Live Review: Liberation Music Orchestra At The NYC Winter Jazzfest

On Tuesday night in downtown Manhattan, the 13th annual NYC Winter Jazzfest concluded its massive music marathon with a conscious concert at the le Poisson Rouge nightclub featuring Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. The festival itself ran January 5-10 and hosted more than 100 different artists on Friday and Saturday nights. Complimenting the festival’s 2017 theme of social justice, the LMO provided a compelling live set that was powerful, politicized and poignant.

Originally formed in 1969 by late bassist Charlie Haden along with arranger/pianist Carla Bley, the Liberation Music Orchestra has existed as an outspoken vehicle of protest and resistance for five decades. Balancing ecological, humanist and political commentary, Haden’s LMO has released a recording every 10 years or so, usually coinciding with the prominence of a Republican administration. This includes the recently released Time/Life (Songs For The Whales And Other Beings) on ECM, which was recorded prior to Haden’s passing.

Although Bley did not take part in the NYC performance due to conflicting commitments, the oversized, virtuosic band used her distinctive arrangements throughout, including an authoritative version of Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green” and distinctive twists on both “Amazing Grace” and “America The Beautiful.” With the gifted Geri Allen substituting for Bley on piano, the LMO boasted a mother lode of excellent musicians including saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, trumpeters Seneca Black and Michael Rodriguez (who served as bandleader) and veteran trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.

The premise of music illuminating protest is central to the LMO, and the band persists in upholding the outspoken legacy of Haden’s insurgent vision. The group closed the show with a moving version of “We Shall Overcome,” which was also the final number on its first album back in 1969.

There were plenty of socially conscious performances during the Jazzfest. Composer/trombonist Craig Harris’s Breathe was another massive ensemble expressing discontent and hope, remembering the martyred Eric Garner and exploring themes of Black Lives Matter. Chicago wunderkind bandleader Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone showcased explosive rhetoric by clear-eyed poet Marvin Tate and provided bracing counterpoint with a hard-charging band that included saxophonist Greg Ward. Saturday’s ECM Stage at New School’s Tishman Auditorium hosted bassist Michael Formanek’s group with saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver, as well as performances by Danish guitar phenomenon Jakob Bro, duets by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist David Virelles, and guitarist Bill Frisell working in tandem with bassist Thomas Morgan.

Once again the NYC Winter Jazzfest was an unqualified success and its heightened attention to social justice was right on time. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or as they say in Portuguese, “A Luta Continua.” The struggle continues.

—Mitch Myers; photo by Dave Kaufman

Live Review: Psychic Ills, Paris, France, Nov. 25, 2016


One cannot step into the same river twice, but most rock bands dip regularly into the same well.

New York’s Psychic Ills are an intriguing counter example. Over the course of five albums in a decade and a half, the group has transitioned from experimental space rock to psychedelic indie pop. With latest LP Inner Journey Out, the band dials down the grittier rock elements in favor of a more sophisticated production with string arrangements, lap-steel guitar, brass and even back-up gospel howlers. Gems such as “Coca-Cola Blues” and “All Alone” bear the marks of Luna’s graceful dream pop and the rustic simplicity of Anders Parker’s folk rock.

Longtime fans won’t bemoan this development. The chill psych rock is now simply a chill psych alt-country. And the hipster vibe still reigns.

On tonight’s elevated stage, under the ceiling’s unflattering metal gratings, the band’s core of Tres Warren and Elizabeth Hart make a curious visual impression. Warren’s cream-white suit is a string tie and top hat shy of snake-oil salesman. Hart’s flowing, ankle-length dress; her long, jet-black hair; and the thick crucifix dangling from her neck all scream goth priestess.

And yet, these are no charlatans. The songs are honest and exposed. Stripped of their orchestration in this live setting, they are pleasantly lazy, inviting the crowd to lose itself in the swaying melodies.

A languid “Baby” from Inner Journey Out and a sharp “One More Time” from One Track Mind set a deliciously trance-y mood. But the song most emblematic of the combo’s evolution is the drowsy-yet-chic “Another Change.” Over delicately insistent cymbals and a ticklish slide guitar, Warren drawls, “I don’t know if I can handle what I got coming/I’m going through another change.”

Indeed, the one constant is change. Or, at least as Psychic Ills have shown, it ought to be.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Paris, France, Oct. 26, 2016


Arthur Rimbaud, muse to our most pretentious rock stars, challenged the poet to derail all senses and thereby arrive at a higher understanding of reality. His preferred method may have been absinthe, but were he alive today he may have favored Lorelle Meets The Obsolete.

