Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 1

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It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As I found myself in Montreal, once again attending the city’s annual jazz festival, I had just one question, “Who in the hell are these guys?”

Sitting in a wonderfully intimate venue, the Gesù—Center Of Créativité, I embraced the opening night’s festivities with an early-evening show featuring Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. This unique pairing is only the beginning for Fresu, who’ll be hosting other collaborations as part of the festival’s Invitation Series, where the artist embraces a number of musical partners of his choosing. In Sosa, Fresu selected a kindred spirit of equal talent and temperament. Stirring and evocative, their duets showcased an intuitive, empathic dialogue that was organic and spontaneous. Fresu sat perched on his stool, one leg locked behind the other as he faced Sosa, who was somewhat restrained (for him) but still quite expressive in both his body language and musical improvisations. Fresu and Sosa both used electronics to enhance their collective sound, and at times the music reminded me of trumpeter Jon Hassell’s 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics. Hassell has described his Fourth World motif as “a style of music employing modern technological treatments and influenced by various cultures and eras,” which certainly applies to the sounds Fresu and Sosa were putting down. The nuanced playing reflected both of the artists’ backgrounds, with Fresu and Sosa tossing ideas back and forth with gentle intensity. Fresu occasionally used phasing or electronic doubling of his trumpet sound, and Sosa added strange samples and worldly rhythm tracks, which only contributed to their strange magic. Some folks might have thought the evening was rehearsed, but these guys were improvising from start to finish, and the emphatic audience seemed to love every minute of it. I know I did.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for the performance of Bitches Brew Revisited, which borrowed the concept and music of Miles Davis’ electric jazz/rock fusion phase but didn’t go the extra mile(s). With an all-star band of Black-Rock Coalition veterans like guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs as well as DJ Logic and trumpeter Graham Haynes, the Bitches Brew Collective vamped on classic Davis riffs without much excitement. Soloing at Haynes’ direction, the band played dutifully for about an hour without an encore, leaving the audience a little short-changed. Admittedly, the amazing Gibbs was at the center here, but the center just could not hold. The other musicians did not step up when they were really needed. It was a great idea on paper, but the funk and rock jazz-fusion trail-blazed by Davis was sadly in short supply.

Good thing I was able to head back to the sweet Gesù, and catch the late night set by the Vijay Iyer Trio. Iyer is certainly one of the most talented pianists on the scene today, and his 2009 CD, Historicity, was acknowledged as one of the year’s best jazz releases. Supported by the amazing rhythm section of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Iyer took some time to heat up but eventually everything fell together as the band played originals in between interpretations of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” songs by jazz legends Julius Hemphill and Andrew Hill, and even a selection from West Side Story. Once the band was in sync, it had a hard time stopping, and the show continued on well after midnight. Iyer, who’s no stranger to critical acclaim, seemed genuinely moved by the audience’s loving enthusiasm. Thanking everyone toward the end of the show, he stated, “We’ve got to come back here soon—that’s all I’ve got to say.”

That goes for me, too. Stay tuned.

Live Review: The New Pornographers, The Dodos, The Duchess And The Duke, Philadelphia, PA, June 21, 2010

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The Duchess And The Duke, the Seattle duo of Kimberly Morrison and Jesse Lortz, had the task of rallying the crowd at The Trocadero on a sweltering summer night in Philly. They were promoting sophomore album Sunset/Sunrise (Hardly Art), which was recorded by fellow musician and producer, Greg Ashley. Sunset/Sunrise, though still reminiscent of classic ’60s riffs laced with minor chords, brings a new sunniness to the Duchess And The Duke’s style, making the album title seem all the more appropriate.

Next to take the stage were the Dodos.  Last year, Keaton Snyder (vibraphone) joined Meric Long (guitar, vocals) and Logan Kroeber (drums, vocals), giving the San Francisco band’s latest album, Time To Die (Frenchkiss), a whimsical, tinny sound above the guitar-driven songs. This mix makes for an interesting live show. Snyder used his mallets like a cellist would use a bow, creating an underlying, soft hum that bled through each song. Kroeber was impressive, with a percussion style that sounds like two frenzied drummers playing in unison, and Long did not disappoint, belting out crowd favorites “Red And Purple,” “Fools” and “Fables.”

The New Pornographers are one of those bands lucky enough to have a following that adore them. Really adore them. The crowd bursted into celebration as, under haphazardly hung lettering in bright white lights spelling their namesake, the eight-piece band began with the catchy “Sing Me Spanish Techno” from 2005’s Twin Cinema. Perhaps it’s the size of the band, the fact that each member seems to be able to bounce from instrument to instrument or the beautiful four-part harmonies that evoke the feeling of a well-oiled circus or a finely tuned family band.

