Posts Tagged ‘asheville’

Morelouderfastermore: The “Cacaphony” of GWAR

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Anyone who’s ever viewed the 1982 film classic This is Spinal Tap will recall the famous “eleven” dialogue between filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest). Tufnel proudly displays his prized amplifier, kitted out with control knobs that all go to eleven. A puzzled DiBergi asks him, “Why don’t you make ten a little louder, make that the top number and make that a little louder?” Tufnel pauses and blankly replies in a manner that makes clear he believes that he’s putting the question to rest, “These go to eleven.”

GWAR starts at eleven and then goes from there. This Virginia-based collective of artists and creative types set out to create the most outrageous, over-the-top spectacle known to music, and it’s clear that they decided the only way to achieve that goal was to devise a show that incorporated all elements in their most absolutely extreme, and then use that as a starting point.


click on image to view larger version

The visuals are arresting: everyone onstage – musicians and actors alike – is clad in costumes that combine those silly Frank Frazetta paintings that one finds on Molly Hatchet LPs with shock-horror elements that might score them points on Syfy Channel’s Face Off. When a character lumbers onto stage, and he (or it) is eight feet tall, the audience just knows what’s going to happen. The fact that a character sneaking up behind him is wielding a medieval armament makes it even more obvious: that head there, it’s comin’ off.

And when the axe swings and the head flies, the audience knows two more things. One, the exposed cut will reveal lot of sinewy, stringy gore. Two, and far more integral to the experience that is a GWAR show, copious amounts of liquid – fake blood or simulated ooze of another variety – will forcefully emanate from the wound. And the villain (or hero) with the axe, he’ll helpfully bend the beheaded creature forward so that the ruddy stream will soak those crowd members foolish (or calculating) enough to have positioned themselves up front. (The merch table doesn’t sell white t-shirts for nothing, I’m here to tell you.)

The thing is, this little vignette isn’t the climax to a performance; no, it’s pretty much how a GWAR show gets underway. It certainly was the night last week that I witnessed the group. And said show ran nearly two hours. On viewing this mock beheading, I wondered to myself (after making sure to duck clear of the spewing liquid, no easy task), “how will they sustain this, much less top it, over the course of an entire show?”

The answer, as I discovered, was simply morelouderfastermore.


click on image to view larger version

When you begin at your most extreme, there’s really no place to go. But it’s fair to note that neither GWAR nor the audience packed into Asheville’s Orange Peel (Wednesday, December 3, 2014) seemed to mind. The roar of the metal never subsides, the pace never slows, and the spectacle never stops. There are occasional between-song bits of banter, part of a carefully-choreographed story line based around the quest to find their “lost” member, Oderus Urungus (known offstage as Dave Brockie). As the band sings (well, shouts, really) during the interpolation of Jim Carroll‘s “People Who Died” inside of a Pet Shop Boys cover, “Oderus, died, died.” So they never really do find him, but they destroy multi-breasted minotaurs (or something) and hapless security guards along the way.

A non-musician member of the troupe leaps endlessly around the stage, clad only in a leather bondage mask and matching jockstrap, often wielding a weapon that reminds me of nothing so much of a giant, studded version of a pizza wheel-cutter. There is in fact at one point a routine based around pizza, but in general this fellow – Bonesnapper, I think he was – uses his weapon on other “pretenders” to the lead vocal spot in the group. One of them looks like a nightmare version of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Another one reminds me of a maniacally laughing Brian Blessed, albeit decked out in antlers and blood-spewing, um, udders.


click on image to view larger version

As I mentioned earlier, nobody in GWAR does what most people would consider singing. They shout or scream their chanted lyrics – few of which the uninitiated would be able to discern amongst the din – but hey, if you’re there, you pretty well get the ideas the band is trying to convey. Take the theatricality of The Tubes‘ notorious live shows (albeit with a bit less simulated onstage sex), add a soupcon of Venom‘s relentless metal roar, and use the cartoon kabuki theatrics of KISS as the kernel of an idea, put ‘em all together and – yes – turn it up to eleven, and you’ve got GWAR.