The Mexican duo, composed of the elegant-yet-tenacious Lorena Quintanilla (Lorelle) and the scruffy-yet-subdued Alberto González (the Obsolete), delivers unto listeners this Rimbaudian epiphany. LMTO’s latest LP—the aptly titled Balance—disorients and comforts, disrupts and reveals. Armed with the kaleidoscopic range of psychedelic pop, the album triangulates the sweet spot between the gritty space rock of Chile’s Föllakzoid and the dreamy shoegaze of Russia’s Pinkshinyultrablast.

On tour, the duo expands to a quintet, and the delicately crafted recordings transform into ferocious jams. “Waves Over Shadows” and alternate take “Waves Under Shadows” could be children’s lullabies interpreted by My Bloody Valentine. A lazy synth melody wafts through a thick haze of distortion, like a toddler waddling through an active battlefield. The pendulum-swing hypnotism of the guitars on “It Must Be The Only Way” is deftly accented by Lorelle’s seductive and sweet vocals. “Sealed Scene” is a wailing space boogie concocted in a ’60s garage. Throughout the evening’s performance, every song is dreamy without being overly droney.

Psychedelia, above all other pop music sub genres, is poetry. It seeks out Baudelairean correspondences between the material and the mystical. It deploys the awkward, albatrossian glory of feedback to scramble our senses. It explores the outer fringes of human sensation and sends back vivid trip reports.

“Beneath the bush a wolf will howl,” wrote Rimbaud. “Spitting bright feathers/From his feast of fowl: Like him, I devour myself.” He could have been describing the self-destructive decadence of drug use. Or the method to the poet’s madness.

Or, just as plausibly, the psychedelic transcendence of Lorelle Meets The Obsolete.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Il Sogno Del Marinaio, Paris, France, Oct. 8, 2016


He has wondered whether he is a ball-hog or a tugboat. His first collaborator speculated that he is chalk, a dartboard, that his sex is disease, that he is a stop sign. But his current bandmates simply call him “Il Capitano Watt.”

Legendary bassist Mike Watt is not just a captain but a stylistic seafarer. Long inspired by the giants of other art forms (Dante, Bosch, Joyce) as well as those of his adopted métier (Coltrane, Who, Sonic Youth), Watt navigates from artistic port to artistic port. This son of a navy shipman draws heavily on maritime imagery in his work—he composed his first punk opera (1997’s Contemplating The Engine Room) around the theme of naval life. He refers to the tour van as the boat in which the black gang sails. An anchor pendant dangles from his neck, and an anchor inlay adorns his bass fretboard.

But his present project takes the metaphor 20,000 leagues deeper into the sea.

Il Sogno Del Marinaio (Italian for “the sailor’s dream”) matches Watt with guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi in a combo whose jazzy post-rock charts a fascinating course through both calm and troubled waters. The trio dips into the sonic palette of Watt’s many bands, past and present. One hears the jangly indie punk of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE along with the mathy garage abstractions of the Missingmen.

Tonight, the group performed its Canto Secondo album in its entirety (although not sequentially). The difference between the record and this live performance is analogous to that between gazing up at Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse painting and actually being on a flimsy raft tossed on the waves. The restraint of the studio has been tossed overboard.

The angular stutter rhythms of “Il Sogno del Fienile” evoke the choppiness of a whitewater outing. The chill jazz of “Skinny Cat” feels like a pleasant afternoon of gentle sailing. The breathtaking “Us In Their Land” could be a powerboat racing to shore or a pirate ship capsizing in an angry storm. At times, the listener floats peaceably on the waves and at times is thrown violently against a bulkhead.

At the close of the set, Watt yells to the crowd, “Start your own band!” This tireless collaborator and icon of the DIY ethic encourages one and all to contribute to the millennia-old human conversation that is art.

