Thick As A Brick 2 motif is at its core quite musical, and involved enough to sustain its use across an entire album.

The 2012 performance in Iceland is – by design – nearly identical to the performance I witnessed that same year in Asheville. The choreography dictates that this is so. The first half of the performance is a live reading of the 1972 album; after a brief intermission ,the band returns to present Thick As A Brick 2. And while when I first heard the modern-day sequel (studio version), I sensed that it paled somewhat in comparison to the ’72 album, when the two pieces are performed live, end-to-end, Thick As A Brick 2 benefits greatly. It’s a worthy successor to its predecessor. And with the flawlessly performed, filmed and (courtesy of King Crimson‘s Jakko Jakszyk) audio-recorded DVD Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland, fans of Anderson and Jethro Tull are presented with a must-have purchase. And that’s no mean feat for someone like Anderson, producing vital works some 45 years after releasing his debut album. If you like anything you’ve ever heard from Anderson, you definitely won’t want to sit this one out.

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Concert Preview: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Shine a light into some of rock history’s less well-lit corners, and you’ll discover some strange yet intriguing detours. Among the most remarkable of these is the conceptual mash-up: combining not two different songs, but two different musical sensibilities. The results can often be noteworthy.

Take, for example, the one-off music film clip made for early 1990s Australian television by tribute group The Beatnix: their reinvention of Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven” as a Meet the Beatles-era raver is inspired beyond description. And speaking of Zep, the group Dread Zeppelin had a high concept of their own: a rotund Elvis Presley impersonator fronting a reggae band, covering Led Zeppelin. And so on: Hayseed Dixie got a surprising bit of mileage out of their inspired and hilarious bluegrass readings of classic rock songs by the likes of AC/DC.

The one quality that all these examples share, of course, is humor: in all cases they’re playing it for laughs. But the conceptual pastiche doesn’t have to be a joke. The latest (and perhaps the best) example of we-mean-it-man combining of styles has to be Brownout. The idea of wedding a Tex-Mex horn section and a soulful/funky heavy lead guitar to the songs of Black Sabbath might read like some sort of cosmic joke, but it doesn’t sound like one.

This Austin TX band describes their music as “hardcore Latin funk,” and this outfit – a spinoff from Grupo Fantasma — has long been folding other elements into their signature sound. And they do in fact have a sense of humor: how else to explain the creation of an instrumental that sounds like it could have come out of a Mexican ripoff of the Shaft soundtrack, and the titling of said tune “Brown Wind and Fire.”

The group’s third and latest album is called Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath, and it’s exactly that: clever and inventive reimaginings of seven classic-era Sabbath tunes. Three tracks from the debut album by Birmingham’s metal masters, three more from their 1970 followup Paranoid, and one from Masters of Reality make up the disc. (This leaves at least three – possibly five – Ozzy Osbourne-era Sabbath LPs to cover on a potential followup disc.)

And while when one hears these tunes, a grin is likely to spread across one’s face, it’s really about much more than humor. The uber-heavy dropped-E riffage of Tony Iommy is recast by Brownout as peppy horn charts that owe as much to Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass or early Blood, Sweat and Tears. And the melodicism of Sabbath’s group-penned music – a quality that didn’t always shine through on Black Sabbath albums – comes through loud and clear in the hands of this eight-man group.

As tasty as the album is, seeing the group live promises to be an even more attractive prospect. And if you’re in or near Asheville NC, you’ve got the perfect opportunity. Brownout will appear onstage at the Asheville Music Hall – as eclectic a venue as you’ll likely encounter – on Saturday, October 25. Advance tickets are a mere $12 ($14 at the door), and these Austin Music Awards winners will take the stage at 10pm. I’m going; if you make the show, find me and say hello.

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Concert Review: J Mascis, Asheville NC, Septermber 28 2014

Friday, October 10th, 2014

A Guest Feature by Annelise Kopp

J Mascis is the loudest acoustic show I’ve ever seen. During his September 28, 2014 show at Asheville NC’s Grey Eagle, J was seated onstage with two guitars nearby, and surrounded by three large guitar amplifiers. By his side were two large bottles of coconut water. For nearly the entirety of the show, Mascis sang and played with his eyes closed, occasionally opening them to turn a page in his song binder, switch guitars, or on rarer occasions look down at the stage, or – rarer yet – into the crowd.

Mascis is most famous for being a founding member of Dinosaur Jr, the influential band who have been playing since the 80s. I had the pleasure of seeing Dinosaur Jr play at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse in 2009. It was the loudest show of any kind that I’ve seen to date. Seeing J Mascis play in the intimate context of the Grey Eagle offered a new, and welcome, perspective.

