Posts Tagged ‘asheville’

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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Bonus Weekend Feature: The Black Angels’ Alex Maas Talks About Roky Erickson

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Austin-based band Black Angels have a finely tuned sense of history. While their music – often described by the band members themselves as “tribal psychedelic” – doesn’t aim to slavishly re-create the sounds of some long-lost musical era, the group readily acknowledges a clear debt to their psychedelic forebears.

And chief among those influences for the Black Angels (and many other acts who fall loosely into the modern-psych bag) is The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, one of the earliest psychedelic bands. Led by Roky Erickson, The Elevators – also Austin-based – released a legendary 1966 album (The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators), followed up with another fine effort (Easter Everywhere) a year later, and then petered out quickly with an ersatz-live album and a final effort on which its main musician was all but absent.

But The Elevators’ stature among succeeding generations of rock musicians grew, helped in no small part by Erickson’s bizarre life path. It’s difficult to summarize the story in a few words, but here’s an attempt: to avoid jail time for a drug bust (a single joint, by the way), Erickson entered an insanity plea and was confined to the (Rusk) Texas State Mental Hospital. There he received electroshock treatments, which many believe exacerbated the not-quite-qualifying-as-insane psychological problems Erickson was having.

He eventually got out, but went on to live an existence characterized by untreated schizophrenia. And during that period, he went on to make a series of albums that chronicled his obsession with the strange and macabre. The song titles tell part of the story: “The Evil One,” “Two Headed Dog,” “Bloody Hammer,” “I Walked With a Zombie.” He eventually got the help he needed, and his journey back toward something approaching normalcy is chronicled in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, named after the Elevators’ most famous song.

Growing up in Austin and eventually forming a psychedelic band all but guarantees that you’d know about Roky. And the Black Angels’ multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas cites him as an early, high-school-years influence. “People had told me about [the 13th Floor Elevators], and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll need to check that out sometime.’ I think I was in a record store, and I heard ‘Roller Coaster’ or ‘Reverberation.’ I asked the guy there, ‘Who is this?’ He told me, and it rang a bell.” He wondered why he didn’t already know about this locally-based band. “I mean, I knew about Buddy Holly,” he laughs.

When the Black Angels formed ten years ago, they drew upon Roky’s work – both from the Elevators years and beyond – for some of their inspiration. And then years later (2007) The Black Angels played at an event called the Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social at the SXSW Festival. That show brought the band to the attention of Roky’s management.

So it’s fitting that on the Black Angels’ current tour – which brought them to Asheville’s Grey Eagle on Thursday, February 20 – they finally share the stage with their hero. “If you told me years ago that this would happen,” Maas chuckles,” I would have said, ‘bullshit!’” Though they did a few dates backing Roky in 2008, this will have been the first time that they performed a double-bill with Roky and his band. “There might be a little tango onstage” with Roky and the Black Angels, Maas teases. Clearly everyone concerned is pleased at the pairing: in the time his band has spent close to Erickson, Maas says that they’ve learned “just how therapeutic playing music is for someone like Roky.”

Back in 2008, there had been plans afoot for a recorded collaboration between Roky and the Black Angels, but – despite an investment of time and resources by the band – that abortive project never fully materialized. Instead, Erickson released an album backed by Okkervil River, 2010′s True Love Cast Out All Evil. Luckily, reworked tapes from the Black Angels sessions have yielded a new single featuring the band covering a pair of Roky’s tunes. The seven-inch vinyl “(Thank God for) Civilization” b/w “Bo Diddley is a Headhunter” will be available at shows. Describing the songs as “not quite 13th Floor Elevators, and not quite Black Angels,” Maas explains that part of the band’s motivation for pushing to get the single out was “to put some money in Roky’s pocket.” Beyond that, Maas hopes that interested generated by the single will eventually lead to the release of more tracks from those 2008 sessions.

Maas urges anyone interested in Roky Erickson to attend the shows on this tour. “Roky doesn’t need to tour,” he says. “And he might not tour much after this.”

