Archive for the ‘live shows’ Category

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

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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 musoscribe.com. 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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Girls Rock Asheville (girlsrockasheville.org) 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.)

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.”

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.”

Click to continue

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 1

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Typically, I don’t make a point of attending “kickoff events” at the start of music festivals. My thinking is that they’re generally an opportunity to spotlight the event sponsors and so forth. That’s all well and good, but it’s not, strictly speaking, entertainment. But since I had gone to Moogfest 2014‘s opening event and enjoyed it, I figured, why not do the same in Knoxville. Plus, I was there, and no other music events were scheduled until later.

Lucky me. True, the event did include some speeches, but even those were worthwhile. Festival organizer Ashley Capps (he of AC Entertainment, the outfit behind Bonnaroo and many other high-profile festivals) gave a heartfelt speech that helped attendees understand the answers to two reasonable questions: Why Big Ears? And why Knoxville?

But the real highlights of the opening event were four musical performances. First off, Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man staged a “popup concert.” Rather than make use of the stage, they set up their stools and music stands on the floor in front of it – all of six feet from where I had situated myself – and played a brief, unamplified set. It was sublime, and held the audience (a near-packed room at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall) spellbound.

After that, we were treated to onstage performances from Hildur Guðnadóttir (futuristic-looking cello and vocals treated by sonic effects and looping), a sight-impaired teenage pianist Tate Garcia (an exceedingly clever mashup of his own arrangement of works by Scott Joplin, George Harrison and Chopin), and finally vocalist Breyon Ewing. In less than an hour’s time, the gathered audience had the essence of Big Ears Festival laid out in front of them. Things were off to a superb start.

Igor Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” is one of those classical pieces that you know, even if you don’t know you know it. A reading of the work formed the centerpiece of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and the onscreen visuals that accompanied it (dinosaurs, not Mickey Mouse) seared it into the memory of those who witnessed it. The work remains popular, and received perhaps its most innovative and outré reading by The Bad Plus on their 2014 album The Rite of Spring. The group (pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) is nominally a jazz trio. But they’re jazz musicians playing classical music, and playing it with a rock (or progressive rock) level of power.

Whole sections of the Bad Plus’ take on Stravinsky’s work might be unrecognizable to those familiar with the original work, but the trio’s reinvention of the piece was thrilling; one couldn’t turn away. The interplay between the three was remarkable; even though they were working from sheet music (as did nearly every Big Ears performer I saw, yet another thing that makes this festival unlike any other I’ve witnessed), there was a jazz musician’s mentality of unspoken communication at work.

The trio followed up Stravinsky’s work with a set of their own original material; avant garde rarely gets as accessible as The Bad Plus.

Later on Big Ears’ first night, I caught a set at The Square room featuring guitarist Steve Gunn and his band. Musically conventional – at least compared to most of the other acts on the bill – Gunn and band showcased the guitarist’s impressive fretwork. Gunn’s not a flashy guitarist, not at all. But his powerful music was the closest thing to rock music on the entire three-day schedule. It was also plenty loud, not that that’s a band thing. (No doubt Swans were much louder, but having witnessed part of their punishing set at 2013′s Bonnaroo Festival, I made the decision to avoid a repeat.)

After a visit to a local used record store (something I try to do in every city I visit, because every town has its own used-record character), my Saturday list of performances began with Kronos Quartet onstage at the massive and beautiful Tennessee Theatre. Joined by Americana artist Sam Amidon on vocals and banjo, the Quartet applied their multigenre-spanning expertise to folk songs. At this point I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much live classical instrumentation at one time before.” But it was lovely, and I even sat still for music that included banjo (one of my least-favorite instruments).

Click to continue

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Concert Photography in a Local Light: “Front Row Focus”

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

In 2015, nearly every concertgoer carries a smart phone with a built-in camera, so snapshots of the onstage performers aren’t exactly a rare commodity. But there’s a long and proud tradition of legitimate concert photography, and it’s no hyperbole to call it an art form. Some of the most iconic images in music have come from the lenses of such giants as Elaine Mayes (her Monterey Pop concert shots of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix are classics), Mick Rock, Jim Marshall, Anton Corbijn and Jenny Lens.

 

Avett Brothers Halloween 2014 Photo by www.DavidSimchock.com

Avett Brothers Halloween 2014 Photo by www.DavidSimchock.com

Asheville has its own modern-day exponents of concert photography. You’ve likely seen these characters at any number of local venues; they’re the ones who not only understand the rules (no flash photography, “pit photography” allowed for the first three songs only), but have a keen and discerning eye. Concert photography is about so much more than snapping the shutter at the right moment; it’s about synthesizing what’s special about a performer – someone who deals in sound and movement – into a still and silent visual image that captures the essence of that performer.

Three of the finest Asheville-based concert photographers have created an exhibition of their best work, on display now through April 15 at The Green Sage Café (Westgate). “Front Row Focus” presents arresting images from the cameras of Nick King, David Simchock, and Frank Zipperer. Though all three travel on assignments, “Front Row Focus” is drawn from the best images documenting local performances. Curated by Paul Rollins, the exhibit features dozens of color and black-and-white photos.

The works of the three photographers are displayed throughout the Green Sage’s airy, open space; while the room is well-lit after dark, the photos are seen to their best effect surrounded by natural light. Zipperer – a photographer whose tastes run toward jazz – presents his concert photos primarily in black-and-white format; that format allows the photographer to make visual statements about his subjects through controlled use of contrast. The shots are often up close and personal, and always lead themselves to contemplation and close study.

Much of Simchock’s work displayed at “Front Row Focus” features rich, deeply saturated colors that lend the images an almost three-dimensional quality. The hyper-realism and stunningly sharp focus creates a you-are-there ambience. Nearly all of Simchock’s photos document performances in Asheville; the few exceptions – photos taken in New Orleans and Philadelphia, for example — are so breathtaking and remarkable that their inclusion makes sense.

King’s work is superb in its capturing of those just-right onstage moments; though dealing with subjects who are constantly on the move, the photographer’s documenting of a split-second slice of the performance somehow captures and conveys all of the movement. And it does so with astounding clarity. Though he, too, sometimes works in close-up, King’s wide-angle lens brilliantly and effectively captures the stage as a whole.

All of the photos on display at “Front Row Focus” are available for purchase, but it costs nothing to view them at the exhibit. The photography installation is open for viewing during Green Sage’s normal operating hours (daily 8:00am – 7:00pm).

Who: “Front Row Focus” featuring the work of Nick King, David Simchock, and Frank Zipperer
Where: Green Sage Café (Westgate), Asheville NC
When: Now through April 15, daily 8:00am – 7:00pm
Door: Free, and prints are available for sale.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.