Archive for the ‘live shows’ Category

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.

In 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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Concert Review: World Party, Asheville NC 3 June 2014

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

One of the many joys of taking in a live show in Asheville is intimacy: arrive early, and it’s as likely as not that the artist you’ve paid to see will be enjoying his or her dinner (and/or a pint) at the table next to you. So it was last night at The Grey Eagle, an excellent music venue that has only gotten better of late. With a dramatically improved sound system (not to mention addition of HVAC), it’s one of the best places in the region to enjoy live music, up close and personal.

Karl Wallinger is the prime mover of World Party; at various points in the group’s nearly thirty-year history WP has been Wallinger and/or one to several additional players. The one constant throughout (five albums of original material, a couple of compilations, and Arkeology, a five-disc set of previously unreleased odds and sods that plays as well as a new album) has been Wallinger and his highly melodic, hook-laden songs plus the man’s winning, engaging persona.

For World Party’s current US tour – the second or third since Wallinger’s recovery from an aneurysm that left him needing to re-learn how to play guitar – the group is a trio: Wallinger on (amplified) acoustic guitar and piano, plus longtime associates David Duffy (violin) and Tristan Powell John Turnbull (Gibson Les Paul). All three sing beautifully.

Right out of the gate, the trio sought to please the audience (well-attended but not a capacity crowd). Over the course of a couple of hours, they bounced back and forth through World Party’s back catalog, picking and choosing the best from among a vast array of gems. Arguably the group’s finest effort (but sadly the one that fared the poorest in the marketplace, owing to circumstances beyond Wallinger’s control: the label went under), Egyptology provided four tunes for this night’s set.

And though the trio has no rhythm section (bass and drums), surprisingly, that instrumentation wasn’t missed. While Wallinger provided expressive rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Duffy and Powell managed to deliver every signature lick and hook of the original studio arrangements. While Powell recreated his leads (that’s him on a lot of the studio cuts, especially the later material) Duffy in particular did a great job of evoking the feel of the original arrangements with his fiddle, while helping to give the songs an even more warm and intimate vibe.

And those adjectives – warm and intimate – truly were the order of the evening. When Wallinger shifted to the Nord Stage keyboard, he led the group through a suite of piano-based numbers, including the elegiac “She’s the One.” And on that number as with many others, the audience pitched in to help, singing along, seemingly knowing most or all of the lyrics. A delight from start to finish, the show ended with rousing applause, leafing Wallinger to suggest that the band “avoid a whole lot of bother” and get right to the encore, dispensing with the play-acting of leaving the stage, waiting for the applause to swell further, and rushing back out. By the set’s end, Wallinger was visibly exhausted, having given his all. I hope he brings World Party back to Asheville soon for another set of timeless music.

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Moogfest Preview: The Volt Per Octaves

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

The original idea for Moogfest came about while Dr. R.A. Moog (“Bob” to everyone who knew him and many who didn’t) was still among the living. Originally a smallish New York City-based event, it was initiated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the company that bore the man’s name. Moog Music had been at the cutting edge of music since its inception, and though the company effectively went away for a number of years after Bob Moog left it, the company he founded after moving to Asheville (originally called big Briar) reacquired the rights to the Moog brand name in the early part of the 21st century.

The first Moogfest was a single night, and featured many of the biggest names associated with Moog instruments. By the time the second Moogfest rolled around, it had already begin to grow. It was around that time that an unsigned band from the west coast won a competition, the award of which was the opportunity to travel to open at Moogfest. That band – The Volt Per Octaves – was named after an electronic measurement credited to Moog, and initially featured husband and wife duo Nick and Anna Rhoney Montoya. The couple have known each other since they were fourteen, and Nick got into synthesizers when he was in high school. “I got my first Moog when I was about seventeen,” he recalls, “and I fell in love with it.” Nick and Anna became a couple in life, but didn’t collaborate musically until some seven years later. When they did, their goal was, Nick Montoya says, “playing vintage synthesizer music live, without samples or loops and computer. Just playing. With our fingers, and our toes, sometimes.” Their early influences included Air, The Moog Cookbook and other retro-minded projects as well as Aphex Twin and other more modern sounds.

That 2005 performance at BB King’s in NYC led to an endorsement deal with Moog Music. In the intervening years, Nick Montoya became an authorized service rep for Moog out west. In summer 2013 Nick and Anna and their daughter Eva relocated to Asheville, where all three now work in various capacities for Moog Music.

