Archive for the ‘live shows’ Category

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.)

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

Friday, June 5th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David Torn: The Audience is Here (Part 2)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David Torn: The Audience is Here (Part 1)

Monday, June 1st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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).

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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.

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Musical Parody Gets Into a “Grey” Area: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Ever since its 2011 printing, E.L. James‘ erotic romance novel 50 Shades of Grey has been an inescapable presence in pop culture. Though as literature – five hundred pages of dominance, submission, bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism stitched together with little character development – James’ “mommy porn” leaves much to be desired, there’s no doubting the novel’s success. A film adaptation hits theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day 2015, and the two followup novels have enjoyed similar success in the marketplace (along with inevitable widespread critical drubbing). An endless stream of tie-in (ouch) marketing has resulted in a variety of adult-oriented products bearing the 50 Shades brand.

Anything that achieves that level of success is a rich target for parody. And where E.L. James’ book is concerned, the most spot-on skewering of 50 Shades the book – and 50 Shades the marketing juggernaut – is the stage show, 50 Shades! The Musical Parody. A team of writers and choreographers with backgrounds in The Second City and Baby Wants Candy comedy troupes devised the musical as equal parts send-up and tribute. “There was a news story about the book every night, it seemed,” says Emily Dorezas, one of the parody musical’s producer/director/writers. “And then once we realized just how dirty it was, we thought that the juxtaposition of making it a musical felt like the right thing to do.”

Many reviewers have pointed out that while author James vividly describes BDSM and other activities, she betrays a paucity of imagination concerning such matters as word choice. There’s even a drinking game in which participants read aloud from 50 Shades of Grey, pausing to knock back a shot every time Christian Grey “cocks his head” or “steeples his fingers.” Dorezas is diplomatic on the book’s literary merits, and chooses her words with care. “It’s…not really plot-driven,” she allows. With that in mind, the parody’s writers devised a plot of their own. “The book club ladies are a kind of framing device,” Dorezas says. “And one of them goes through a change after reading the book. We wanted to show some growth in the characters, because if we were just making sex jokes, that would get old in about five minutes.”

Fans of sex jokes need not fear, however: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody is stuffed with innumerable laugh lines. An offstage announcer welcomes ladies, and then – after a pregnant pause – adds, almost as an afterthought, “…and gentlemen.” “I think we do a good job of getting across that this is a super-dirty show. Nobody ever brings kids,” Dorezas observes. “Now, husbands and boyfriends…that’s a different story. They’ve heard about the book, but sometimes they don’t quite know what it’s about. But a lot of men take the time to contact us after the show. I always quote the guy who wrote, ‘The party hasn’t stopped since we got home. And that was four days ago!’ We hear more from husbands than from wives.”

For those who haven’t read the book but are curious about the parody musical, Dorezas likens its sensibility to the approach South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker employed with their smash stage hit The Book of Mormon. But Dorezas notes that the book upon which that show is based “has been around a long time, and it’s not as silly” as 50 Shades.

Emily Dorezas’ take on E.L. James’ first book differs from the critical consensus in a fascinating, perhaps unexpected, way. James “did self-publish the book,” Dorezas points out. “Sometimes people challenge it from a feminist point of view, because it’s about a woman in a submissive position. But one of the best depictions of feminism I can think of is E.L. James’ approach: ‘Oh, you don’t like it? I don’t care; I’ll publish it myself! I don’t care if you think it’s trash; I believe in it.’ And obviously she’s gotten the last laugh.”

Whether or not James has gotten laughs from this unauthorized parody is unknown. “I know she knows about it, but she hasn’t seen it,” Dorezas says. “But from everything I’ve heard, she has a great sense of humor. I think she’d have a great time at our show.”

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Interview: Aaron “Woody” Wood

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Though it’s in many ways an informal affair, Warren Haynes Presents Christmas Jam has been growing in a deliberate fashion. Thanks both to concertgoer demand and the long line of musicians wishing to be involved in this fundraiser event, the festival – now in its 26th year – expanded to two nights a few years back, and has added extra events downtown.

The Christmas Jam By Day presents musical artists – many of whom are local and/or regional sensations – in smaller, more intimate settings. The acoustic jam, hosted by Drivin’N'Cryin‘s Kevn Kinney – has been part of the festival since the beginning. Its newer, more plugged-in counterpart takes place just down the street at Asheville Music Hall and its downstairs annex, The One Stop.

Guitarist-vocalist Aaron “Woody” Wood has been a fixture of the Jam By Day for the last several years; usually the organizers contact Wood and ask him to participate. “This year, I kinda reached out to Kevn Kinney through Facebook,” Wood says. “I asked if I could play again this year. I never heard back from him. Next thing I know, it’s in the paper!” Wood is as well-known nationally as he is in his longtime hometown of Asheville; as a member of The Blue Rags, Custard Pie, Sufi Brothers, Hollywood Red and a solo artist, Wood’s brand of music incorporates Piedmont blues, bluegrass, soul, and good old fashioned rock’n'roll.

For this year’s Jam By Day event, Wood will appear at both Asheville Music Hall and Jack of the Wood. For the latter, he says, “I’ll be playing some newer stuff that I’ve written. The crowd there…you can hear a pin drop.”

Wood’s Asheville Music Hall set is with his pick-up band of musical brothers, Trouble. The group is an ongoing collective of well-known and in-demand local/regional players who convene for the occasional gig. Trouble also features Jay Sanders on bass, keyboardist Ryan Burns, Shane Pruitt on guitar, and drummer Frank Bloom. “We go together like red beans and rice,” Wood says. Trouble builds spontaneous jams out of well-known songs. “The best way to hear songs that I really, really love,” Wood says, “is to play ‘em.” He likens each song to “a ‘face.’ Then we start playing, and that’s how we put ‘eyebrows’ on it.”

Trouble has been together in one form or another for as long as Wood has been playing the Jam By Day. “I think what we do is really in line with what happens on Saturday night, at the main Jam,” Wood says. “Musicians who love to play get together with people they really love to play with.” That informal approach encourages players to just hang out and do what comes naturally, with the added features of a huge crowd of fans in attendance, and fund raising for a good cause. For the last several editions of the festival, proceeds have benefited Habitat for Humanity. The whole event “has a real family type of feel,” says Wood.

Advance tickets for the Jam By Day at Asheville Music Hall are available online for $10. The AMH lineup includes Blue Bop (Bela Fleck Tribute), The Broadcast, Jahman Brahman, Love Canon, Lyric, Marcus King Band, Ed Williams’ RumpelSteelSkin (ft. Andrew Campanelli, George Gekas & Michael Girardot of The Revivalists) and Trouble.

The Jack of the Wood acoustic jam lineup features Ray Sisk, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Aaron “Woody” Wood, Laura Reed, Bobby Miller & The Virginia Daredevils, Red Honey, Josh Daniel – Mark Shimick Project, Leigh Glass, David Earl, Jamie Dose & Dorsey Parker, The Pond Brothers, Ian Harrod and Michelle Malone. Tickets are also $10, but advance purchase is not available.

VIP pass holders get admittance to both Jam By Day events at no additional charge.

Wood explains his perspective on the jam aesthetic: “You can get a bunch of musicians together – people who have never played together before, and who might not play together again – and play songs they all know: ‘What key would you like to do this in? A major? Okay.’” And in that sense, Wood contends that all of it – no matter what style of music each player comes from – is really folk music. “Because all the folks know that shit, y’know what I mean?”

This feature originally appeared in print in Mountain Xpress.

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