The Vancouver natives have been making music together for more than a decade, and with that comes an audience as eclectic as its orchestral sound, which at times blends cheery, pop chord progressions, a somber cello and even a funky toy instrument. Baby boomers to freshly of-agers erupted into shrieks of excitement at the start of each song. The first notes of every tune had fans turning to each other, mouthing song titles with wide grins.

This tour is promoting the recent Together (Matador.) With A.C. Newman (vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, banjo), Kathryn Calder (vocals, keyboards, piano), Neko Case (vocals), John Collins (bass, guitar, keyboards), Kurt Dahle (drums, vocals), Todd Fancey (guitar), Blaine Thurier (keyboards) and Dan Bejar (vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion), you can’t get a much fuller, in-sync and precise sound. On the new “Up In The Dark,” Newman projected a modern-pop feel into a good ol’ American rock song. Also from Together came the whistle-driven “Crash Song,” which is another singalong giving that family-band image with an impressive multi-part whistling chorus.

The Pornos played some tunes from their debut album, 2000’s Mass Romantic, including “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” which wasn’t originally on the set list. Newman heard a rowdy fan in the crowd begging to hear it, finally giving in, “OK, for the drunk guy!” When Calder whipped out the accordion for “Go Places,” it became evident that each individual song has its own loyal following. Though sometimes criticized for trying to be too “power pop” with Together, the la-la-la-driven “Go Places” had fans re-energized through the dampening heat. Plus, Calder just looks so damn cute with that accordion.

Though most of the band’s sound transfers wonderfully and accurately from recordings to a live set, a few odd aspects—like Case’s lone claps on “Sweet Talk”—distracted from the material more than adding to it. This may have had something to do with the Troc’s sound, which seemed a bit wonky and unbalanced at times. The soundman couldn’t seem to get Bejar’s levels right until the encore with “Testament To Youth In Verse.”

After what had to have qualified as one of the loudest, foot-stomping, synchronized clapping requests for an encore ever at this venue, the band took the stage again with Newman joking, “You thought you’d lost us, but we’re back! Like our song. Get it?” The Pornos finished with the ever-recognizable “The Bleeding Heart Show.” This has to have been where the term “power pop” became forever linked with Newman and Co. It’s a song that you can’t help smile about and fight the urge to hold hands and skip in a circle. Luckily, it was way too hot in the Troc for such shenanigans, but it was tempting.

—Cristina Perachio

Live Review: Broken Bells, The Morning Benders, Philadelphia, PA, June 6, 2010

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The Morning Benders‘ sound is almost as sweet as their stage presence. This quartet blends dreamy vocals and beach-y percussion, grounded with funk-rock bass lines. At times, the vocals and island rhythms, like on the track “Promises,” sound like a fresh and innocent Vampire Weekend or even a rocking, not-quite-so-sleepy Beach House. These guys captured the crowd with Beach Boy-esque “ooo-aaa” background vocals and ‘50s chord progression, like on “Excuses” from their debut album Big Echo. Broken Bells can thank the Morning Benders for really warming up the Sunday-night audience. Frontman Christopher Chu singled out a fan wearing a Big Echo T-shirt and asked him which song he’d like to hear between “Mason Jar” and “Hand Me Downs.” The fan decided on “Mason Jar,” and that’s what the band played to an approving audience.

There needs to be some kind of appeasement or sacrifice made to whatever cosmic force brought the Shins’ James Mercer and DJ/producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) together. This collaboration, whose self-titled debut album sold nearly 50,000 copies in its first week in stores, is simply a perfect pairing of two solidly talented artists. Interestingly, the background animation that played throughout the show gave some insight into Broken Bells’ sound: Half the images were nature close-ups (a bubbling stream or sunset) and alternately scientific-looking items (rulers, orbiting geometric shapes) on graph paper. Mercer has this “lonely cowboy” thing going for him. His voice, lyrics and twangy-rock sound bring about images of a vast desert or speeding past a mountain range. Burton brings a calculated, almost scientific aspect to the music with catchy dance beats.

They opened with their radio hit “October,” which immediately got the audience swaying and singing along. While on the album Mercer handles vocals, guitars and bass and Burton plays organ, drums, piano, synths and bass, live they also had help from guitarist Dan Elkan, bassist Jonathan Hischke, keyboardist/trumpeter Nate Walcott and guitarist/keyboardist Nik Freitas. It was incredible to watch Burton seamlessly jump from organ to drums to piano to bass, and the six-piece band played a really tight set from start to finish. Each song off the album was performed with perfection, and they threw in two crowd-pleasing covers: Tommy James’ “Crimson And Clover” and Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me.”