Mere days after Nick landed in Asheville, he posted a Craigslist ad offering his services on electronic pianos, an area of expertise above and beyond his synth-related technical prowess. I had just scored a very good deal on a 1973 Fender Rhodes Mark I piano in fairly rough condition. I made an appointment with Nick, and he came over a day or so later, tools in hand. Together we more or less disassembled and rebuilt the keyboard, though I should point out that my involvement was (wisely) limited to following simple, straightforward and explicit instructions. (I’m not very technical.) Within a couple of hours, we had restored the Rhodes to something not far from factory condition. Several months later Nick performed a similar act of resurrection on another of my thought-lost keyboards.

But though those happy episodes were my introduction to Nick, all of that is secondary to the music.

While there are certainly some big names – some really big ones, like Nile Rodgers and Chic, Keith Emerson, Kraftwerk, M.I.A. and many more – to me, The Volt Per Octaves are the sort of quintessential heart of Moogfest. They actually play Moog equipment, even. Nick and Anna play all manner of synths, while Eva Montoya provides additional synth and percussion and operates something Nick describes as “a robot thing called a Thingamagoop.” She also, chuckles Nick, “jumps around a little bit.”

While some might argue (and I’d guardedly agree) that in recent years Moogfest strayed a bit from its core concept, the 2014 event looks to be much truer to the spirit of Dr. Bob. A veritable teach-in, the five-day event will include talks by synth/electronic music pioneers whose names adorned some of the most forward-looking equipment of the electronic music era: Roger Linn and Tom Oberheim, to name but two. And all manner of talks that explore the nexus between technology and modern life are a big part of the festival. But the band that “traveled 3000 miles to play two songs” at Moogfest 2005 will enjoy a more prominent – and longer – performance at Moogfest 2014 here in Asheville.

Stay tuned for extensive Moogfest coverage on the Musoscribe blog.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Three)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

One thing that has changed – somewhat – is Rod Argent‘s keyboard arsenal. “I would only ever use my real [Hammond] C3, a Leslie [rotating speaker], and a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano in the studio. When we are recording an album, that goes without saying.”

“But,” Argent admits, “on stage, it’s so convenient and so reliable to use the new modules. I think that onstage the Hammond XK3 holds up really well. It’s obviously about a tenth of the weight of a real Hammond organ. I have memories of those days of when I would help huff that ’round myself! I couldn’t play for two hours because my forearms would hurt so much. I mean, it’s a bloody nightmare. And it would go wrong about once every two nights because they are not made to be thrown around the world.” He adds an amusing vignette: “The first time I came to the States with Argent, we brought our English one over, it came up on the [baggage] carousel. The whole thing came up on the carousel, like a huge theater organ!”

When seeing the band live today, a common reaction among audience members is, “Oh, gosh! I forgot they did that one!” Another is the look of sheer joy on many faces in the audience. I ask Colin Blunstone and Argent if they get a sense of that feedback when they’re up on stage.

“I always get a sense of that,” says Argent. “I always ask that instructions be given to the lighting people not to put the audience in total blackness. I don’t want them to be brightly lit, but I like to be able to just catch people’s reactions and movements so there is a real feeling of interaction between us and them. In the middle of this tour I am going to be 69, and I can’t believe it. But when we are on stage, it feels 100% the same as when I was 18 years old. That is such a privilege and it does not happen in many professions. And I love it.”

“You definitely do get a sense of it,” concurs Blunstone. “If you have an enthusiastic and supportive audience, that’s why performers want to perform. That’s what we do it for, really. It really lifts you, and it’s a completely different experience to that of playing somewhere where you’re not very well known, with a very quiet audience. You have to sort of work a lot harder to get a good performance in a situation like that. It’s incredibly important that you have that enthusiastic audience. It’s very easy when you go out onstage to a wonderful audience; they do it for you.”

The group are already at work on a studio followup to 2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In. “We’ve already started recording. We’re rehearsing three or four songs, and we’ve recorded two tracks; we just did one the other day. And we’ve got one more day of recording next week. But after that, of course, we’ll be away for six weeks. Later in the summer – I think the end of June – we’ll start recording again. And we’ve deliberately kept the second half of the year quite free. So it will be a time of writing and recording.”

Argent elaborates, saying, “the other day, just for fun, we started doing a song called, ‘I Want You Back Again,’ which was a very little known Zombies a-side in France and was a very small hit there in 1965. And we played this original song for a very short period of time. We heard Tom Petty do it, and we thought, “This is a great song! Why aren’t we doing this?” And so we started doing it on stage. And, just for fun, ’cause we love doing it on stage so much, and we think the band sounds so good now, we wanted to capture the 2014 version. And, strange enough, when you just called me, we just had it blasted and I was just playing it through. It sounds great. It sounds so much in common with the original, but I think it sounds better. I think it has all of that fresh feeling, absolutely no overdubs at all. We recorded it live, like we do on stage. The vocal was live, everything was live but in a studio environment.”