Yuck’s “Glow & Behold” — Shoegaze Meets Melody (Part Two)

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Continued from Part One

The first record was self-produced; for Glow & Behold, the band chose to work with Chris Coady, who’s worked with other indie-styled artists like Smith Westerns, Wavves and Beach House. Max Bloom says that the “brightness” of Coady’s sound works well with the songs on this album. “I’m used to doing everything [in the studio] myself; I’m very hands-on,” Bloom says. “And Chris is a hands-on producer. So this meant giving a lot of responsibility to him. And just the opportunity to have someone else in the room, someone to talk about what you’re doing, is a big help. It’s a different way of working for me, and it was a very interesting one. And a positive one, for sure.”

The album’s primitive/abstract artwork (by Katherine Campbell) is likely to start a few conversations. “I gave her the tracks, told her a little bit about the album, and she went away for a long time, and came back with a few things,” Bloom recalls. “The [art chosen for the] album cover stood out for me; I don’t know what it was.” He prefers to leave its meaning open to individual interpretation. “We have a backdrop of the album cover when we play. When you look at that, you might have your own opinion of what it might be. And that’s what we wanted out of the artwork.”

On Glow & Behold, Yuck also moves beyond its guitar/bass/drums format to include brass on a few tracks (among the album’s strongest). “It was an urge to try something different,” Bloom says. “With the first album, we had a strict limitation. It worked, and it was fun to write within those guidelines; we used those limitations to our advantage.” He describes the addition of horns – played by him and two guest musicians – as “a way to amuse ourselves,” but the end result expands on Yuck’s sonic palette in a logical way that feels quite natural.

That said, onstage, Yuck is sticking to its stripped-down trio featuring Bloom on guitar plus bassist/vocalist Mariko Doi and drummer Jonny Rogoff. “I like the live experience to be something completely different form the record,” Bloom says. “A lot of people who come to see us live comment that it does sound a lot different. When you’re at a show and that’s what you’re seeing, it’s special in that way.”

Yuck released “Rebirth” as a single ahead of the album, and then “Middle Sea” as a single after the album came out. Asked if he views the album format as viable in this age of download culture, Bloom says, “I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best way, but for me it’s the only way. The album is the highest form that a band or an artist can use to express themselves. For me,” he continues,” I only ever listen to albums. If I like a song, I want to listen to it in the context of an album. In this day and age, that might be old-fashioned.”

Like writing catchy songs, you might say.

Yuck will be at The Mothlight in Asheville NC on Tuesday, February 11.

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Yuck’s “Glow & Behold” — Shoegaze Meets Melody (Part One)

Monday, February 10th, 2014

In October 2013, London/New York-based Yuck released Glow & Behold, their second album. And while a “cold” listen to it – as in, using ears that had never heard their self-titled 2011 debut – led to me naming it as one of the year’s best releases, some fans don’t agree. They remind me of the stories surrounding The Doors‘ signing with Elektra in 1966 amid frenzied cries of “sellout!” from their L.A.-scenester fan base. Like the man said, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The fact remains that with Glow & Behold, Yuck has in fact turned toward a slightly more tuneful brand of music than they served up on their first long player. But the elements that made them special remain, only now supplemented by sweet ear-candy melodies that remain in the listener’s head long after the insistent squalls of looped feedback on the title track fade away.

Though Daniel Blumberg – one of the band’s two guitarists and songwriters – left before the second album, Yuck’s more streamlined approach serves them well. “Because we changed our musical style [and went] into the studio to do things a little bit differently, it’s easy to think that when Daniel left, he took what was on the first album with him,” says Max Bloom, guitarist and (now) primary songwriter for the band. “And for a person like Daniel to have left the band, whatever we did after that point would have been under scrutiny. Anything that was different would have been [blamed on the fact that] he left.” So in that sense, anyone who wanted Yuck to effectively make the same album a second time was bound to be disappointed.