Watch “Freak Scene” (Dinosaur Jr, 1988)

Mascis has steadily maintained his solo career alongside his involvement in Dinosaur Jr; his solo dates began as a string of one-man acoustic shows. Dates on his 1995 tour were recorded, and yielded his first album, Martin + Me, which was released in 1996. Though he’s considered a guitar virtuoso, Mascis’ solo work has been more subtle in its musical expression.

Watch “Listen to Me” (J Mascis, 2011)

Though he’s taken on an acoustic, folky sound in much of his solo work, what J is doing to a guitar can be classified as shredding. His raspy vocals layered over fuzzy – albeit more delicate – guitar melodies illuminate not only what J has contributed to Dinosaur Jr and the role he has played in the development and growth of their sound, but also the parts of his expression that just don’t fit into that vessel. When one listens to J’s solo work, it’s easy to think, “this is Dinosaur Jr!”

In 2011, Henry Rollins (once Black Flag frontman and now public speaker, actor, activist, musician (and the list goes on), opened for Dinosaur Jr on their Bug tour, revisiting their 1988 album in its entirety. For Rollins’ opening set, he broke from the spoken-word format he’s toured with in recent years, instead choosing to interview Dinosaur Jr, one of his favorite bands. Rollins, in a related radio interview for Seattle’s KEXP, queried the band: “You guys have been touring consistently throughout the 80s the 90s, and bravely and triumphantly through this new century as well. What does touring and playing as often as you all do mean to you? Still enthusiastic about playing every night? Is it still fun?”

Mascis, infamous for his elusiveness and brevity in interviews, came out with, “More than ever, yeah. I like it a lot better now then when I was a kid. I was… I dunno… more ungrateful I guess… and just kinda depressed or something.”

And you’d almost have to feel that way. Mascis has hardly taken a break from playing shows since playing in hardcore band Deep Wound with Lou Barlow (with whom he founded Dinosaur Jr just a few years later). That was in the early 1980s. Some twenty years later, Dinosaur Jr and J Mascis are still touring. Amidst this, Mascis has continued to release new albums with Dinosaur Jr, release solo material, and be involved in innumerable other projects.

Mascis has recorded with Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene; played banjo on one of The Hold Steady’s albums; played guitar on GG Allin’s Hated in the Nation; and provided lead guitar tracks on Thurston Moore’s Trees Outside the Academy (which was also recorded in Mascis’ home studio).

It’s through his music that J connects with his fans. In spite of his insular stage presence and disinterest in exposing himself to interviewers, J communicates volumes of meaning through his work. His most recent solo albums, Several Shades of Why and Tied to a Star are accessible to Dinosaur Jr fans and new listeners alike. Still, like an intimate conversation with old friend, the experiences are different and illuminate interesting, sometimes profound, parts of who J Mascis is. Apart from J’s solo work in the context of Dinosaur Jr exists a catalog of work that speaks for itself through its different stages of maturity.

At the end of the show, Mascis exited stage right, eyes mostly to the floor as he stepped just outside the door, lingering briefly before returning to the stage. True to everything we’ve ever known of Mascis, the charade of the ever-standardized-encore was performed listlessly. He returned to play one final song and killed it. The crowd cheered, respectfully, because seeing J Mascis play live is seeing a modern legend.

Watch the full KEXP interview with Henry Rollins & Dinosaur Jr

Watch J Mascis’s 1993 interview with kennedy on Alternative Nation

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Bonus Weekend Feature: 101 Runners

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

I’m getting married today! And I’m so happy about it that I have a gift for my readers: an extra, weekend piece. This is an edited version of a feature that ran a couple of weeks ago in Asheville NC’s local altweekly, Mountain Xpress. — bk


New Orleans is rightly acclaimed as the birthplace of jazz, that most American of art forms. But the city’s rich, multi-ethnic heritage gave rise to an even earlier musical style. Though Mardi Gras Indian funk doesn’t enjoy jazz’s high profile, the lively and expressive form is kept alive through the music and performances of groups like 101 Runners. Recently in Asheville for two shows, Sep. 13 and 14, and featuring War Chief Juan Pardo, the group is an exemplar of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, renowned for pageantry and reveling at Mardi Gras carnivals in New Orleans.