Both men still feel they have a lot to offer musically. “We are having a ball doing it,” Argent says. “And we have discovered that we are not trying to be what we were in the ’60s, but there are a lot of parallel elements going on. We are just trying to make things work for us in the same way that we were trying to make things work for us when we first started out.”

Asked if any of the new, as-yet-unreleased material will be previewed on their tour, Blunstone is circumspect. “We haven’t been talking about that, no. But we may well play some at sound check, and if they start to sound polished, maybe we’ll experiment. We’ll be playing lots of hits and lots of newer material; I like to think that there’s something there for everyone.”

The Zombies will perform at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on Tuesday, April 15.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Two)

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Continued from Part One

“I can’t tell you why [Odessey and Oracle] wasn’t successful when it first came out,” offers Rod Argent, “unless it was the fact that everything was so much more based in the country where you lived in at that time. And we only ever had one hit in the UK. Fewer hits in the UK than anywhere else in the world! We later found out we almost always had a hit somewhere in the world at any point that we were together, except in the UK. And because our profile had got so low in the UK, Odessey and Oracle came out – and it actually got great critical reviews, let’s be honest – but it didn’t sell. There was no real viability to it.

Argent continues. “There are two reasons why it later became successful. One was that it was picked up by well-known people who became fans. Paul Weller became a huge fan, and then more and more young indie groups of the time. I mean, Paul was a young hotshot when he first came out in the UK and he picked this as his favorite album of all time. And that is something he still says now. And then just succeeding waves of young indie bands and established artists, people like Tom Petty and Dave Grohl have said absolutely lovely things about it all the way along. Now that has obviously helped.”

“The other reason that I think it hasn’t faded away, if you like,” Argent adds, “is that we never tried to just be commercial when we made that record. In the same way that we recorded everything all those years ago – and we still do now, – and we don’t think, ‘How can we make a hit record?’ We never thought that; we just thought, ‘I’ve got this musical idea. How can we make it work?’ And that was always the focus of what we did, and that is the focus of what we do now.”

Colin Blunstone agrees. He says that “radio programmers ask, ‘What is it? Is it rock? Is it jazz?’ People don’t know how to program it. I think that is really a problem that the Zombies suffered from all the way through their brief professional career from ’64 to ’67. We didn’t really fit. We never wrote to have hits. We wrote what we wanted to write.”

“When you are honest like that,” says Argent, “it might not be the most commercial thing in the short term, because what you are not doing is trying to tap in to what used to be in the old days ‘zooming up the charts.’ Instead, you are trying to please yourself. In the long term, I believe that that means things don’t date quite as much as some other things. It is important not to try and make it with that in mind, but just try and do it for the right reasons. When young artists come up to me and ask what advice can I give, I say, ‘Well, there is not much I can give except really to say be true to yourself. Just do what turns you on. Do things for the right reason. Don’t try to do things just to be famous.’ There is nothing wrong with trying to be famous. But first of all, try to be the best at what you can do. If you asked an 18 year old when we started, ‘What do you want to be?’ he would say, ‘I want to be in the best group in the world. I want to be the best guitar player in the world.’ Nowadays you ask and they say, ‘I want to be famous.’ And it is a very different thing.”

“We still cut records now that we like,” says Blunstone, “and just hope that just hope that if we like them, and if the performances mean something to us, it seems logical that there is at least a chance there are other people out there that will derive the same pleasure that we do from these performances.”

I remark that Blunstone’s voice seems largely intact, having changed little since the group’s debut some 45 years ago. “I do work at it. Rod and I both started with a singing coach probably ten or fifteen years ago. Not when we were young; we did it in this incarnation of the Zombies. He taught us some things about technique, and I think it helped us to keep our voices strong and fairly accurate.”

“And it is important that your voice is strong,” Blunstone adds, “because we have to play…we usually keep it to five nights on the trot, five nights and then we try and have a day off. Because a lot of these songs we play are, for our voices, in very high keys. We’re really straining. All the songs we play are in the original keys. We’re singing in the same keys, in our late sixties, that we were singing when we first recorded them. When we were eighteen. It really does pay to have a little bit of singing technique, and to know how to support your voice. And to sing from your diaphragm.”

Blunstone believes something valuable is lost when a song’s key is changed. “The song won’t sound the same. By the by, [laughs] I do feel that I’ve strained my voice this week! And here I am agreeing with you about how strong my voice is. I’ve been singing a lot, and we’ve got a lot of singing next week as well. I’m trying to keep my fingers crossed; I do everything I can to keep my voice sharp, to keep it in shape.”