One person I spoke to pre-show confided that although she had seen GWAR onstage no less than five times, she couldn’t make serious claim to actually knowing any of their songs, and doesn’t particularly like their music. At first, I was dumbstruck: then why is she here, I wondered? Once the performance got under way, I understood. More than perhaps any other contemporary concertgoing experience, a GWAR show is all about being there. The spectacle, the volume, and the songs about death and hate. It’s all so ludicrously outrageous as to be funny. Very funny, in fact.


click on image to view larger version

To those who’ve never attended a GWAR show, think of it as sort of a cartoonish dark-side answer to a Flaming Lips show. Instead of having Wayne Coyne up there spouting heartfelt feel-good messages about peace and love, you have instead Pustulus Maximus or Bonesnapper screaming to the audience (affectionately known as scumdogs) something or other about bloodbaths. And instead of Steven Drozd chirping “thank you” in a high-pitched voice, you get the lovely Vulvatron, complete with prosthetic mammaries that – you guessed it – squirt high-velocity red liquid upon the supplicant scumdogs.

In print, I should think this all reads as pretty horrible. And indeed it is; other than a ringing in my ears (even with heavy duty earplugs), I have no distinct sonic memories of the show beyond a ceaseless cacaphony. And that word I used advisedly: on many levels the music was caca, and the violence and mayhem was all phony. Would I go to another GWAR performance? Probably not: one and done, and it’s marked off of my bucket list. But am I glad to have gone? Absolutely: it was all good clean filthy fun, and there really is nothing else quite like a GWAR show.

Here’s some audience video of the show I attended, shot by a brave fellow scumdog. It’s decidedly NSFW, by the way.

 

Note: I had been set up with a photo pass, and given the standard admonition (“first three songs, no flash”). But I had been given an additional warning, that I should operate my camera from inside a clear plastic bag so as not to see it damaged. In the end I opted to leave my photo gear at home. Instead I proudly and gratefully present samples from the evening courtesy of an honest-to-goodness professional photographer – and a brave one at that – Patrice Kennedy-Murillo of Indulge Images. Forget about bowing to the gods of metal; I bow to Patrice’s peerless photography work, a small sampling of which accompanies this review.

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

New Crest on an Old Wave: The Dave Mason Interview (Part Two)

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: This current tour [coming to Asheville's Orange Peel on Nov. 8]  is billed as Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam. From what I’ve read, it seems that you’ll split the show between versions of material that we know from farther back, and the other part is newer material. Tell me a little bit about how the show works.

Dave Mason: I thought it would be kinda cool to put something together where I could revisit things from the beginning, from the Traffic work forward. Essentially what the show becomes is a sort of two-hour travelogue, I guess, of all my music up until this point. We start out with early Traffic stuff, and then after we take a break – though sometimes we do the show straight through, depending on the venue – we come back and I focus on stuff from my own career. From Alone Together to Let it Flow through what’s on the new CD, Future’s Past.

I wasn’t planning on putting out a new CD, frankly. It’s a compilation of things I had been working on at home, playing around with. So there’s some new songs on there, and as you say I revisit new versions of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” a completely revised version of “World in Changes” from Alone Together, and a live performance of “As Sad and Deep As You.” That’s included because it turned out so wild that I just felt it had to be on there.

Another thing about the show is that it includes some pictorial stuff, and I tell a few stories and things like that. It’s kinda fun, and it’s going over really well.

BK: I believe that I read that the album that became Future’s Past started out as an EP…

DM: Originally, I was just going to put four tunes out. But I had stuff at home, because I’m always futzing around in the studio. And then it was, “Oh, let’s put that one in.” and, “Let’s put that one in, too! That’ll be good.” It ended up being nine songs.

BK: 2008′s 26 Letters 12 Notes was your first album of original material in many years. And now in 2014 there’s this new one. These follow a steady stream of live albums. It seems that in some ways you prefer the stage to the studio; is that true?

DM: The bottom line is now, that it’s truly all about live performance. Frankly, it’s…I don’t want to say the internet killed things, because it’s just another delivery system, but the big flaw is that there’s no radio any more. There’s no way for people to know that there’s something new out. So that’s, to me, the really big problem. In the days of FM, you’d hear some great, mixed-up stuff. Some great music. And for a start, there’d be somebody there deejaying! But as a national format, it just doesn’t exist any more.

