Live Review: Vision Festival 23 (Fire Music In A Crowded Theater)

This week, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers reports from the Vision Festival, the avant-garde jazz event in Brooklyn; photo by Eva Kapanadze

Welcome to Brooklyn and Vision Festival 23, where once again people come from all over the world for a week devoted to free and improvised music. This dedicated audience will keep coming back all week long, attending night after night of spirited, left-of-the-dial jazz, dance and poetry expressed in a most spiritual fashion.

Despite having moved from Judson Memorial Church in NYC to the Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, the Vision thing still feels the same as ever once the music starts. That is, free-flowing improvisational music played by a variety of outsider musicians coming from several different generations and diverse creative backgrounds.

This year’s festivities honored the artistic lifetime of pianist Dave Burrell, and the opening night featured Burrell playing in a several group contexts. He was part of the free-jazz revolution of the ’60s and worked with iconic fire-breathers like Marion Brown and Pharoah Sanders, as well enjoying a longstanding association with saxophonist Archie Shepp. Supported by improvisational stalwarts including bassist William Parker, percussionist Hamid Drake and drummer Andrew Cyrille, Burrell’s amorphous piano work blended well with the various combinations of players, and he methodically energized the room regardless of the band’s lineup.

After the festival’s opening invocation featuring Parker, Drake and dancer/poetess/Vision Fest founder Patricia Nicholson, Burrell got down to business with his Harlem Renaissance ensemble featuring altoist Darius Jones, trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Pioneers of fire music like Burrell and Cyrille always play with passion, but we’re now sadly witnessing the dying embers of an avant-garde movement that began more than half a century ago. Cyrille (a veteran sideman of the late, great Cecil Taylor) played a military-styled drum solo that brought everyone to attention, while Swell and Jones gamely improvised as hoped.

Next up was the Archie Shepp Quartet with Burrell, Parker and Drake. Burrell had played with Shepp for many important years and recorded more than a dozen albums as part of Shepp’s working groups in the ’60s and ’70s. On this night, they played compositions from vintage albums like Kwanza and Attica Blues. While Shepp’s embouchure was intact and his throaty tenor wail still present, his music lacked the urgency that it contained in previous decades. One obvious highlight was his smoky rendition of vintage Ellington ballad “In A Sentimental Mood.”

After a brief-yet-dynamic performance by bassist Shyna Dulberger and dancer Djassa DaCosta Johnson (a.k.a. Warrior Of Light), the Dave Burrell Quintet took the stage for a final set of totally free playing, this time featuring Parker, Cyrille, New Orleans tenor saxophone legend Kidd Jordan and tenor saxophone up-and-comer James Brandon Lewis. Jordan has been quite ill this last year and hasn’t played many gigs recently. As weak as he may have appeared, Jordan played with a burning intensity and emitted a plaintive wail expressing both his pain and his courage, often leaning on the piano or sitting down between his fiery solos.

With Jordan and Shepp now in their 80s and Burrell right behind them at 77, we’re witnessing the slow exit of the old guard. Thanks to the Vision Fest, that exit is expressed in a dignified and respectful way, paying earnest tribute to their often-neglected jazz elders.

Keep the flame burning bright, good people.

Live Review: Carlton Melton, Manchester, UK, Feb. 23, 2018

“How frightened are you of chaos?” asked Philip K Dick. “And how happy are you with order?”

Although Dick was defending the incongruous work of fellow science-fiction novelist A. E. van Vogt, the insinuation behind his questions could equally serve as praise for the music of Carlton Melton. What van Vogt did for literature, this instrumental California group does for psychedelic rock, dismantling then reimagining it in a way that unsettles those more comfortable with traditional compositions and familiar tropes.

Supporting the new Mind Minerals (Agitated), the trio’s gigs test the audience’s preconceptions of the function of music and how it should be presented. Tonight, the crowd is treated to a set that follows a waveform. Andy Duvall performs a one-man Chinese firedrill throughout the evening, alternating between playing guitar for avant-garde tunes and drums for more conventional songs.