What makes this album great is that each song has a certain amount of diversity within itself: using the synth to create a waltz, the trumpet to give songs a regal feel and the piano to create an “Entertainer” old-timey sound. On the clap-along “The Ghost Inside,” the trumpet brings a Southwestern sound to an otherwise guitar-fueled rock song. The last song before the encore was Broken Bells’ first single “The High Road,” which blends electronic sounds and Mercer’s desperate vocals to create a modern cowboy’s anthem so catchy you can’t help but sing along.

Mercer thanked the crowd for coming out to support the band on a Sunday night. The amount of orange Flyers T-shirts in the crowd was a good marker of the effect Broken Bells has had on fans. A note to Mercer and Burton: If Philadelphians are willing to forgo an important playoff game to see your band, you should probably continue making music together because you’ve got a great thing going.

—Cristina Perachio

Live Review: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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The first weekend of the 41st annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was, as usual, inspiring and full of surprises.

Friday’s forecast only called for cloudy skies, but constant, driving thunderstorms turned day one into a mud-drenched revelry. Local legend Anders Osborne took the opportunity to play his apropos “Lousiana Rain” as a mass of smiling, saturated fans of all ages danced to his gritty bayou blues. The most surprisingly fitting performance in the battering rain was Baaba Maal, whose sun-drenched sounds from Senegal had nearly everyone gyrating their bodies and kicking up mud. The storms seemed a perfect counterpoint to Maal’s rhythmic fury. But perhaps the luckiest people in this mess were those who arrived early and scored a spot in the shielded gospel tent. Not only were they protected from the weather, they enjoyed possibly the most stirring and overlooked part of Jazzfest: the goose-bump-inducing spirituals performed by the greatest gospel bands from all over the South.

Saturday’s weather was an even bigger surprise. Forecasts across the region called for tornado-like conditions with damaging wind and rain. Exhausted, drenched music lovers spent Friday night discussing if the show would go on Saturday or admitting their apprehensiveness to go through another day of such battering conditions. Many were disappointed that they might miss the hugely anticipated Simon & Garfunkel performance. But since they were having these discussions at a thrilling local concert or eating some of the greatest food in America, the attitude was devil may care. Miraculously, it didn’t rain all day, and the sun even came out for awhile just before it set.

As usual, there were many difficult decisions to make on Saturday. For me, the hardest was choosing between My Morning Jacket and Simon & Garfunkel. I chose MMJ, and Jim James and Co. didn’t disappoint, playing a riveting and passionate set of their greatest songs. James tore up solos on his Flying V guitar, confusingly donned a cape on various songs and led his band in delivering the epic rock show that they can’t seem to not pull off these days. Reports from the Simon & Garfunkel show were mixed. Garfunkel was quite sick and had lost his voice but made a valiant and somewhat unsuccessful effort to pull off the vocal harmonies that made their music what is was. Most of the crowd was just happy to see these legends play together in person, another one of the many iconic performances in Jazzfest history.

Sunday was the perfect day that everyone hopes for at Jazzfest: 85 degrees without a cloud in the sky and transcendental music flowing through the air at just about all of the 11 stages. New Orleans legends were displaying their greatness not only in their own sets, but in amazing performances with others. Voice Of The Wetlands All-Stars—featuring Dr. John, Johnny Vidacovich, George Porter, Jr. (Meters), Stanton Moore (Galactic) and Cyril Neville (Neville Brothers)—floored the crowd with an intense set of New Orleans funk, soul and R&B. At one point, the father of New Orleans soul, Allen Toussaint, joined them onstage, and seeing him playing the piano sitting right next to Dr. John on Hammond organ was one of those Jazzfest moments that you knew you were lucky to be around for.

But perhaps even more stirring was the following set from the Levon Helm Band. Helm paid tribute to the soul of New Orleans by welcoming Touissant onstage for a few songs, as well as Ivan Neville and even Dr. John for “Such A Night” (which was jarringly reminiscent of Helm’s performance of the song in the Band’s The Last Waltz). Helm’s band, with full horn section, was on fire. Helm was having a great time, drumming with as much authority and power as ever; on a few songs, he played mandolin and sang harmonies with his daughter and bandmate, Amy. The band ended with “The Weight,” inducing one of the loudest and most tailor-made sing-alongs I’ve ever seen.