“At the end of the day,” Bloom continues, “the easiest thing to have done – which in fact is what we did do – was to ignore all the circumstances and make the album we wanted to make.” And while an review criticizes the band for having “focus[ed] on the pretty and melodic side of the equation,” I fail to understand how that’s a bad thing in and of itself. “The initial idea,” Bloom says, “was about the flow of the album, the way it starts, unfolds, and finishes. On the first album, we had a bunch of songs that were put on without a thought as to track listing.” On Glow & Behold, Bloom says he wrote songs to fit into the “jigsaw” of the overall album’s sequence. Asked if he consciously writes songs that are built on foundations that include a strong hook,” Bloom laughs and says, “That might be true.”

Often pegged as a shoegaze group, in truth Yuck’s sound – especially on the second album – bears the influence of song-centered artists such as Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and Aztec Camera. And even “Sunday” from the first album is redolent of The La’s and Belle and Sebastian. Bloom guardedly agrees, but adds Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, as well as “a lot of bands on Sub Pop and Merge” to the list of acts whose music has informed his songwriting, especially on the debut. “Loud, guitar-noise kinds of things.” As for Glow & Behold, Bloom says he listened to “Wilco and Jim O’Rourke” while writing songs.

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Concert Review & Photoblog: Fitz and the Tantrums, Asheville NC, 5 Nov. 2013

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Modern r&b-flavored pop act Fitz and the Tantrums returned to Asheville recently for an enthusiastic, packed-house reception. Focusing on tunes from their second album (2013′s More than Just a Dream) and peppering the set with cuts from their breakout 2010 debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces, the group wowed the audience. A high-energy show from start to finish, the performance slipped in a few crooner/ballad type numbers, but even on those, the group kept the audience on its feet.

The tunes on More Than Just a Dream have a bit more slick studio polish and radio-ready sheen than the debut, but onstage, the songs all flowed together nicely in a solid mix. Lead vocal duo Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs shared the spotlight, alternately drawing attention to themselves as individual singers and as a tightly-knit team.

With the success of the slicker approach on the second album, it remains to be seen what direction the band’s studio releases will follow, but onstage, they’re as exciting and soulful –in the classic sense – as ever. Below are a couple dozen photo highlights from the November 5 show at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel.

All photos © Bill Kopp.

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Jamie Laval’s “Christmas in Scotland”

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

A deep love and understanding of Celtic cultural and musical traditions; a foundation of classical training; and a fresh look at celebrating the Holiday season: that was the recipe for “Christmas in Scotland: Seasonal Music and Stories from Celtic Lands,” a holiday show at Asheville’s Isis Theatre on December 27, 2013.

Hosted by award-winning fiddler (and Asheville resident) Jamie Laval, “Christmas in Scotland” featured music and storytelling focused on the season. But not, perhaps, the season you’d think. While Laval acknowledges that “we have our own signature music from Appalachia,” he notes that “by the time Scots-Irish settlers came to this area, the Christmas music tradition had already been well-established. A lot of the traditional carols that we all know and love had existed for centuries.”

“Those were village dance tunes,” he explains. “The church took a hold of them, slowed them down, and added Christian-based lyrics to them. By the time the settlers came here, the tunes were thought to be regular Christian Christmas carols. But if you look way back, that changeover from being pagan-based holiday music had already long since taken place.”

And it’s those pre-Christian traditional village folk dance tunes that Laval and his compatriots would play at this special performance. “I’ve made my specialty in really, really ancient Scottish music, Laval says. “And I try to give a fresh spin to it.” Laval is well-suited to such an ambitious goal: he began his formal musical training in British Columbia at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, where he studied classic violin. But he quickly fell in with the region’s folk traditions. “My first summer job was playing chamber music in the lobby of a grand old lodge,” Laval recalls with a chuckle. “Everyone who worked at the hotel had a tendency to spend off-days at the grange hall dances. So after being in music a very short time, I started doing square dances, barn dances.” Initially, those folk dance events were a mere sideline and hobby for the young fiddler. “But,” he continues,” over the years, as I pursued a classical career in symphony playing, I got better and better at the folk music.” He says that he eventually devised his own style, a “signature rendition of Scottish and Irish” traditions within the framework of the Celtic music format.