Set opener “Smoke Drip” is an experimental drone that floats like a discarded cork stopper on a gently rippling pond. “Atmospheric River” seems to transmit snippets of sounds collected from deep-space probes, strung together on a clothesline. “Untimely” recalls the holocaust section of My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realise” but with more depth and texture. Just by listening, you sense both a mental cleansing and the onset of radiation sickness.

But the evening’s performance is not without familiar signposts to guide the less adventurous. “Psychoticedelicosis” and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “When You’re In” amply satisfy cravings for rock heroics. Guitarist Rich Millman races through a driving, ’70s-metal jam on “Eternal Returns” which then resolves into a touching postscript threaded by Clint Golden’s gentle bass. The charming and buoyant “Basket Full Of Trumpets” could be the Little Drummer Boy gone surfin’.

And thus the show pendulum swings from the cutting-edge to the primordial, from head-feeding to head-banging. So are the men of Carlton Melton highly advanced aliens slumming it through a primitive form of rock or are they cavemen soundtracking the ballet of celestial bodies? That question, as well as Dick’s, can’t be answered without chemical assistance.

Recommended drug pairing: a fistful of shrooms with a Kronenbourg 1664 chaser.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Winter Jazzfest 2018

It’s another cold January in NYC, but the Winter Jazzfest keeps rolling along. In spite of, or perhaps thanks to, previous missteps, the WJF has endured its growing pains and evolved into a dynamic festival with a wide range of music from accomplished artists young and old. While New York City hosts plenty of jazz 365 days a year, the WJF brings together progressive musicians and multi-generational audiences while staying ahead of the curve on issues like racial justice and gender equality, and continues to illuminate the purpose and place of social protest and civic activism within the arts.

The 2018 festival allowed for a dozen different performance spaces to showcase more than 130 groups burgeoning with talent. This year’s artist-in-residence, Nicole Mitchell, was an insightful choice, and the flautist/composer/bandleader performed several times with different ensembles over the course of this week. The festival also featured all-star tribute concerts celebrating the memory of beloved musicians Geri Allen and Alice Coltrane.

With each venue hosting several groups playing hour-long sets, it was a joyful challenge to pick and choose how to spend your time. Singer José James brought his Bill Withers project to Le Poisson Rouge and seduced the audience with his old-school set. As much fun as it was hearing those soulful classics performed by such a gifted singer, you can imagine James ultimately feeling trapped by such familiar material.

One of the standout performers was undoubtedly singer Jazzmeia Horn, who was powerfully engaging at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. Drawing material from her album A Social Call, Horn showed poise and chops beyond her years, and she’s clearly one to watch. Ace guitarist Marc Ribot threw a pleasant curveball, performing “Songs Of Resistance” on acoustic guitar and singing his plainspoken social protest in a flat-but-not-inexpressive voice. As with many of the artists at the fest, the unwelcome presence of Donald Trump found its way into Ribot’s bold commentary.

Serving the past, the present and the future, 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen directed the perennial Sun Ra Arkestra as they performed a live score to accompany oddball film Space Is The Place. The 1972 movie starring Sun Ra is corny, cosmic and absurd, but Ra’s vaunted Afrofuturism is not without the timely, ongoing message that black lives do indeed matter. Study up.

Veterans of the old Black Rock Coalition also populated the fest, including bassist Melvin Gibbs, guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis in their band Harriet Tubman. Augmented with several additional players, the power trio turned into a “double quartet” with two bassists, two drummers, two saxophonists, guitar and trumpet. By design, the sprawling ensemble tackled the landmark Ornette Coleman performance/composition/collective improvisation from his iconic 1961 album Free Jazz. The results were mixed, but the concept, effort and commitment were still appreciated. Ornette lives!