Band leader Chris Jones characterizes Mardi Gras Indian funk as the musical product of “a magic, mystical, spiritual and ancestral tradition” dating back to the late 1800s, a time during which “local Indian tribes and formerly enslaved African Americans had commonality.” These ethnic groups had common problems, and helped each other in many different ways. Centered around New Orleans’ Congo Market, they interacted freely and often, trading goods and mingling bloodlines. Jones points out that the oral tradition of singing, chanting and drumming that developed among the combined cultures is “relatively undocumented,” though some recordings by artists such as Jelly Roll Morton showcased the developing style. The first tribe debuted in the 1880s, calling itself The Creole Wild West; they remain active today. Jones considers the Mardi Gras Indian tradition “one of the most incredible subculture phenomena” in America: “two of the most oppressed peoples of the time were able – through craft and song – to form a bond that helped them weather the storm.” And that strength has helped the tradition continue to this day. “There’s a lot of mystery” to that tradition, Jones says. “A lot of things, they keep close to their vest.”

Asheville’s Goombay festival, then, is an ideal showcase for 101 Runners. The deep connection between Native Americans and African Americans is explored in the group’s percussion-centric music.

Perhaps the most well-known major group exploring the style was The Wild Tchoupitoulas; produced by Allen Toussaint, their 1976 album brought the style to national prominence. They added “a foundation of funk organization” to traditional tribal drumming. 101 Runners build on that style, further exploring the music’s African percussion roots. “A lot of the music starts with the chants and percussion, then the music comes in,” Jones explains. “Then we go on the musical journey together.” He laughs and sums it up as “organized chaos.”

The band’s pair of Asheville dates – an “official Goombay after party” at New Mountain, and a parade and show to close out Goombay on Saturday night – featured African dancers and the flamboyantly dressed Mardi Gras Indians. 101 Runners widened their musical vision further to include a number of local Appalachian musicians who joined in. Jones has experience in this area: he conceived and produced the BlueBrass Project, a series of recordings that paired New Orleans and Appalachian musical styles. Asheville-based musicians Jay Sanders and Woody Wood are veteran members of the loosely-knit 101 Runners collective. Asheville concertgoers experienced a unique mashup of cultures and roots music styles. By focusing on that – plus the African elements highlighted in the Goombay festival – the group could “cross-pollinate.”

“They originally wanted us to play 45 minutes” at Goombay, Jones says. “That’s like two tunes for us!” 101 Runners negotiated to play longer. But Jones stresses that the dance-oriented, partying Mardi Gras Indian funk is about fun; it’s not “deep and trippy and jammy.”

Jones says that War Chief Juan Pardo “spends countless hours” creating his outfit; the result is full of beads, feathers, rhinestones and other colorful ornamentation. There’s nothing like a 101 Runners performance, promises Jones. Onstage, 101 Runners are “never the same thing twice. In ten years, we’ve had two rehearsals. And one of them was terrible!” Jones observes that the ancestral nature of the music – paying tribute to so many American traditions – can often “wake up some of the ones who came before. One thing I learned really early was not to put any confines on it. We let the music take us where it goes; it’s moving artistic expression.”

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Festival Review: Transfigurations II, Part 2

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Continued from Part One

I’ve long been a fan of what is sometimes labeled “kiwi pop,” the jangly guitar-based music – mostly made by a very interconnected community of musicians – that began in 1980s New Zealand. The Chills, Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs are a few of the better-known (a relative term!) exponents of the style. The Clean is another; guitarist David Kilgour was/is a member of both The Chills and The Clean. A North American performance by any of these bands is a true rarity, and the Transfigurations II organizers chalked up a serious score in bringing The Clean to North Carolina. As the band began their set on the outdoor stage, it was clear that the crowd was in for some long (but not meandering) guitar-solo based readings of songs from the group’s catalog.

A few songs in, Kilgour addressed the crowd: “We’re having fun up here, but we’d be having more fun if you were up here with us.” A couple dozen of us took his statement literally, and climbed up onto the stage. Camera in hand, I stayed safely off to one side, no more than two or three feet from the group’s bassist (and his loud’n'large speaker cabinet). With fans crowding around them, the trio played the remainder of their set, clearly energized by the onstage activity.

Once The Clean concluded their set, I grabbed some food and (another) local beer and headed back to the gymnasium to see and hear Reigning Sound. The group, headed by former Goner Records (Memphis) owner Greg Cartwright, became a nominally Asheville-based group when Cartwright moved here several years ago. The lineup of the band has changed since then: only keyboardist Dave Amels remains with Cartwright. But the changes have arguably resulted in a more cohesive unit: the vocal support behind Cartwright is much stronger now, and the current players have a much better feel for the r&b-inflected garage-rock aesthetic that remains at the center of Cartwright’s songs.