The day ended with the Allman Brothers Band, which sounded better than it has in years. The interplay between Warren Haynes and the band’s other guitar wizard, Derek Trucks, was often breathtaking. Trucks (the closest to a reincarnation of Duane Allman on slide guitar) and Haynes weaved wailing, intense solos around each other. By the time the Allmans treated the crowd to an intense version of “The Whipping Post,” everyone was spent and more than fully satisfied. You could hear a lot of the first-timers in the crowd talking about how they’d be coming back to Jazzfest every year and bringing new friends to join in the amazing experience. Let’s hope they do. This great American city needs as much support and appreciation as the rest of our country can give it.

—Rocco DeCicco

Live Review: Dr. Dog, Deer Tick, Pepi Ginsberg, Hollywood, CA, April 27, 2010

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The smell of patchouli and incense wafted through the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood Tuesday evening. A sold-out crowd enjoyed a night of three offbeat pop/rock acts. Brooklyn-based songstress Pepi Ginsberg kicked off the evening with a spirited set culled mostly from her latest LP, East Is East (Park The Van). Ginsberg’s distinctive vocals, ranging from a deep throatiness to crystalline high notes, juxtaposed keenly with jagged guitar squeals and off-kilter rhythms. “Come on, what’s the matter, man?” she yelped during “Bingo/Ninths” while she attacked her Hofner archtop and thrashed along with bassist Tim Lappin, guitarist Amnon Freidlin and drummer Matt Scarano. Shades of Regina Spektor abounded on new song “Coca-Cola,” as Ginsberg’s tremulous voice swooped and dived abruptly. The adventurous crowd warmed to this idiosyncratic artist and capped off her set with enthusiastic cheers, including one new fan who screamed out, “What’s your name?”

Frontman John McCauley of Deer Tick wore a Thin Lizzy T-shirt, while drummer Dennis Ryan rocked a Lady Gaga ensemble. This seeming dichotomy actually fit the group’s vibe perfectly. Deer Tick is the postmodern version of a ‘60s country-rock combo. McCauley, with his ever-present shades and Budweiser-fueled stage banter, played the classic-rock-frontman role to the hilt. “And I know you saw right through me, afraid I’m taking you for a ride,” he growled on “Baltimore Blues, No.1.” Fittingly, he offered up an invite for fans to join the group on a trip to Sin City. “Let’s all go to Vegas! We can trip balls and gamble.” Mid-set, he yelled for Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes to get onstage to sing “Me, Me, Me,” a Faces-esque rave-up from their new side project MG&V. McCauley and Co. even threw in a cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which he jokingly attributed to Donnie Wahlberg. Deer Tick finished off its 12-song set with “Manage,” from the soon-to-be-released The Black Dirt Sessions. The thunderous riffing and bruising drums pummeled the crowd into submission.

Dr. Dog, however, brought its rabid fans right back to life. The Philadelphia natives performed a near-marathon set, taking the stage at 11 p.m. and finishing around 12:30 a.m. They opened the set with “Stranger” (the first track on new album Shame, Shame). The buoyant rocker energized the crowd with its chugging guitars and sparkling vocal melodies. On “The Breeze,” singer/guitarist Scott McMicken sings, “Do you feel like you’re stuck in time?/Forever waiting on that line/If nothing ever moves/Put that needle to the groove and sing,” while the band grooves away like an oddball mixture of the Beach Boys, Phish and Guided By Voices. Sweaty, bearded young men pogo’ed up and down while chanting the lyrics to every song, as bra-less girls swayed in time to the tunes. The set included almost every song from the sleek album. The group toned down some of its musical quirkiness, but retained its sunny pop instincts. The brief, funky “Mirror, Mirror” displayed a new modern-rock tinge with its jangling guitar lines and three-part harmonies. It’s about as sexy as Dr. Dog gets, and one boisterous fan loudly admitted to losing his virginity to the song. It builds into an organ-drenched climax, then, just as quickly, ends.

Singer/bassist Toby Leaman wiped his dripping wet face with a towel, as the Dog began “Shadow People.” The song started off as a Flaming Lips-ish ballad, but progressed into a full-on anthem with the entire group chanting the refrain, “Where did all the shadow people go?” Dr. Dog reached further into the past for inspiration on “Unbearable Why,” with a rhythm rooted in classic early-‘60s girl-group pop. The title track to Shame, Shame closed out the main set. The song slid and bumped along for four minutes, punctuated with clean guitar licks, ahhh-ing backup vocals and a spiraling crescendo. The audience, raucous from the start, got even crazier during the encore, when two overzealous fans leaped from the stage. The crowd failed to catch them, leading Leaman to comment, “Has anyone here ever been to a concert before? These dudes almost died!”

—text and photo by Danielle Bacher