The other problem with the internet is that it’s just destroying intellectual property. And the problem there goes to writers [journalists] as well as songwriters. Because everybody’s just taking everything…

BK: There was a time when music journalists could make a living!

DM: Exactly! And that’s the down-side of the internet. I could go on and on, be then it becomes…as people could say, “oh, you’re just bitching.” But I’m not. Because it’s my livelihood. As it would be for a journalist or anybody else.

And so it all circles back to the point that yes, it’s all down to playing live. Which is where it all started, anyway.

BK: The way I look at it, in the days of radio, you had broadcasting; nowadays, it’s narrowcasting. Back then, you’d turn on the radio, and you might hear a hard rock tune followed by a pop sort of thing, followed by something else; kind of all over the map, based at least in part on the whims and tastes of the real-live disc jockey. So people were exposed to different things, some of which they’d like, and some they won’t. Today we’ve got things like Pandora, which to some extent operate on the opposite idea: “So you like this song? Well, here’s something a lot like it that you might enjoy.” So the listener’s focus gets narrower.

DM: Yeah. The focus groups killed everything! [laughs] Everybody gets pigeonholed, tagged. It’s a shame. Because music is much more diverse than that. FM radio was diverse. And not only that: when they played something, they actually told you what it was!

BK: Now there’s an app for that.

DM: But we soldier on!

BK: When I go to a concert featuring artists who came to fame in the 60s or 70s, I’m always interested to look around the room. For some of them, the demographic is simply people in their fifties and over, full stop. For others, it’s more balanced, with younger people in the crowd. Have you noticed, which is it for you?

DM: The bulk of my core audience is 40s up to…hmm…late 70s. But I see younger people being there, for sure. And younger people who come – who are, let’s say, hearing my music for the first time – they come up to me afterward and are like, “Wow! That was incredible!”

Everything gets so categorized, and formularized, pasteurized, homogenized – “it should be this” and “it should be that” – but the bottom line is this: if something is good, and especially if it has the ring of authenticity, then I don’t care what age you are. You’re gonna “get” it.


Mason notes also that signed copes of Future’s Past may be ordered from davemasonmusic.com, and the individual tracks are available for download/purchase. And it is also available on vinyl. — bk

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

New Crest on an Old Wave: The Dave Mason Interview (Part One)

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Dave Mason was born in Worcester England, halfway between London and Liverpool. A few years younger even than The BeatlesGeorge Harrison, Mason came up in the sort of second wave of British rock acts, first gaining fame as a member of Traffic. Alongside Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, Mason was a major force in the band, most notably on their second LP, 1968′s Traffic, on which half of the ten tracks were Mason compositions or co-writes.

But Mason’s relationship with his bandmates in Traffic was always problematic: he had appeared on their debut LP (writing several songs for it as well) but had left by the time of its release (the American LP used a photo of the band that didn’t include him). His on-again, off-again status in Traffic yielded some excellent tunes – “Hole in My Shoe” (an early hit single), the original version of the now-standard “Feelin’ Alright?” and others – but ultimately he found himself on the outside of the group.

By 1970 Mason began a solo career. He also collaborated with Cass Elliot on a well-received album, and thanks to both his skills as a player and his well-connectedness in the rock community, he picked up a lot of high profile session work. If you’re a fan of rock from the late 60s though the mid 1970s, you’ve probably got a good bit of Dave Mason in your collection, whether you know it or not. He’s on albums by The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix (that’s him on acoustic twelve-string on “All Along the Watchtower”), Paul McCartney and Wings, Stephen Stills, Delaney and Bonnie and more. He was even – for a time in the mid 1990s – a member of Fleetwood Mac.

As a solo artist, Mason enjoyed several hit singles, including “Only You Know and I Know” (1970), 1977′s “We Just Disagree” and several others. These days, Mason concentrates more on public performances than studio work – as we’ll see in a moment – but he’s touring now in support of a new album called Future’s Past. Alongside new songs, the album – and its accompanying tour – takes an encompassing look at Mason’s musical career, most pointedly back to his earliest days in Traffic. In advance of his upcoming Asheville date (Saturday November 8 at The Orange Peel), we chatted about the new album, music old and new, and the state of what used to be called “radio.” The first thing I noticed was that – to my great surprise – having moved to the States decades ago, Mason has all but lost his British accent.