“Ten or twelve years into classical music,” Laval recalls, “I realized that my heart was really leaning more toward folk music than classical. I made a decision to turn a corner. He went out in style, though: his final classical gig was Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, performed with the Seattle Opera. “A grand send-off,” he laughs.

Celtic music is handed down through note-for-note re-creation of the tunes. Asked if he finds that relatively strict format limiting or liberating, Laval chooses the latter, and attributes it to a characteristic one might not think to associate with the style: groove. And, unlike classical, “the liberating part is that there’s no requirement to be faithful to a score.” In folk music, Laval points out, “it’s perfectly permissible to re-render the music in a different tempo, a different harmonic structure, with different emotion.”

Reflecting on the universal appeal of folk music, Laval suggests that humans are “hard wired for rhythm.” Moreover, he says, “I understand the depths of emotion that come across through folk music.” That, he says, is due in part to the fact that “folk music is the product of not one composer, but a collective body of people as the music is passed from one generation to another. It gets imbued with the sentiments of each of its contributors. And so the music ends up being an expression of a people, of a whole culture.” In Celtic music, Laval hears the “yearning and longing and struggle and triumph that’s built into that long tradition.”

And that culture – with its long-held pre-Christian traditions – was the focus of the “Christmas in Scotland” show. “This is a chance to put together the kind of lineup I don’t usually get to play with,” says Laval. He customarily performs solo or with a very small group. Bigger ensembles usually necessitate large venues and large stages, with the accompanying divide between performer and audience. Laval promised that “Christmas in Scotland” at the Isis, would be “intimate, but yet I get to work with dancers. And that’s always fun.”

An edited version of this feature ran in the December 25, 2013 issue of Mountain Xpress.

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Concert Review: Project/Object, 22 Dec. 2013, The Grey Eagle, Asheville NC

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Viewed as an entire body of work, the music of Frank Zappa is near-impossible to pin down. There are significant elements of everything from doo-wop to progressive jazz to avant-classical to blues to rock. By the time Zappa died of prostate cancer (just over twenty years ago), he had built a catalog of more than sixty(!) albums; more than thirty posthumous albums have been released by his estate since that time. In the words of Edgard Varèse – one of Zappa’s major influences – “the present-day composer refuses to die.”

A vital means by which Zappa’s music is kept alive is the effort by ensembles that tour and perform his music. Often dauntingly complex, Zappa music requires musicians of the highest caliber. But because (as Zappa often pointed out) humor does belong in music, a dour, overly-schooled approach to his work simply won’t do: the musicians must be exceedingly talented, yet free enough to (a) follow real-time cues as to the direction the music takes onstage, (b) head off on their own exploratory solos when called upon to do so and ( c) bring a finely-tuned sense of humor to the whole thing.

One of the premier exponents of present-day Zappa music is Asheville’s own Project/Object. The group – named after Zappa’s label for his entire body of work, held together by what he called “conceptual continuity” – was founded in 1991 by guitarist André Cholmondeley. Originally based in the Northeast, P/O would occasionally head south to play highly-regarded tour dates at Asheville’s StellaBlue (now Asheville Music Hall). After a number of visits here, Cholmondeley relocated to Asheville. His impressive musical chops and his deep love and understanding of the music made playing and arranging Zappa’s music a labor of love.

Cholmondeley’s day job – working sound/stage management for a who’s-who list of rock giants – has meant that P/O tours are not as frequent as they once were. And because the complexity of the music all but requires a large (by rock standards, anyway) ensemble, putting together a tour is often cost-prohibitive. But when he’s able, André does it, and thanks to his stature in the musical community, he is able to draw upon some of the finest talent available to fill the ever-shifting ranks of Project/Object.