Far more satisfying was a late-night gig by Jamaaldeen Tacuma’s Brotherzone. In this incarnation, Brotherzone reunited bassist extraordinaire Tacuma with veteran funk/rock guitarist Ronny Drayton and drummer Darryl Burgee. The show at Subculture didn’t start until 1:30 a.m. and featured some special friends, specifically spoken-word soothsayer and original member of the Last Poets Abiodun Oyewole and Last Poets percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, as well as Brotherzone’s own poet, Wadud Ahmad. With Tacuma’s super bass and Drayton’s keening guitar bringing extra funk to Oyewole’s urgent observations, all was right with the world—and the Winter Jazzfest.

Looking forward to WJF’s closing show tomorrow night featuring progressive indie outliers Deerhoof with their veteran free-jazz trumpeter buddy, the most esteemed Waddada Leo Smith. Consider that one.

—Mitch Myers

Live Review: Totorro, Paris, France, Nov. 28, 2017

With guitars skipping and hopping like a scat improv, instrumental French quartet Totorro leaps from one motif to the next, in the playful manner of a festive Poster Children—no, perhaps a more muscular fIREHOSE—wait, a Giraffes? Giraffes! with less pronounced ADHD. Each song is exhilarating and bouncy, a rollercoaster thrill ride but with no real danger. The twists and turns shoot off in every direction, yet with a precision that reassures the sonically queasy.

Tonight there is, we are told, reason to celebrate. This gig is the band’s 100th—of the year? ever?—so the group raises champagne glasses in its own honor. Bassist Xavier Rosé confers dime-store medals onto individual crowd members as if emceeing a children’s party. The laureates accept their awards with mock reverence. A cardboard cactus backdrop (a visual allusion to the group’s frisky Come To Mexico from 2016) bestows a fun-in-the-sun vibe to the proceedings.

“Brocolissimo” and “Saveur Cheveux” are lively and silly and carefree jaunts through indie, math and post-rock. Set highlight “Gérard Blast” burts with a sweaty vigor; its dramatic stops, pregnant pauses, delirious divergences throw the crowd into a friendly frenzy. Like cartoonist Al Jaffee’s Mad magazine fold-ins, the performance spirals and coils and spins back onto itself. Its lighthearted touch thumbs a proverbial nose at post-rock’s staid anti-conventional conventions.

The group’s qualities are manifest: humor, creativity, energy, excitement. And yet, as with satirist Jaffee, its greatest value may be its ability to diffuse post-rock of its—Rosé takes a hearty and ironic swig of champagne, pinkie akimbo, before asking the house to dial down the strobe lights, preferring to forego their—insufferable pretensions.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, 2017

For the past 11 years, Columbia, Mo.’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival has been the crown jewel in the town’s art, music and culinary scenes. Stephens Lake Park, a stone’s toss from the picturesque campus of the University of Missouri, set the scene with two impeccably outfitted stages, the Great Southern Bank Stage resourcing the natural amphitheater of the rolling hills on that side of town, and the Missouri Lottery Stage a few hundred yards away at the end of an effervescent trail of food trucks and trailers and pop-up tents selling local fare from the sublime to the ridiculous—sporting craft vendors, delectable local craft brews, even mats made of recycled materials for your lawn-seating comfort. A unique take on the common music festival, and we haven’t even gotten to the musical talent or the endless sunshine, the entire weekend a veritable Bob Ross painting of perfect weather.

Friday afternoon jumpstarted with the dual opening salvo of local’s Paul Weber & The Scrappers on the Missouri Lottery Stage and the legendary Big Sandy And His Fly-Rite Boys representing in big fashion on the Great Southern. The former emitting its special brand of ’60s-inspired honky-tonk country, the latter its time-tested, Bruce Springsteen-approved, Rockabilly Hall Of Fame-inducted version of the art. Trading tempos and hot licks, the bands were the ideal soundtrack for folks to settle in for what would be three days of impeccable elements and positive vibrations, both sonic and otherwise. Houston’s the Suffers ramped up a convincing set of soulful rhythm & blues in the wake of their hometown’s hurricane-infused devastation as frontwoman Kam Franklin delivered an inspiring narrative as to why life is too short to be working a dead-end soulless day job if your heart’s in the music game. A testimony of inspiration meets perspiration.