Bill Kopp: On the early Traffic albums – especially the second, self-titled one – your songwriting was a key component of the band’s sound. Did you bring those songs to the band, or did they develop out of group jamming to which you eventually applied lyrics?

Dave Mason: No, they were already written; that’s how I work. Which was sort of a conflict with the rest of them in the band, really. But I usually have a pretty good idea of what the song’s going to be, before I even walk into a studio. Other than how the other musicians might interpret it, the song itself is finished.

BK: Judging by the versions of old Traffic-era songs on Future’s Past, some of the arrangements are often quite different from the versions that Traffic recorded…

DM: Yeah, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” – which is not my song anyway – the original is in a major key. I put it in a minor key, and added a few more chords. I didn’t change the melody, but I changed it musically, adapted it. I don’t see the point in trying to reproduce what was already done.

BK: It seems that after your work with Traffic, Delaney and Bonnie, Cass Elliot, Derek and the Dominoes and a number of highly regarded guest spots on some of my favorite early to mid 1970s albums, you largely made a decision to work with your own bands. Is that an accurate characterization, or did it just sort of evolve that way?

DM: Well, there really was no [laughs sardonically] – it’s hard to put it into the right terms – there was really no place for me in Traffic any more. That’s why I went on my own. And then at that point, rather than staying in England, I thought it was time to pack a bag and come to the land where it all originated.

BK: Do you find fronting a band more appealing than, say, a more collaborative approach?

DM: [Lengthy pause while he mulls the question] I never wanted to be a solo artist per se. I always liked being part of a band; I thought that differences were what made things stronger. It sort of just turned out this way, I guess. And then I had to sort of [chuckles] learn to stand up there in front and “be the guy.”

Click here to continue

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

Concert Preview: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 5

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

The series wraps up – for now – with looks at new music from American artists.


Steve Wynn – Sketches in Spain
This Omnivore Recordings collection isn’t exactly a reissue: the albums from which the 19 tracks are drawn (Smack Dab and Australian Blonde) were released only in Spain. Sounding like a cross between Television and Gang of Four, Smack Dab prominently features Linda Pitmon‘s thundering bass. The even-earlier (but released later) Australian Blonde material is surprisingly poppy, shimmering ear candy that may come as a shock to those familiar with Wynn’s other work. Some unexpected and thematically linked covers (Three Dog Night‘s “Never Been to Spain,” Los Bravos‘ “Black is Black”) showcase Wynn’s latent skill at interpreting the work of others.


Alarm Clock Conspiracy – Harlequin
Back in early 2012 I championed their first album, but on Harlequin, this Asheville NC-based quartet has seriously raised the bar. Thanks in large part to the songwriting prowess of two very different composers (guitarists Chris Carter and Ian Reardon) the album is a near-perfect balance of powerpop, Southern rock and progressive-leaning rock. Reardon’s title track hints at what “modern country” could sound like if the genre didn’t, y’know, suck. The soaring yet understated harmonies on Carter’s “Thinking Of” are delightful. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this album picked up by a larger label and reissued. Buy this disc.


The Squires of the Subterrain – s/t
As on the last outing from this “group” (Christopher Earl and occasional guests), this disc – either self-titled or called Stereo – feels like a lo-fi update of The Beach Boys, SMiLE era. That said, its most modern corollary might be Olivia Tremor Control; Earl and those Elephant 6 guys share a common aesthetic vision. Ba-ba-ba vocalisms rest comfortably aside jangly guitars and intentionally gauzy production. With its chirpy horn section and chiming backing, “History” weds Sgt. Pepper stylings to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. With his deft way around a melody, Earl could be labeled America’s Martin Newell.

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

Bonus Weekend Feature: 101 Runners

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festival Review: Transfigurations II, Part 2

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festival Review: Transfigurations II, Part 1

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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…

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