Oddly, though it had long since gotten dark outside, Reigning Sound chose to perform with the stage’s (fluorescent) ceiling lights left on, not making use of the colored/ambient lighting at all. This gave the whole affair a vibe much closer to what one might have experienced in the mid 1960s, when your favorite local garage band played a teen dance. The result didn’t do wonders for my ability to get decent photos, though.

Speaking of Dave Amels, I met him after Reigning Sound’s set ended; he was outside near the outdoor stage, waiting for Lee Fields & the Expressions to come on. I introduced myself and told him that I’m a big fan of a (relatively obscure) album he did back in 2002, a holiday-themed record called Christmas in Memphis. Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken (who plays on the disc) had given me a copy of the CD back in 2009. The theme of the all-instrumental record is straightforward yet quite inspired: versions of Christmas songs (hymns and pop tunes) rendered in a style that sounds like one or more Memphis-based groups. So you’ve got tunes that sound like Booker T & the MG’s, The Box Tops, and so on. Listening to Christmas in Memphis can be a fun spot-the-reference game, and it’s a great record on any level. In addition to project coordinators Amels and Diken (who bill themselves as Husky Team), the list of players reads like a who’s-who of under-appreciated pop musicians: both R. Stevie Moore and Richard X. Heyman are featured (on bass and keys/guitar, respectively).

Amels told me that he’d very much like to reissue Christmas in Memphis on vinyl for the holiday season, but that owing to the resurgence in vinyl (coupled with the limited capacity of existing pressing plants), a 2014 release doesn’t look likely. But it’s worth keeping a lookout for; meanwhile, at press time a total of sixteen copies (including one new copy) are available on Amazon.

But I digress. Lee Fields took the stage around 10:30pm, and thrilled the crowd with his Stax/Volt Revue styled r&b. Fields worked the crowd like a pro, involving us in call-and-response routines, and delivering his original songs (mostly from his latest album) in the most heartfelt, emotive, passionate manner possible. He even did a bit of the old James Brown leave-and-then-reluctantly-come-back bit, but somehow that old performance trope felt fresh and new in the masterful hands of Fields. In 2014 there are quite a few acts reaching back to classic soul for inspiration and/or material (Sharon Jones, Mayer Hawthorne, Charles Bradley, Fitz & the Tantrums, etc.) but Fields tops the list.

Earlier in the evening, Transfigurations II co-organizer Marc Capon of Harvest Records addressed the crowd, thanking us all and letting us know that he’s very interested in making the festival an annual event. Now, that may have just been the exuberance of the day talking, but I hope that when the dust settled and the checks were all written, the festival ended up being in the black. Because a smallish festival like this – with the high caliber of performers it featured – is a rare and special thing indeed. Whenever the next Transfigurations festival happens, I’ll be there.

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Festival Review: Transfigurations II, Part 1

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

It’s not easy putting together the lineup for a music festival. All sorts of competing forces work against each other in the planning process. You want a lineup that’s cutting-edge, but you need to keep it accessible enough to sell tickets. You want an eclectic lineup, but you also might want to make selections based upon some sort of overarching theme.

The organizers of Transfigurations II – a celebration of the anniversary of Asheville NC-based Harvest Records, previewed here – threaded the needle with this year’s festival. The lineup drew from a wide array of genres, wide enough to appeal to aficionados of the out-there as well as to the mildly adventurous festival-goer.

I wasn’t able to make it to either of the first two nights – held at local Asheville clubs – but I enjoyed an afternoon and evening on Blennerhassett Island in nearby Marshall NC, site of the Saturday segment of the festival. Set up across three stages, the festival featured a small outdoor stage near the water for solo- and small acts (amplified acoustic and such), a large outdoor stage, and an indoor stage in the gymnasium building of what used to be a school. I bumped into a friend at the festival, and in conversation, we decided that the crowd numbered around 500-800 people, a nice size if you’re attending. I estimated the crowd’s mean age to be about half my own, but there really was music for all tastes here. Food and beer lines weren’t overly long, and one could get as close to the performer as one wished (more on that later).

Upon arriving, I caught a few minutes of the tail-end of Steve Gunn‘s set on the big outdoor stage. My initial impression – commenting on both the band and Gunn’s vocals – was that the whole thing sounded a bit like The Grateful Dead backing Greg Lake.

Next, Asheville-based Angel Olsen appeared on the small outdoor stage solo, accompanied only by a solidbody electric guitar. Her angsty, heartfelt melodies were delivered by the amped-up, slightly distorted guitar, yet she played in a folky style. Her vocals included a fair amount of what might be termed yodeling. Not exactly my cup of tea, but Olsen is clearly very good at what she does, she seems quite free of artifice, and the sizable crowd (which grew as her set went on) was enthralled, thoroughly enjoying her performance.