On the Lottery Stage, the Old 97’s delivered in spades as per usual leading up to the headlining Gary Clark Jr. and his squeaky-clean variations of blues classics and originals. The modern-day guitar god with an invaluable backing band laid out while the crowd devoured his offerings like the whole-pig BBQ being served daily in the VIP tents, washing down the rhythms with local libations from Logboat, Bur Oak and Broadway breweries.

Conversely, the highlights for my eyes and ears were over at the Bank Stage where soul men Lee Fields & The Impressions procured a sultry set of impervious soul from one of tightest ensembles that’s ever looked like your high school’s math club. The crowd was showered with love and inspiration as the band made way for the inimitable Booker T And His Stax Revue—highlighted by his son Ted’s guitar prowess and, of course, Booker T’s Hammond B2 organ. (Of which the Impressions’ keyboard player had the luxury of commanding during their opening set.) Just the sight of it and the road-weary, time-worn Leslie cabinet it’s played through was enough nostalgia for me to comprehend. Both bands’ horn and rhythm sections were exquisite, and I didn’t want to leave the rail.

Saturday marked not only the last day of September but the marathon day in not only musical terms, but a half-marathon run … without someone chasing them! Anyway, back to beer and music: I damn near had breakfast with Kent Burnside And The Flood Brothers for some Mississippi hill funk with plenty of blues laid down like his grandaddy R.L. even with their before-noon start time. The needle was set by a thunderous set of rock ‘n’ soul blues rolling justly into a powerful offering by inventive local three-piece the Hooten Hallers, whose drums, guitar and sax layout is big fun in the grittiest of measures, heavy on a blues trip that’s eternally outside the box. These two stunned the early crowd like a well-placed jab combination.

Deke Dickerson and the rest of local garage/surf-rockin’ heroes Untamed Youth turned in a beer-funneling, foot-drinking stomper of party on the Lottery Stage, complete with go-go dancers, as the Bel Airs and the succulent Nikki Hill wowed on the Lottery Stage. The Bottle Rockets played a shortened set of their raucous and witty classics and then played back-up band to Marshall Crenshaw to continue the onslaught. Nikki Lane worked her glamorous-badass, spit-in-your-face, sweetheart-of-the-rodeo angle with a formidable backing band for an enjoyable set of sassy, killer throwback country. The SteelDrivers put on a harmonizing bluegrass powerhouse clinic only to have local hero Pokey Lafarge and company burn the place down like Hank Williams and hellfire.

Unforgettable hours of music were launched into the ether by Marty Stuart and then the Mavericks. Stuart provided solid country gold with his custom rockabilly flare with arguably the best band in the music game in his Fabulous Superlatives. A short solo set was deemed and his beautiful legend of a wife Connie Smith joined in for a spell. The Mavs’ custom cocktail of Cubano beats and twangy rock are the things of legend. The Hella Go-Go dancers donned the stage with them as the biggest party in Columbia, MO., was had on the stage. Band Of Horses closed things out in a loose fashion for an impressive performance that was equal parts comedic as highly copacetic. Leon Bridges’ Texas soul was bared with a stellar helping of neo-golden soul in the best jumpsuit I’ve seen since Cash’s famous middle-finger picture. Again the weather, positive energy and artistic auras amalgamated with the sweet smell of BBQ for a king’s feast and soul-cleansing musical offerings. Church was Saturday and Sunday this weekend.

Sunday’s lineup was expertly designed as the bloody mary of the three, easing on into the morning with the Norm Ruebling Band, Broadway Blues and Chump Change on into the Fairfield Four and the Music Maker Blues Revue for brunch. A great country set from the sweet Amanda Shires (Mrs. Isbell) whose penchant for funny stories and killer melodies is only outshined by her sweetness and witty song crafting. Bluesy soul-guitar legend Anna Popovic and her band relit the fire at the Lottery Stage as the imitable Emmylou Harris turned in another of the unforgettable sets of the festival although feeling a bit under the weather.

