Vijay Iyer
Eastern State Penitentiary; Philadelphia, PA

[09-11-2010]

On May 17, 1929, Al Capone got snagged in Philadelphia for packing heat and ended up spending 9 months in the city’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). As one of the country’s first gangster-celebrities, his release date was a raging media spectacle. On the scheduled morning, mobs of people lined up around the massive compound to catch a glimpse of the murderous anti-hero. Their anticipation, however, was never satiated. To the crowd’s dismay, Capone had already been released. The event concluded with only Sartrean nothingness where living, breathing spectacle was expected.

Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, most well known for his film Decasia, accidently stumbled upon this never-before-seen archival footage in 2008 and transformed it into a mirrored, kaleidoscopic, 12-minute piece that shows the empty streets evolving, slowly blooming to life as gawkers swarm the anticipatory doors through which Capone was expected to pass. Pianist Vijay Iyer, whose Historicity sat at the top of almost every year-end list for 2009’s best jazz album, was asked to provide a score for the film. This collaborative audio/visual project, Release, has been on display since March 2010 at ESP — which stopped being a prison in 1974 and became a museum in 1994 — where the installation is housed in a cell adjacent to the one where Capone spent his sentence.

On September 11, as part of this ongoing installation and Philadelphia’s Live Arts Festival, Iyer wheeled in a Steinway and gave a solo performance in ESP’s circular chamber. Located at the center of the prison – the optimal surveillance position — this main chamber contains eight long rows of cells radiating from it like sunbeams. Navigating the dark tunnels to reach the quasi-panopticon-turned-performance-space was an eerie experience, as guests were given the freedom to explore the guts of the cells in order to intimately feel the horror that will always haunt the space.

Despite Iyer’s charm and warmth — he stood and bowed for claps and spoke in detail on the significance of the pieces — the lingering terror was unshakeable. When operational, the chamber had held a piano used for musical purposes, namely for choir rehearsal and, on one occasion, when the prison band was conducted by North American composer Conrad Susa. Iyer’s playing summoned these ghosts, and while many arguably expect a solo piano concert to be soothing and tranquil, his delivery was oftentimes panic-inducing due to its precision and density. However, those familiar with Iyer’s research and publications on the relationship between cognition and music — he holds a PhD from Berkley in Technology and the Arts, a degree created especially for him — have come to expect and enjoy the cerebral experience that he aims to produce.

Many of the nine pieces he performed were from his recent solo album, Solo. On “Autoscopy,” a piece motivated by a prison escape as metaphor for the soul’s out of body experience, he created heavy but playful patterns with repetitive phrases and slight variations. The quick shifts in mood and tempo evoked the frantic mind in the planning stages of an escape or the mad dash away from confinement and toward freedom. In what was sadly an instance of missed contextualization, Iyer subtly dedicated “Remembrace,” a piece from a recent collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa, to victims of September 11. Asking the audience to overlook their present location, namely one where the screams of torture and the sadness of solitude were pervasive and embedded, was somewhat of a demanding stretch.

His interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was particularly impressive, as he chose to meditate on the dark transition out of the chorus, and then improvised on the two droning bass chords. For the penultimate tune, Iyer chose Solo’s “One for Blount,” which takes its inspiration from Sun Ra’s earth-name, Herman Blount. This composition, equally capable of dancehall excitement or avant-garde genre-stretching, exemplifies Iyer’s technical and compositional capacities. For the finale he performed a thoughtful version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By intensifying the pace and shifting to a minor chord arrangement, he emphasized the shadowy traces that are normally brightened by Lennon’s lyrical optimism. The reversal was especially suitable and effective, momentarily allowing the audience to connect with the gloom of those who were so recently chained where they voluntarily sat.

[Photo: Jennie Shanker]

Panda Bear / Nite Jewel
Fox Theater; Oakland, CA

[09-06-2010]

Even after the universal acclaim of 2007’s revelatory Person Pitch, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the overwhelming popularity of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox). I don’t, of course, mean to suggest his success is in any way undeserved — in fact, there are few, if any, artists who’ve demonstrated greater creativity, equally wild experimentation, and sheer originality in recent years. So, as I witnessed frat-bros, raccoon-eyed teenagers, girls in stuffed panda hats (?), and even a fucking t-shirt that read Sigma Fi’s Panda-monium 2008, I wondered: why did Monday night’s show at Oakland’s swanky Fox Theater draw a crowd so foreign to my expectations? As it turns out, there’s a lesson to be learned — one, thankfully, that goes beyond simply bitching about bros and hipsters.