When Olsen finished, I walked the couple-dozen steps to the indoor stage where Quilt would perform. They hadn’t quite started their set yet, so I walked up front to take a closer look at their onstage gear. I was surprised and delighted to find a Rheem combo organ. Rheems are somewhat rare beasts; as combo-organ.com notes, the company is best known for their water heaters (no, really). The Mark VII that Quilt had was in excellent shape, unexpected for a keyboard manufactured 1966-68 or so. Though I had never heard the group, I knew that Quilt was described as “dream psychedelic,” and that alone was enough to pique my interest. Seeing the Rheem organ suggested to me that they might be (or at least sound like ) the genuine article.

Indeed they were. The four-piece stuck mostly to original material from their two albums, and while there was a faint whiff of “Paisley Underground” about their sound, for the most part their hypnotic-yet-catchy songs didn’t sound like anyone else in particular. Though this was a daytime set in a sunlight-filled gym, eventually the sun moved just enough (Blennerhassett Island is surrounded by mountains) so about mid-set, the room dimmed a bit.

That meant that the way-cool vari-lites and projections cast the desired effect upon the group, giving them a look highly reminiscent of the photo on the back cover of The Velvet Underground With Nico. The kind of music they played – though more hooky than even the Velvets’ most pop-oriented tunes – only heightened the similarity. My comment at the time was, “I have t-shirts older than them, but they ‘get’ it.” I bought their (vinyl) album at the merch table as soon as their set was over.

Click to read Part Two: The Clean, Reigning Sound, and Lee Fields & the Expressions.

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Festival Preview: Transfigurations II

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Two thousand and four would not be most people’s idea of the perfect year to open an independent record store. Even without the benefit of hindsight – the economic meltdown of 2007 made consumers less likely to engage in such discretionary purchases as music – 2004 wasn’t exactly The Year Vinyl Broke (Again). But in August of that year, Asheville NC residents Matt Schnable and Mark Capon took the plunge, opening a good-sized retail space in the heart of “east West Asheville,” a part of town that was on the front end of a definite upswing. Their pioneering spirit was embodied in both their choice of location and in what they chose to sell: new and used vinyl.

Harvest Records (no connection to the Capitol subsidiary record label that gave us those early Deep Purple and Pink Floyd albums) has gone on to great success. In addition to stocking an excellent selection of new vinyl releases that caters to a wide array of tastes (no small feat in a relatively small city such as Asheville, with a population of only 70,000 or so), Harvest stocks a good selection of music-related magazines, and their used record section is reasonably priced and full of reliably good-condition vinyl.

Once a year Harvest holds a “basement sale,” during which they open the doors to their cramped, musty space full of Rubbermaid containers jam-packed full of all manner of used vinyl. Yes, you’ll find the usual suspects – the Grease soundtrack, Frampton Comes Alive, and of course Herb Alpert and the Tijuana BrassWhipped Cream and Other Delights – but intrepid cratediggers will also unearth some real gems, all for a dollar apiece. At the most recent sale (less than two weeks ago) I scored over fifty records, mostly cool jazz titles by Ramsey Lewis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and (a pre-vocal) George Benson. I also found a half dozen Frank Sinatra albums I didn’t already own. And, as I knew I would, I bumped into a half dozen of my friends, who, like me, are inveterate vinyl junkies.

In 2011 the store expanded, adding more merchandise, “elbow room,” stereo components, and a stage for in-store performances. They also sponsor some of the more interesting concerts scheduled in town; I sometimes cover those on my other blog, the twice-monthly “30 Days Out” on the Mountain Xpress site.

While waiting in line for the doors for the basement sale to begin, I chatted briefly with co-owner Matt Schnable. He told me that on occasion Harvest buys huge lots that collector/hoarders are looking to unload; after picking through those for items to sell in the regular retail space, the remainder goes in the basement. And sometimes, they sell huge lots: you know that recent story that’s been lighting up the internet of late, the one about the Brazilian collector who’s buying millions of records? Harvest has sold to him on at least one occasion.

Whatever Harvest does, then, they do it well. And to celebrate their tenth anniversary, they’ve organized a music festival. Taking place in Asheville and relatively nearby Marshall (population: 868), Transfigurations II is scheduled for this week, Thursday August 28 through Saturday August 30. I’ll be attending the Thursday night set at The Grey Eagle, featuring headliners The Sadies. And on Saturday, I’ll make the short trek up Riverside Drive, along one of North America’s oldest rivers, the wild and beautiful French Broad River, to Blanahassett Island, site of the day-long segment of the festival.