As fortune would have it, for P/O’s latest show – Sunday December 22, 2013, at The Grey Eagle – Cholmondeley fond a good portion of that staggering talent right here at home. Keyboardist Jamar Woods of The Fritz played an old-school stack of synthesizers, creating the palette of out-there sounds necessary to create the Zappa vibe. A thrilling, expressive, three-piece horn section featured all locally-based talent: Greg Hollowell (Asheville Horns), Derrick Johnson (Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band) and Debrissa McKinney (Empire Strikes Brass and more other projects than one can count). Bassist Keith Harry of Asheville’s Deja Fuze anchored the complex bottom-end, rounding out the local contingent in this P/O lineup.

For the remaining two key positions in the lineup, André enlisted journeyman drummer Eric Slick (Dr. Dog, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio and – for select performances including this Asheville date – longtime Zappa guitarist Denny Walley. Walley’s slide guitar and vocal were integral components of Zappa’s live and studio efforts from the late 70s through late 80s; he also played for many years with Captain Beefheart, and currently leads The Magic Band, an outfit that is to Beefheart’s music what Project/Object is to the music of Frank Zappa.

In keeping with the spontaneous, deliberately ad-hoc nature of the current-day Project/Object, this eight-piece configuration had relatively few practices before taking the stage at The Grey Eagle. But the performance bore no hallmarks of ill-preparedness: the group ran through spirited renditions of Zappa’s works, drawing material primarily from the period during which Walley played with Zappa. The eight-piece delivered deep cuts from Joe’s Garage, Acts I, II and III (“Outside Now” and the very NSFW “Crew Slut”), Sheik Yerbouti (“Broken Hearts are for Assholes”), Tinseltown Rebellion (“Easy Meat,” “Bamboozled by Love,” and the Zappa favorite “Peaches En Regalia”), Zoot Allures (“Ms. Pinky” and “Black Napkins”), and a Walley lead vocal on the skewed blues of “Suicide Chump” (from You Are What You Is). The band dug deep into the Zappa catalog for “T’mersh Duween,” a demanding, intricate number that never appeared on record until after Zappa’s death. And Cholmondeley headed in an unexpected direction for the second set opener, performing a solo (vocal and guitar) reading of “The Idiot Bastard Son,” from The Mothers‘ 1967 album We’re Only In it for the Money.

As fascinating as that solo spot was, the highlight of the evening was the unceasing interplay of the musicians onstage. Because of the complexity of the music, several members used printed charts on some numbers. But that did not detract from the without-a-net nature of the music. And that quality was on full display when André led the band through a series of intricate changes on “Titties ‘n’ Beer” (originally on Zappa in New York): in the same manner as Frank did with his bands, Cholmondeley cued various members of the band – with no advance warning — and led them though a bizarre, exploratory (and highly entertaining) musical maze that called upon musical skill, creativity and lightning-fast reflexes.

And the band – like the audience – smiled and laughed heartily though it all. Because as knotty and dense as Zappa’s music can be, it’s all about fun. Through the lyrics, the nutty sound effects, the “secret words” that are part of any Zappa-related performance, the solos, and the musical dialogues, this Project/Object delivered on all fronts.

And here’s a bit of welcome news: the show went so well that Cholmondeley plans another P/O date in Asheville sometime in the next few months. So while of late Asheville fans have had precious few opportunities to see Cholmondely’s thrilling aggregation, the future looks promising.

You may also enjoy this 2011 conversation with Andre Cholmondeley and Zappa alumni Ike Willis.

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Concert Preview: Welcome (Back) to The Machine

Monday, January 6th, 2014

New York-based Pink Floyd tribute band The Machine have long made Asheville NC’s Orange Peel the first or an early stop on their annual winter tour itinerary. The group routinely attracts a packed crowd to the venue for its sound and vision spectacular, a live recreation of the music of one of rock’s best-loved and most influential bands. Once again, this week (Thursday, January 9), the four-piece band will time-travel through the catalog of Pink Floyd, unearthing rarely heard gems (you might hear “Childhood’s End” from 1972′s Obscured by Clouds) right alongside everyone-knows-the-words tunes like “Wish You Were Here.”