But before any such realizations, I quickly became aware of the ill-fitting opener Nite Jewel. I’m not sure how this LA band — essentially a keyboard pop group with an uninspired, lazy front-woman — ended up opening for a musician who is light years beyond in terms of musical artistry. In all fairness, perhaps their white-boy funk grooves would be better experienced in a smaller setting than the augmented acoustics of the golden, behemoth venue. Still, when a band has some of the worst-rehearsed endings in recent memory, it only makes Lennox — who effortlessly navigates, fades, weaves one song to the next — sound even better. But hey, they covered Sparks, managed a decent drum and bass hookup, and even featured a nifty, David Gilmore-esque guitar solo. That’s cool, right?

It wasn’t until a handful of stoned, drunk frat-boys began singing the worst rendition of “Comfy in Nautica” as they impatiently awaited the headliner did I reach the pinnacle of irritation — or was it the teenage pot-head who spilled beer all over me? Either way, I was certain that when Panda Bear’s set began, its unconventional, challenging nature would not only knock everyone on their ass, but secretly, selfishly, I hoped no one else would dig it.

I knew there’d been a recent wave of music critics who, having witnessed Panda Bear’s current live show, offered negative sentiments concerning the length of new songs, ill-suited outdoor venues, etc. But as soon as Lennox lays down his finger, triggering the opening, squelching whole-note of “Drone” (off soon-to-be released Tomboy) and the psych-freak projected visuals of a skeleton face pulsating between wavelength flashes on screen, there’s no doubt the Fox is more than a fitting theater for the experience. “Just a signal in my head,” Lennox sings out, revealing an unexpected transition into his stutter-stop rendition of “Daily Routine” — a personal favorite off AC’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Teasing out each individual syllable on Person Pitch favorites like “Ponytail” and “Comfy In Nautica,” Lennox demonstrates an even more refined vocal performance than I had expected. Not only vocally innovative, it’s wonderful to see him playing guitar again on several new songs. Amid hip-hop grooves, “Surfer Hymn’s” four-on-the-floor pounding, and “Last Night at the Jetty’s” clapped march, Lennox strums a propulsive, murky rhythm on the outstanding “Tomboy” title track. All the while, projected visions of little children dancing, sharks, explosions, and 70s porn — yes, even sex on a roller coaster — supplement any moments that lacked momentum.

After the swaying, sentimental closer “You Can Count on Me,” I half-expect the surrounding audience to be baffled by what I consider an incredibly brilliant yet assuredly challenging performance. Instead, the crowd appears to have enjoyed everything as much, if not more, than myself. When Lennox is finally coaxed into performing an encore — probably the chillest and least-showy encore I’ve ever witnessed, complete with the reoccurring skeleton visual — I realize: just who the hell do I think I am? Sure, many of these fans aren’t the folk I’d want to be around for more than an hour — well, the panda-hatters, beer-spillers, and Sigma Fi’s might be squeezing that down to about five minutes — but, if the music makes them happy, what’s the big deal? Hopefully, we’re all just learning to stretch our ears anyhow. And, to steal an expression concerning bros, give me the space I need, and you may find that we’re alright.

Grizzly Bear / The Walkmen / Gang Gang Dance
The Beach at Governor's Island; New York, N.Y.

[08-12-2010]

A bus, two subways, and a ferry ride brought me to Governor’s Island on Thursday night to see what Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste called a “dreambill.” I agreed with him in theory, but the rain tried its hardest to stifle the night. Largely because of waterproofing, set changes took forever, meaning rain-soaked waiting time.

This didn’t prevent the memorable moments on stage, though. Openers Gang Gang Dance were arguably the most enjoyable of the night. Their percussive bang was powerful and cohesive, their elevator music-on-acid instrumentals were convincingly contoured, and singer LizBougatsos looked thrilled to be on stage.