Now, Blanahassett Island is a curious thing: a roughly 1500ft x 400ft bean-shaped land mass in the middle of the French Broad. Years ago, when Marshall was a (somewhat) booming mill town, the local authorities thought it would be the perfect location for…a high school. Yes, because, you know, rivers never flood or anything, right? (The French Broad saw not one but two “hundred year floods” in September 2004, weeks after Harvest – situated on high ground, thankfully – opened its doors).

But I digress. No doubt thanks to the stature of Harvest and its owners, the lineup for Transfigurations II is quite fascinating. Unlike other locally-based festivals – say, Moogfest – there’s no discernible musical theme for this festival: there’s something for many tastes. For me, the most anticipated shows feature acts rarely seen on these shores, much less in the Blue Ridge Mountains. New Zealand’s The Clean are the act about which I’m most excited; the long-bubbling-under r&b sensation Lee Fields promises to light up the stage; Asheville’s own garage rockers Reigning Sound can always be counted on for an incendiary show; and Sir Richard Bishop (who I missed at Hopscotch – or was it Big Ears – last time ’round) provides some avant-garde guitar skronk for those attuned to boundary-pushing. And there are plenty of others; I expect I’ll come away having discovered a new (or at least new-to-me) group or three.

Keep an eye out on this blog after the festival is over for words and images about Transfigurations II.

Weekend Passes are already sold out, but tickets for individual days were still available when I hit “publish” on this piece.

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Concert Review: The Musical Box, 22 July 2014, The Orange Peel, Asheville NC

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

When most modern-day listeners think of Genesis, their thoughts turn to the Phil Collins-fronted trio that released a string of pop albums and singles in the late 1970s and early 80s. Or, to riff on the old Beatles joke, they refer to Genesis as “the band Phil Collins used to be in.” But to those who paid attention in the early 70s, Genesis is, at least, the band Peter Gabriel used to be in. And that Genesis was a highly theatrical outfit, with Gabriel onstage in an assortment of outlandish costumes, introducing the lengthy story-songs in his trademark clipped, back-of-the-throat manner. And Genesis’ albums of that era – most notably, 1973′s Selling England By the Pound – featured musical flights of fancy that capitalized on the instrumental prowess of Tony Banks (keyboards), guitarists Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford, Gabriel on vocals and flute, and the (too-often forgotten) superb drum work of Phil Collins.


All photos © 2014 Audrey Hermon and Bill Kopp
 

The work of that classic era lineup is treasured among many Genesis fans, and save for a few one-off reunion projects, no new music was released by that configuration after the 1970s. Those who wanted to enjoy the live spectacle that was early-mid Genesis had to content themselves with a Peter Gabriel concert (though Gabriel didn’t and doesn’t perform Genesis era material) or track down one of the handful of unofficially-released films documenting Gabriel-era shows.

One group of people who have most assuredly seen those films is the five-man group calling itself The Musical Box. This Montreal-based quintet formed over twenty years ago with the express mission of bringing that classic-era Genesis back to present-day audiences. The group’s current tour features alternating set lists: one night centers around material from the 1972 album Foxtrot; the next builds a setlist around songs from Selling England By the Pound.

As it happens, the latter is both my favorite Genesis album and the basis for The Musical Box’s July 22 performance at Asheville’s Orange Peel. I scored a front-row seat for the spectacular show, but made a point of not watching any Youtube clips of the group ahead of time; I wanted to be surprised.

 

Indeed I was surprised, and delightfully so. From the moment we arrived, it was clear that The Musical Box takes great care to faithfully re-create the visual components of an early 70s Genesis show. A pre-concert look at the equipment onstage showed that vintage (or, at the very least, vintage-looking) instruments and amplifiers would be in use wherever possible.

The “Steve Hackett” guitarist (François Gagnon) would be seated on a stool stage-right, with amp controls and pedal at his easy disposal. “Mike Rutherford” (left-handed player Sébastien Lamothe) would, for most of the evening, be sporting a custom Rickenbacker double-neck axe containing both bass and six-string guitar. The drum kit of “Phil Collins” (Marc Laflamme) was large but made use of older, less-substantial hardware, the kind that can tip over when the drums are hit hard. And while there was a concession to modern technology in the form of a digital keyboard (with its nameplate airbrushed matte black), most of the keyboards played by “Tony Banks” (Guillaume Rivard) were the real thing: a Mellotron, an organ with pedals and Leslie cabinet were prominent onstage fixtures.

None of that technical information would mean a thing if the music wasn’t right. And it most certainly was: as the band ran through selections from the early Genesis catalog (not, in fact, playing Selling England start to end, but instead peppering the set with album tracks), the audience was provided with a true Genesis experience.