Emmylou is an angel, and if someone hadn’t told me I’d of never known, save for the fact that a fellow with a gigantic wallet in his back pocket kept delivering tea with her guitars. She’s the Queen of the USA and her king played just following in the most moving, hilarious, classy, beautiful, life-affirming standout set from the legendary John Prine and his band, sans drummer. Emmylou joined for a rousing “Angel Of Montgomery” as the great Margo Price hauled ass from her set in a golf cart from the Lottery Stage for classic duet “In Spite Of Ourselves,” of which it was impossible to tell who was more excited to be playing with whom under a radiant sunset. Price turned up again for “Paradise” as the first encore followed by Prine and band’s penultimate offering of “Lake Marie.” And nothing beat Prine’s dedication of “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” to Adolf Benito Trumpolini—pure genius.

That space was given back to nature in the audible sense as Ryan Adams closed things out in typical Ryan Adams fashion over at the Lottery Stage. A cuss-word-laden, although not undeserved, berating was hurled at an uncooperative photographer who disobeyed the now-famous no-picture rule despite a solid attempt by Adams and band at hiding behind smoke machines on full tilt the entirety of the show. Aside from that and given the amount of innocent children in the crowd with its 7:30 p.m. start time, the rest of his set was formidable. The old televisions playing looped graphics were cool, but the huge, fake Fender Princeton Reverb amps were not. A stout band and Adams’ never-disappointing voice and guitar chops are always enough to power through a decent set. Definitely the most work put into a set design out of all artists for the entire weekend, so take away from that what you will.

Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival king Richard King and Co. and the great folks of Columbia, Mo., ought to be proud of the quality of talent in all forms they’ve curated here. A serene college town that knows how to party was the perfect backdrop for a glorious weekend of irrefutable performances, eats, drinks and genuine cool. Someone must have sold their soul for that weather or there was a definite divine intervention of sorts, possibly from the late Betsy Farris, whom I’m told was an undying force in making this party happen for years as Thumper Entertainment. God rest her soul. I’m already planning my trip back for next year.

—Scott Zuppardo; photos by Chris Prunckle

More photos after the jump.

Continue reading “Live Review: Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, 2017”

Live Review: Unsane, San Diego, CA, Aug. 1, 2017

Perilously low above the Casbah venue, every five minutes or so, an airliner screams its approach into San Diego International Airport. Anywhere else in the neighborhood, the sound is unpleasantly loud and disruptive. But in this cozy club on the northern edge of the city’s playful Little Italy, the din doesn’t even qualify as background static.

For Unsane is in town.

The New York trio’s noisy blend of hardcore punk and gritty metal shatters eardrums with a violence that’s glorious in its simplicity. A new release entitled Sterilize is due out in September, and judging by the half-dozen of its tracks played tonight, the LP promises to be as flesh-ripping as anything else in a catalog stretching back 30 years.

The plodding and grinding “Aberration” from the upcoming album, for example, recalls Blood Run’s punishing “Killing Time.” But set highlights “Scrape” and “Committed” are the performances that showcase Unsane at its most inspiring: urgent, brutal and thoroughly no-nonsense. The three musicians perform like mechanics wrenching the songs out of their instruments with muscle and elbow grease.

What the original punks did for classic rock—stripping out its pretensions, restoring its immediacy—Unsane has done for metal. Gone are the cartoonish exaggerations, the cock-rock superficialities, the inane chest-thumping. Unsane prunes metal down to its slasher-pic essentials. The group’s music is so earsplitting, unfiltered and savage that, in comparison, a 747 crash-landing would register as little more than a coquettish whisper in a lover’s ear.