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part One)

Friday, April 11th, 2014

The Zombies are among the fondly-remembered cast of characters from the British Invasion (or, as they somewhat more succinctly call it in the UK, the Beat Era). While they certainly didn’t rock as hard as The Who, Yardbirds, or The Kinks, and enjoyed nowhere near the level of chart success that The Beatles and Rolling Stones achieved, their subtly jazz-inflected pop music has worn quite well. One of the more sophisticated (musically and lyrically) groups of the era, their hits – “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There” and more – remain staples of oldies radio, and sound much fresher in 2014 than anything by Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark 5.

The Zombies famously broke up – thinking they had gone as far as they could – -before their best album, Odessey and Oracle [sic] was released. And while that might have been the end of the story, the former band members remained quite busy. Keyboardist and vocalist Rod Argent started his own eponymous band, scoring the monster hit “Hold Your Head Up” and a smaller hit, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” Lead vocalist Colin Blunstone went on to a solo career and did notable work on a number of Alan Parsons Project tracks.

But it wasn’t until the tail-end of the 20th century that Argent and Blunstone reunited, and not for several more years before they reactivated the Zombies. After mounting a UK tour that culminated in a live run-through of Odessey and Oracle (with the four surviving original members), The Zombies (Argent, Blunstone and other slightly younger players including Jim Rodford from 80s era Kinks and Rodford’s son) became a going proposition once again. They now tour regularly, and released an album of original music (2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In) to positive reviews.

The Zombies bring their show to Asheville NC on April 15 – the band’s first time here – and I spoke to Argent and Blunstone ahead of the tour. In many ways they’re more popular now than they were the first go-round, some 45 years ago. Colin Blunstone offers his take on that conundrum: “I think that if you understood why we are more popular in one era than another – or if you understood why one record sold more than another record – obviously you could put the situation right and everything would be fine. The thing is there are so many unpredictable and unknown quantities in the music business, no one really knows the answers to those questions.

“For me,” he continues, “the most exciting thing that has happened from my career is this renaissance of the Zombies. We have a really, really great live band to go out night after night and play around our country, your country; we play around the world. And we have managed, without a hit record, to recreate some of that interest that was there in the original incarnation of the band in the ’60s. I think that is really exciting, because it is just word of mouth that traveled as a result of the performances.”

“The thing is that we did not plan any of this,” Rod Argent says. “Colin and I just got back together by accident when we did. We didn’t plan it at all. We decided to put a band together and do a half a dozen gigs for fun, not any particular focus on the Zombies. It felt so lovely to be working together again.

“It just sort of spiraled,” he continues. “It took a long time for us to embrace the original feeling of the Zombies. The last thing we wanted to do was just to try and go out there and milk it, do it to make a buck. We really did not want to look back; that wasn’t the reason we were doing it. We were doing it because we suddenly found ourselves having a great time working together again. But, when we started to write a little bit of new material, and to expand our direction in that way, it suddenly felt relevant, and not like a cop out, to go back and rediscover a lot of the old material.

“And then,” he says, “we realized that a lot of that old material that we had never played. Not least, the Odessey and Oracle stuff. Because we had never had performed that live. When we did that in Shepherd’s Bush in 2008, we played from start to finish. That’s the first and only time we reproduced every note from that album. We got other forces in because we had to, because we had overdubbed stuff on the original album. And I said to Chris [White, original Zombies bassist], “If we are going to do this, then we’ve got to reproduce every single note that was on the original album.” We did that. I even went out and bought a 1890s Victorian pump organ so we could get the exact sound on “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

Speaking (again) of Odessey and Oracle, I wonder why the album was such a slow burner, seeing as it now stands as an exemplar of that late-60s baroque rock style. Blunstone offers his perspective: “The obvious thing to say is that the band decided to finish before the album was even released. It was a time when the single was still important and we had released, I think, a couple of singles, maybe even three singles from the album. They hadn’t had any commercial success and I think everyone felt that we had gone as far as we could. And so the band decided to finish so there was no band to promote the album. I think that piece was a huge part of it.”

“I think that everyone in the band felt it was the right time for us to finish,” Blunstone adds. “We felt we had completed a musical circle. We had given all we’d got to give on that particular project, and it was time to move on and get involved in other projects.” He pauses and then goes further. “With a tiny bit of hindsight, I am probably the only one who feels like this: I would have been intrigued to have seen what we might have done if the band had stayed together. In particular, I think, Rod Argent and Chris White’s writing skills were really magnificent at that time. Really fabulous. They still are, but it seemed they just really sort of exploded just at that time in the late ’60s. I would have loved to have seen what we would have gone on and done.”

“But,” he says, “I feel that is one of the main problems, as I was saying, there was no band to promote [Odessey and Oracle]. I think it is a unique album. The sound of that album is not really like anything else from that period.”

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