Next were The Walkmen. Either they missed their soundcheck or didn’t get one, because it took about four songs before you could even hear singer Hamilton Leithauser. Leithauser lamented his band always played in rain, as the downpour intensified. Maybe I just felt sorry for him, but I was impressed with how well the band bounced back from the atmosphere, perhaps betraying their old school indie-rock blood. Their satisfying guitar rock was a sobering contrast between their effects-drenched stage mates.

After another 45-minute set change, Grizzly Bear apologetically took the stage. Chris Taylor looked peeved by equipment complications. Once again, the sound was mediocre until a few songs in, and it was hard to stay compelled by the light show, on-point as it was. Although the momentum of the evening was in shambles, “Lullaby,” “Two Weeks,” and “Knife” rocked as hard as ever, a testament to one of the most creative bands of our era. A bit of synergy was found on the moody “Foreground,” an apt song for the evening.

It was hard not to smile as Droste commented every few songs that everyone there was a trooper. Before the encore, “Fix It,” Taylor half-seriously suggested we stick around, catch a later boat, and talk to our friends or maybe even meet new ones. The line for the ferry back to Manhattan seemed to politely decline his suggestion.

Kid Koala / The Slew
Prospect Park Bandshell; Brooklyn, NY

[06-25-2010]

“We’re gonna play some old-fashioned vinyl records… incorrectly,” came the mischievous voice of fun’s favorite turntablist, Kid Koala, whose slight smugness is always undercut by his chuckling self-deprecation and visible appreciation of his supporters. The lone performer in front of a self-declared “unnecessary” amount of equipment, he explained, “It’s gonna be like a reverse babushka: we’re just gonna keep getting bigger and bigger.”

Koala (aka Eric San) began the night with a beautiful ode to Louis Armstrong, a song from his first album, Drunk Trumpet, perhaps to immediately dispel any doubts from the free-concert audience as to the turntable’s ability to produce soft, warm melodies. Next, he brought on The Slew’s touring DJ, P-Love, and the two attempted a track from San’s LP Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs. The Holy-Grail-sampling duet ended in impressed applause, but San shook his head, mumbling, “I don’t know…” The duo then launched into a warbling, crystalline rendition of “Moon River.”

Before the rocking began in earnest, San paused for a brief bingo interlude. Audience members, handed a bingo card featuring San’s simple cartooning upon entry, were asked to play along as he projected slides of various drawings and explained how easy they were to draw. “Birdseed… anyone can draw it. You don’t need to go to art school.”

The still-engrossed crowd began to cheer as ex-Wolfmotherers Chris Ross and Miles Heskett took the stage and hard rocking began posthaste. After executing their debut album’s titular track, “100%,” with frightening precision, The Slew allowed no chance to catch one’s breath, thrashing their way through the rest of their catalogue with increasing sweat and attitude. Had the audience had their eyes closed, they would have been hard-pressed to determine the group possessed no guitarists or singers. But then, they would also have missed Ross soaring through the air to slam down on his pedal-laden keyboard, or San loudly mouthing the words to every sample.

As the band left the stage for the second time, the dancing mob in front of the stage refused to yield in spite of the efforts of several burly security guards. Aware the situation was not going to resolve itself, San returned to his tables. “We only have those songs,” he explained, promising The Slew would be returning to the studio this fall, this time with their drummer and bassist. “I know this is kind of a punk thing to do.” He laid a record on the platter before returning to the wings, calling the cut, “My favorite song in the universe.” As the crowd accepted its fate and slowly filed out of the venue, the now-lamplit park gradually emptying, the sweet, scratchy voice of Louis Armstrong sang to them, “What a wonderful world…”

The Slew setlist:

1. Drunk Trumpet *
2. Skanky Panky **
3. Moon River **

BINGO

4. 100% ***
5. It’s All Over ***
6. Problem Child ***
7. You Turn Me Cold ***
8. Grinder ***
9. Robbin’ Banks (Doin’ Time) ***
10. Shackled Soul ***
11. Blues in 12 ***
12. Battle of Heaven and Hell ***

*Kid Koala
**Kid Koala and P-Love
***The Slew (full band)

Chromeo
New Capital City Music Hall; Ottawa, Canada

[08-02-2010]

I fought through a freak rain storm and horrifying drivers to arrive at the Chromeo show, just as Holy Ghost from Brooklyn were taking the stage. The four-man opening act was low on energy, yet high on dance-ability, slowly winning over the crowd that was patiently waiting for the headliners. Holy Ghost sounds like Holy Fuck if you stripped away the funk, the groove, and just left the electro. Sprinkle in some spacey lyrics and you’ve got Holy Ghost.