At the close of the set, guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer politely thanks the audience and steps off the stage without underlining the band’s alpha status. Unsane’s soundtrack for murder speaks, or rather shouts, for itself.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Electric Electric, Paris, France, June 17, 2017

Rare are the gigs that successfully distill styles through a thesis/antithesis/synthesis triad. Tonight, Belgian duo La Jungle opens with a vibe that sets the spazzcore heroes in Lightning Bolt to turbo dance rhythms. Fellow Belgians It It Anita counters with a noise bath that recalls the grimiest of ’90s art punk. French headliner Electric Electric ably splits the difference, tenderizing Kkraut math experimentation with a hard-rock mallet.

The result is more than just a frenetic Trans Am or a family-friendly Atari Teenage Riot; Electric Electric triangulates the digital and the analogue, sweating euphoria through metronomic-yet-manic beats. With machine precision, the Strasbourgeois trio deploys electronics, blunt guitar riffing and repetition the way a masseuse employs whale song, oil and deep muscle kneading.

With “Minimal Maximal,” hard-hitting drums and trance coax the listener’s consciousness out of time and body. The combo could score a Philip K Dick film adaptation … or surgery to install neural implants. From latest album III, “Dassault” entices gently with a light beat, to which siren wails add a threat of impending calamity. The detached, monotone delivery of the vocals is deliberately blurry as to be detectable mostly at the subconscious level. “Klimov,” likely an homage to the Russian director of ’80s war film Come And See, is dancey and ominous and jagged all at once. Neither dejected nor joyous, the group’s sound is less cathartic than soothingly dehumanizing.

In a world where the insanity of terrorism is answered with the inanity of populist nationalism, perhaps the best (or, regrettably, the only) sane response is withdrawal within oneself. Unplug the mind and submit to the gaping void. Electric Electric demonstrates that a synthesis need not require the resolution of competing visions. It can be an acceptance that there are no good options.

Apart from escape into the hollow bliss of art.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Föllakzoid, Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017

Guitarist Domingo Garcia-Huidobro walks onstage with a careless authority. His shoulder-length frock of blond hair kicks back and forth like the legs of a Rockette. He wears Adidas coochie cutters and shin-high combat boots. His turtleneck sweater is pulled up over his mouth and nose, exaggerating his tall, gaunt frame to Muppet heights of silliness. He is, to understate the effect, an eyeball magnet.

His bandmates in Chilean trio Föllakzoid—bassist Juan Pablo Rodrigues and drummer Diego Lorca—are able foils. Where Garcia-Huidobro’s guitar lines are sinewy and ticklish, their rhythms are repetitive and droney. Where Garcia-Huidobro flails and romps, they are immobile and businesslike.

The contrast is striking. But the combination is intoxicating.

If ’70s krautrock bands disrupted popular music with avant-garde experimentation and electronic ambient, Föllakzoid smooths over the rough edges and enchants with an impressive capacity for groove and chill. Fresh off a collaboration with Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman, these space krauts generate a mood, in particular one that imagines the vibe in the lounge of an intergalactic liner.

Fists punching the air, Garcia-Huidobro eggs on the crowd, yet the volume is never thoroughly pumped up, the jams never fully kicked out. But Föllakzoid focuses on emitting a pulse, riding a wave.

While the band’s first two records were crunchy and Hawkwindy, the four tracks from latest album III are minimalist and feather-light, accentuated with random bursts of ringing chords. “Earth,” for example, opens with the churning inside a starship’s engine room then levels off to a smooth glide, looping back to the coarse intro, then bubbling over with cymbal crashes, guitar feedback and a bass rumble.

Bookending III, “Electric” and “Feuerzeug” are nearly mirror images of one another. Ethereal yet spiky, both tunes sprinkle prickly notes atop a slow but gritty rhythmic base, like dragonflies buzzing over a murky swamp. As with much of tonight’s set list, the songs ooze and hum. And when the moment strikes his fancy, Garcia-Huidobro unleashes a buzzsaw riff that jolts the audience out of its reverie.

Because that’s what wizards do.

—Eric Bensel