To his shipmates, Watt is indeed the captain. But to the rest of us, he’s an everyman genius.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Hazel, Seattle, WA, Oct. 1, 2016


Nothing screams (or rather, insistently tells you—screaming would just be so rude for Stumptown) “Portland punk” more than the intro to Hazel’s new Tales From The Grease Trap Volume 4 installment on Cavity Search Records—a live document of two typical hometown shows from the band’s 1993 heyday. The first of these—recorded at the legendary-but-tiny X-Ray Cafe, a gig I attended (although I haven’t been able to locate my flannel-and-baseball-capped younger self in the black-and-white cover photo just yet) before splitting for two years in New York City—features an intro from whomever was emceeing that night, imploring the capacity-plus sardine-tight crowd to “respect everyone’s personal space and be good to one another.” Having been born in Long Beach, Calif., and raised on SoCal punk (think—would you expect such sentiment from infamous misanthropes such as Henry Rollins or TSOL’s Jack Grisham?), it took me a while to even consider bands like Hazel, or its running mates Heatmiser, Pond, 30.06, Sprinkler and Crackerbash, even remotely “punk.” They certainly weren’t “grunge.” Mostly what they were was noisy guitar pop, played quickly and loudly in small venues in front of a certain stripe of misfit who hadn’t been a Homecoming King and probably didn’t serve as Student Body President, either. It was all Perfectly Portland and redolent of an era in which record stores were still a hub for fans, radio was still a tool for musical discovery and regional “scenes” like Seattle, Portland, Chapel Hill and Chicago capable of arriving whole-cloth with their own sounds, look and aesthetic. Portland’s was, and to a certain extent remains (even today), “nice.” If perhaps more than a bit left of the dial.

Hazel was one of the standard-bearers of the Portlandia indie-rock scene, back in the day. Leader Pete Krebs had the songwriting chops and all the right relationships (he was tight with the late Elliott Smith but also friendly with just about every other artist instrumental in shaping Portland indie music at the time), openly gay drummer Jody Bleyle was the band’s lifeline to the queercore scene simultaneously brewing in Olympia (she would later go on to join Team Dresch with Donna Dresch and form/lead the Candy Ass label), Brady Smith cut an energetic figure as the band’s bassist, and then there was Fred Nemo, a full band member whose job description (much like Bez from Happy Mondays) was simply “dancer” and who often staked a spot center stage at the band’s gigs, climbing atop equipment, swinging large props around in the air and generally providing non-sequiturs of chaotic activity while the band earnestly pursued its short blasts of jagged pop. Hazel didn’t break up so much as it just stopped playing—an ill-fated European tour saw the band essentially disintegrate on the road—so when Seattle’s Macefield Music Festival (named after the spirit of noted Ballard neighborhood resident Edith Macefield, the Oregon-born real-estate holdout whose tiny home in Seattle formed the basis of the animated feature Up) phoned them to see whether they’d be interested in reforming, all it took was a quick calendar check for all four original members to quickly arrive at “yes.”

Hazel’s first show together in more than two decades came on the second day of the festival, a typically blustery Seattle fall afternoon in which rain came down in buckets for more than half of the group’s outdoor set. But for Hazel’s rabid fans (and new converts) in attendance, the weather could just as easily have been a 110-degree afternoon or a snowstorm for all it mattered. Hazel almost quite literally teleported in from the past—its hourlong set containing songs from both of its Sub Pop albums, Toreador Of Love and Are You Going To Eat That?—with the band betraying little rust or even that any time had passed in the intervening years since sharing a stage together. The group blasted through an ambitious set marked by its double-time pop (“J. Hell,” “Shiva,” “Day Glo,” “Big Fatty,” the baseball-themed “Boog,” “Lazy H” and electric Wipers cover “Tragedy”) and trademark intertwined vocals, with Krebs and Bleyle bouncing off of one another a la John Doe and Exene circa Wild Gift as their songs of relationships, insecurity and resolution resonated just as strongly today as they did back in Portland’s nascent blast-off phase. The band’s core trio sounded lean and tight, while Nemo worked his bizarro-world magic in much the same manner as when I last saw them, balancing full water pitchers atop his head, duct-taping himself to a chair, donning a dress and whipping both mic and landline telephone around like a slightly deranged Roger Daltrey (if Daltrey had been born about a foot taller, with a beard and little sense of rhythm). By the time Hazel wrapped up business with lovely closer “Truly,” its infectious blues had distracted from the fact that the sun was back out, the rain had stopped, and the crowd was totally theirs for the taking.

The band was headed back to Portland for a pair of shows in its hometown, and Krebs is due to be inducted into Oregon’s Music Hall Of Fame (along with Fernando Viciconte and veteran pedal-steel player Paul Brainard) later this month. He has a compilation of his solo work coming out and a new solo record in the hopper as well. I walked away from this show happy to have my old friends back in the fold (if even temporarily) and in such amazingly fine form. Hazel was never one of its era’s most successful bands, but from a purely PDX point of view, it was absolutely one of its best.