And that mix is a key component of The Machine’s appeal. The band strives to put together a set list that satisfies the people who come to hear the well-known hits, and they also manage to please hardcore fans – including this writer – who want to hear relative obscurities such as “Cymbaline.” And in some ways, that could be a real challenge: after all, The Machine is working with a body of music that hasn’t been added to since 1993. Agreeing that they couldn’t get away with playing any given little-known Floyd song every night (say, “Green is the Colour” from the 1969 More soundtrack), drummer and founding member Tahrah Cohen admits, “you can play ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ every time. Because those songs transcend time; they’re so relevant in every way to so many people’s lives.”

Continuing on that thought, Cohen explains that for the musicians in The Machine, the goal is to “get your own ego out of the way. When you play great music, you’re just the conduit for that music. When you’re onstage and you play ‘Comfortably Numb’ for the 2000th time, and the entire crowd is going absolutely crazy, you feel alive, too. Get your ego out of the way, and let the music do the rest. It’s not that hard.”

The Machine has experienced some lineup changes since its inception in 1988. While keyboardist Scott Chasolen has been with the group since 2007, and guitarist (originally bassist) Ryan Ball has been in the band for fifteen years, only Cohen remains from the original lineup. But she views those changes as a strength, not a weakness. “Everyone who comes and goes brings something new to the group,” she says. “And it’s very inspiring. Certain people, their forte might be improvising. Some people might be better at groove-oriented playing. Some people are powerful singers.” She goes on to note that in addition to his considerable skills on bass, relative newcomer Adam Minkoff (who joined in 2012) “happens to sound unbelievably like David Gilmour.”

Cohen also makes the point that what the various members bring to the group is less a Pink Floyd influence than an overall musical influence, something that helps keep things fresh. And a visual approach that, er, echoes Pink Floyd helps a great deal as well. As stage personalities, Pink Floyd were never very concerned with how they looked; it was about the music and the visuals – lighting effects, projections, films, and (on the 1980/81 dates, the in-concert construction of The Wall).

The Machine takes a similar approach. The band has its own smaller version of the round “Mr. Screen,” and they use a number of motion picture visuals associated with Pink Floyd. Cohen says that Ryan Ball did “a lot of the video editing” that the band uses onstage, and notes that The Machine “keeps adding lighting effects and films to change things around” from tour to tour. And expressing a sentiment that the Pink Floyd members likely would share, Cohen notes that “it’s nice not having the pressure of being [onstage] individuals. It’s nice to be overshadowed by the music and the aesthetics.”

This week’s show isn’t the only 2014 date for The Machine in Asheville: in May the band will return for an outdoor show where they will be joined by the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, performing an orchestral/rock arrangement of Pink Floyd’s landmark 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. “We have been so lucky in that we have performed with the country’s top orchestras for the past five to seven years. We’ve played with The Atlanta Symphony; Detroit’s symphony, which is renowned; Philadelphia…we’ve played with some heavy hitters,” Cohen says.

“May times when you see a band accompany an orchestra,” Cohen observes, “the orchestral arrangements are a little bit fluffy, a little bit silly. You can see Metallica with an orchestra and say, ‘Okay, that’s very cool,’ but [in our case] Maxim Moston did the arrangements for [The Machine's live reading of] The Dark Side of the Moon. And they’re brilliant; the show is fantastic.”

And while she laughs off my playful suggestion that the group should tackle “Atom Heart Mother Suite” while they’ve got the classical players on hand, she does allow that the May 24 show will include some bonuses, among those “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”

But Floyd fans shouldn’t play games and wait for May: this Thursday’s show at The Orange Peel presents a ready opportunity to see and hear The Machine.

(Doors 8pm / Show 9pm / Tickets $16 Advance / $18 Day of Show)

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