After a lengthy equipment change-up, Chromeo hopped on stage, with the crowd chanting in rhythm with the opening track of their breakthrough album, Fancy Footwork. Both David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel were all smiles, as the former set up behind a guitar and mic while the latter behind synths, a vox box, and a stand-up drum kit. Chromeo have dubbed themselves the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership in the history of mankind, and it’d be tough to argue otherwise, as the duo ripped through bits and pieces off their debut album (“Needy Girl”) and a majority of their follow-up records (“Tenderoni,” “Fancy Footwork,” “Bonafied Lovin’”). The order of the setlist was impeccably chosen too, as it’s no secret people love what they know. Playing true to the album order is a surefire way to ignite a crowd of fans, especially if your last album came out three years ago and the new isn’t released until September.

Sure, Chromeo don’t add much to their sound in a live setting, but they were clearly having a boatload of fun. The enthusiastic audience, of course, ate it right up.

Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 3
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada

[July 15-18, 2010]

The last trimester is the toughest but most rewarding, or so we have heard. After nine days of seeing bands, even the absent uteruses of TMT’s two intrepid reporters are tired. We know, we know. No one wants to hear about the labor pains; they just want to read capsule reviews about the babies playing live shows. Or something like that. Anyway, here is our third and final roundup of Ottawa Cisco Bluesfest 2010. If you want even more coverage of the acts we saw and many that we didn’t, the organizers have loads of interviews and backstage coverage of many of the festival’s artists at this handy link.

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Hollywood Minute…Spoiler Alert!

The battle of the Kevins — Bacon vs. Costner — concluded during the home stretch of Bluesfest, with Costner taking home the golden nothing for his show with his Modern West band. Costner might have won the battle but not the war, as K.C. and the Modern West delivered competent heartland roots music, but nothing that turned LeBreton Flats into a field of dreams.

Although not Tinseltown royalty, Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle has spent recent time away from his band to cavort around Sherwood Forest with pal Russell Crowe for the upcoming Robin Hood flick. Doyle’s main gig resides with GBS, however, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of popularity of the band is staggering considering their conservative take on trad-pop. Still, Great Big Sea know how to whip a crowd into a frothy mess, which is more than we can say about 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.

Time will tell if Drake returns to the acting stage. For he is no longer Degrassi’s Jimmy; he is Drizzy and surely enjoying all the star trappings that the role demands. This festival night, it means facing a shitload of mostly teenage, screaming females. Drake gave the girls what they wanted: a flirting, overtly sexed-up come on, leading to a feature performance of his monster hit “Best I Ever Had.”

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Noodle Scratchers

It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to tell you that there are dozens of outfits up and down the Ottawa Valley playing the same down-home stew as Old Crow Medicine Show. Still, it is hard to fault a band laid bare at the front of the stage giving it their acoustic all. Elvis Perkins in Dearland is a mystery still not solved. Categorizing Perkins is tricky, but the band’s genuineness to each genre shone through, and showbiz family ties aside, there’s no novelty act at play here.

Islands are a novelty, but a decent one. It is hard to say if the band has lived up to its promise on record, but live the white-attired crew seems to put on a distinct and different show every time we’ve seen them, possibly due to Nick Thorburn’s penchant for mixing up lineups and the consequences that has on Islands’ tracks. On the other hand, could familiarity be breeding contempt as far as Stars are concerned? There is really nothing to dislike about Montreal’s charmers, but they rubbed against the grain with their Bluesfest show. It might have been our lack of enthusiasm for the many songs played from latest disc The Five Ghosts. It may be that Torquil Campbell’s showman schtick grows tiresome at times (we still looove Amy Millan though). It might have been the stinky, shirtless superfan standing nearby belting out every lyric at the top of his lungs…

Has Craig Finn always been such a diva? Wethinks The Hold Steady’s frontman used to actually play the guitar than simply have it hanging off his body while he acts out his whip-smart words, but that may have been the heat thinking. Regardless, Hold Steady’s set soothed all the right spots, as the band played through a long and lively set of favorites (“Hurricane J,” “Chips Ahoy!”, “Sequestered in Memphis,” Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” etc.).