The single most important component of that experience was vocalist Denis Gagné (“Peter Gabriel,” of course). His purposefully stilted, bird-like onstage demeanor captured the essence of Gabriel’s public persona of the 70s. Making ample and effective use of costume changes, Gagné led the band on a dizzying trip through the early part of the Genesis catalog.

Other than Gagné (who remained firmly in character the entire time), none of the band members addressed the audience during the performance, though all provided backup vocal support. If any of the band have French-Canadian accents, no one in the audience could tell. The fanciful backdrop and occasional projected images helped make the illusion complete.

Little details helped, to be sure: the group’s long history as a tribute band has clearly afforded them the opportunity to hone the presentation to perfection. Laflamme wore a pair of white overalls with no undershirt, just as Collins did onstage in the 70s. And the overall white-clothing theme of the band helped keep visual focus directly on the flamboyant visual spectacle that was Gagné.

A few songs from Selling England By the Pound were left off the night’s setlist (most notably the beautiful, heart-rending Collins spotlight number “More Fool Me”), but it’s difficult to imagine anyone having come away disappointed from an evening that featured the keyboard-centric “Firth of Fifth,” the melodrama of “The Battle of Epping Forest” (both from Selling England) and an encore that included “The Knife,” from Genesis’ 1970 LP Trespass. As it was, the setlist provided each band member ample opportunities to show off (a) their instrumental chops and (b) their skill at re-creating the sound of Genesis studio albums onstage, a feat that even the original band could rarely manage.

For those who saw and loved Genesis with Peter Gabriel, The Musical Box are a vivid present-day re-creation of that era. And for those who are too young to have seen Genesis the first time ’round, this feels like the real thing.

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Review: Moogfest 2014 (Part Two)

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Keith Emerson was mainly in town, though, for a press conference at which the engineers at Moog Music unveiled what Emerson dubbed “the clone,” a from-the-ground-up duplicate of the massive modular unit Emerson carries around with him to gigs. Partly a can-we-even-do-it exercise, the development of the Emerson Modular is a testament to the r&d and technical skills of the folks at Moog.

While Emerson was in Asheville for Moogfest, he also made time to sit down with his friend André Cholmondeley (of Project Object, Delicious, The Wham Bam Bowie Band and onstage tech for Emerson, for Greg Lake, for Yes, for moe., and for many others) and do an interview to be podcasted. I was fortunate to be allowed fly-on-the-wall access during that chat, and afterward – while Cholmondeley spirited Emerson away to his next engagement prior to leaving town – I was able to score a few moments to chat with the keyboard legend as well (look for that conversation in my next feature).

Being a “rock guy” (albeit one who also digs jazz, blues and soul but other genres not-so-much) some of the acts left me either cold or mystified. Pet Shop Boys played a good chunk of their set behind screens, their silhouettes reminded me of some unholy hybrid of David Bowie‘s Scary Monsters persona and, well, Zippy the Pinhead. Had the music been interesting to me, I might have overlooked the somewhat annoying visuals. But for those most part, it could have been anyone phoning in the soulless (albeit ecstatically received) performance.

We in the press received an email alert that synth legend Bernie Worrell would be joining Emerson and his band onstage, but that didn’t happen. Instead, The Bernie Worrell Orchestra took to the stage following the conclusion of Emerson’s set. While it was kinetic and fun, the real highlight of the Worrell set came right near the start, when Nick Montoya (friend of Worrell, Moog employee, and part of The Volt Per Octaves) came onstage to lead the audience in a vocoder-led version of “Happy Birthday” dedicated to Worrell.

Kraftwerk‘s set at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was visually stunning (3-D glasses were required to take in the full range of the visuals, but it looked way-cool even without the glasses), and the visuals were keyed to the music. While the foursome themselves aren’t much to look at (dressed in matching outfits, posed carefully behind four podiums), their visual presentation factored that fact in, and made the full-stage visuals the centerpiece. (I had the offhand thought that as much as I like DEVO, those Akron-based spudsters clearly got a lot of ideas from Kraftwerk.)

CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers came off a bit like a tribute band that included the subject of said tribute. The large band ran through a long set of numbers that served to illustrate just how much Rodgers has contributed to the popular music lexicon. Many of the numbers were, by necessity, “covers,” but in all cases the tunes had a close connection to Rodgers (he wrote, produced, and/or arranged the originals).

M.I.A. is one of the hottest stars on the pop music scene today. Her set may have pleased the faithful, but I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. I am told she often performs with a band of human beings; her set this night featured her and a couple guys working at desks. I found it boring and threatening to give me a headache.