Darting in between stages and shows, we caught glimpses of a well-attended gig by Derek Trucks and wife Susan Tedeschi, The Joe Krown Trio representing the more traditional end of the Bluesfest spectrum (and who ended with a fantastic Hammond-led rave up of Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billy Joe”), suburban power poppers Hollerado, a pleasant but ultimately unobtrusive headlining concert by longtime faves Crowded House, great acoustic noodlery courtesy of Matt Andersen, high school heartache reminiscences from Matthew Good, and Marcia Ball & The Voise of the Wetland Allstars, who, as a multiple Grammy nominee with a stacked band of Louisiana veterans in tow, should have commanded a bigger audience and stage.

Speaking of veterans, Jimmy Cliff, rocked like a man half his age, playing a set of perrenial favorites like “Sitting in Limbo,” I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Rivers of Babylon.” But were we in the john during “The Harder They Come” or did Cliff not play his signature song? Devastating!

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We’ll Meet Again We Know Where We Know When

Devastating is the only way to describe the sparsely-attended but spectacular tent show by Konono Nº1. Small crowd be damned! The extra space just gave those in attendance the nice opportunity to shake some of the rust off their undercarriages. Congolese thumb piano wizardry and fearsome unison singing and dancing collided at high speeds, and in 20-minute trance doses, sweeping everyone in sight up in a rhythmic wall of sound. We left elated but silently cursing ourselves for missing even a little bit of the beginning. Simply intoxicating.

Even early in the day, the big stage gives bands a leg up to play to bigger crowds; there is just much more space to gather, watch performers, and relax. Those wanting a breather while The Budos Band played would have no rest, for they were too busy giving themselves over to the irresistible sound of Latin jazz, 70s soundtracking, Fania, and funk grooves. It was blazing hot, but no one seemed to notice or care because Staten Island’s finest was at the top of its game.

Equally enthralling and entertaining were Blonde Redhead and The Gories. Sitting at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, both gave memorable performances. The Gories played under strange circumstances. Using a stand-in drummer when regular stickswoman Peggy O’Neill’s flight was delayed, Mick Collins and Dan Kroha relayed beat instructions between each song before joking that all their songs had the same beat anyway. No such makeshift decisions were required for Blonde Redhead, who lulled their dedicated drove into a near dream-like state with its blissful roar.

A lot has happened to both Weezer and us since we last met face to face. When The Blue Album was released, Weezer were a scrappy upstart. Now they are America’s Good Time Band. There’s not much of a debate to be had when discussing if Weezer’s albums have digressed since their first record, but one can’t argue the fact that the group is one of the more consistently great singles band around. So, along Blue Album chestnuts like “Say It Ain’t So,” “My Name Is Jonas,” and “Undone,” the large throng was treated to every other significant hit: “Hash Pipe,” “Dope Nose,” “Island in the Sun,” “El Scorcho,” “Pork and Beans,” and gonzo cock-rock set-closer “Beverly Hills.” When Weezer weren’t playing their own tunes, they took stabs at Metallica, MGMT, and Lady Gaga (with Rivers Cuomo in blonde wig). Commanding the stage, crowd, and any place he could fit (including, at one point, a garbage can on stage), Cuomo was in rare form, as was the whole band, amping up the fans mercilessly until the Bluesfest-closing finale of “Buddy Holly” was over.

It was a super-strong finish to a festival that seems, as unbelievable as this might read, to grow each year. On some nights, we witnessed more impressive mullets and cougars in the crowd than impressive bands on the stage, but each and every day was entertaining as all get out. Same time next year? You bet. Until then, we need home for a rest.

by David Nadelle and munroe