The Volt Per Octaves, on the other hand, gave a rousing performance in the intimate New Earth club. The husband/wife/daughter trio (featuring the aforementioned Nick Montoya) delivered a set that proves that synthesizer-based pop need not be bloodless, Human League-style pap.

Talks by Don Oberheim and Giorgio Moroder were – along with all the Keith Emerson-related goings-on – among my most-treasured memories of Moogfest 2014, and the event that capped the entire five-day festival was Sunday’s panel discussion among writers for The Simpsons and Futurama. Though this final event was lightly attended (a few hundred people in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium), it was thoroughly entertaining to see and hear these self-proclaimed “math nerds” explain all manner of in-jokes from the two animated series.

At press time there is no word concerning future Moogfests, but all indications are that there will indeed be future festivals. And everything about Moogfest 2014 suggests that the festival is back on track, true to the concerns and values of its namesake.

In tomorrow’s installment, my conversation with Keith Emerson.

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Review: Moogfest 2014 (Part One)

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Moogfest 2014 was indeed quite a different creature than its immediate predecessors. In both its focus and attitude, the five-day music/arts/technology event in Asheville NC was closer to the spirit of the original Moogfest, a smallish event held in New York City.

Of course the festival’s namesake, pioneering innovator Dr. Robert A. Moog – the man whose oft-mispronounced surname (properly spoken to rhyme with “vogue”) is now all but synonymous with the synthesizer – left this Earth several years ago. But as an attempt to carry on in a manner in which he might approve, Moogfest 2014 was wholly successful.

I read post-event news items stating that the 2014 event lost money. I also read that the organizers expected such an outcome, based on it essentially being their “first” festival. Earlier Moogfests in Asheville were run by AC Entertainment, the outfit that ably brings us Bonnaroo, Big Ears Festival and other mega-events. This Moogfest was more humble in its festival-type organization, but perhaps more ambitious in other ways. The lack of a major underwriter (on the scale of, say, Apple or Coca-Cola) was cited as part of the reason for the shortfall, but word on the street is that Moogfest 2014 was successful enough that some big names are interested in lending their support (read: dollars) to future Moogfests.

The character of Moogfest 2014 was, to a great degree, defined by the wide range of talks and presentations given. A long parade of synthesizer-related pioneers gave up-close-and-personal talks, most of them scheduled in the Masonic Temple on the north side of downtown (and a mere block from Moog Music’s facility) There, festivalgoers could see and hear Roger Linn (creator of the LinnDrum, one of the earliest synthesized percussion devices), Don Buchla (Moog’s “competitor” in synthesizer development back in the 60s), Don Oberheim (an important pioneer in the second wave of synth development, when polyphonic instruments came on the scene) and many, many others. These generally off-the-cuff, informal talks were almost invariably followed by Q&A sessions in which synth anoraks could ask the most niggling of questions of interest only to other synth geeks (present company most definitely included).

Still, there was certainly plenty of music as well at Moogfest 2014. And much of it was very, very good. And so while my own interest was placed most heavily on the daytime talks, I did take in as many music sets as my schedule and endurance would allow.

Keith Emerson‘s set at The Diana Wortham Theatre offered fans a chance to see something quite rare. Of course as part of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and before that, The Nice), the keyboardist was most often found on the large concert stage, often inside of a sports arena. (Love ‘em or hate ‘em, ELP were big concert draw in their day.) But the nature of the intimate Asheville venue (capacity: 500) means that if you got in, you were treated to what felt like a private recital.

Which isn’t to say that it was low-key; it was nothing of the sort. Emerson, backed by the beastly Moog Modular, played mostly seated, but he was fully animated in his performance. He even whipped out the portable ribbon controller device. That piece of gear, infamous for its dodgy reliability record, failed to perform in the manner Emerson wanted, so – to peals of laughter from the audience – he mimed wiping his ass with the thing.

Emerson is not currently on tour (nor does he have one planned at the moment), so when asked by Moogfest organizers to perform a full set (he had originally thought he’d do one number in a private setting), he rounded up his band, including guitarist Marc Bonilla. The group ran through a varied selection drawing from both Emerson’s solo catalog and his hits with ELP. Many of the songs were re-cast in arrangements far afield from the ELP ones, sometimes employing instruments that were never part of the 70s band’s onstage arsenal (most notably Bonilla’s banjo). The well-received set was highlighted by Emerson’s fiddling with the modular, and while he didn’t bring out the trademark daggers or run around the stage like a wild man, he turned in an exciting one-off concert performance that was a thrill to behold.

To be continued…

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