—Corey duBrowa

Live Review: Radar Men From The Moon, Paris, France, Sept. 15, 2016


Pants-pissing futurists and backseat philosophers dread the imminent technological singularity for the existential threat it supposedly poses to humanity. We bold, however, say “meh.”

Dutch visionaries Radar Men From The Moon just may be the canary in that post-human coal mine. As recently as 2014’s Strange Wave Galore LP, the all-instrumental quartet engaged largely in gritty space rock. The group restricted its keyboards to sci-fi atmospherics that accented the hard-driving psych metal and timid bleeps that recreated Ms. Pac-Man’s queefs.

But the first two installments of the group’s Subversive triptych rewrite the source code. The synths have commandeered the band’s guidance system, driving the songs forward rather than merely draping them with a frilly overcoat. Guitar, bass and drums are now more measured.

In Paris’ suffocating Espace B club, the controlled experiment plays out with considerably less reserve.

“You Filled the House With Merciless Sand” and “Splendor Of The Wicked,” both rather tame on the new Subversive II record, are tonight punishing attacks of industrial boogie. “Habitual,” from Subversive I, experiments with a feather-light minimalism that flirts with both surf and krautrock. Although played with robotic precision, the songs still feel as if they are performed rather than programmed. The repeated motifs and white-noise squalls do result in a thick drone but not one that is dehumanizing or overly hypnotic. Tony Lathouwers plays a kit composed of electronic and acoustic drums; his sharp snaps intertwine like bionics in flesh, the digital seemingly mocking the analog.

Set highlight “Masked Disobedience” storms with synth dementia and rhythmic fury then swallows itself into a black hole. It is a wailing cluster-fuck of baroque indulgence. Jorge Luis Borges, el Gran Maestro in such (and most) matters, asserted that the baroque represented the death throes of art, the weight of its aesthetic extravagance collapsing in on itself. If—by extension—the hubris of converting all human activity into digital information spells our collective doom, and RMFTM is that first ray peeking over the eastern horizon, then … bring … it … on.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: The Damned, York, United Kingdom, Aug. 3, 2016


For some, punk is a lifestyle, an ethos. It can even be a social movement, typically one that rejects reactionary forces.

For others, it’s just an excuse for a bit of good, clean fun.

“Did you get urinated on?” Captain Sensible, guitarist for the Damned, is reminiscing about the debauchery of his band’s glory days in the late ’70s. “Are you here to ask for your money back?”

Victims of golden showers or not, fans of this legendary punk band have no grounds for complaint. Among the founding forefathers of punk, the Damned is the most accomplished musically, the most bracing sonically and the most ambitious creatively. Over the course of 40 years, the group has pioneered punk and goth and perfected pop and psychedelia. Tonight’s set opener “Plan 9 Channel 7” exhibits the full breadth of this versatility: The song blends hard rock and goth punk, with Dave Vanian’s smooth vocals bridging the gap to pop bravura.

A long string of unavoidable hits, many plucked from the classic first and third albums (Damned Damned Damned and Machine Gun Etiquette), follows: including “Love Song,” “Second Time Around,” “One Of The Two,” “Fan Club,” “Noise Noise Noise,” “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today,” “Anti-Pope,” “Neat Neat Neat,” an exquisite rendition of “Melody Lee” and, of course, the irresistible “New Rose.” Covers of Barry Ryan’s “Eloise” and Love’s “Alone Again Or,” along with iconic original “Smash It Up,” are touching yet energetic. The execution throughout the evening’s nearly two hours is impressive: tight, powerful and urgent.

Halfway through barnburner “Ignite,” the band silences its instruments and hands the vocals over to the crowd. The pit hungrily a cappellas the “whoa-oh-ho’s” until the musicians take back the baton and sprint to the finish. The moment underscores the band’s generous relationship with its fans. Where the stage once overflowed with piss, it now gushes with comradery and playful banter.

Occasional technical hiccups (false starts, lights/amps winking out) incite Sensible to blame them on the Anti-Nowhere League. With a smile, he then wonders if such boners would occur if the Damned inspired greater respect: “This wouldn’t happen to Paul Fucking Weller, would it?!”

Perhaps not, but broader recognition doesn’t imply greater skill. These original punks never aspired to greatness. They vented their rage while having a laugh. And yet in the end, they created something approaching genius. For a group that once entitled a live album Mindless, Directionless Energy, its career has indeed been full of sound and fury. But it has rarely signified nothing.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: The Cosmic Dead, Noyades, Paris, France, July 18, 2016


Rockaeologists, their trowels and hand brooms unveiling secrets buried deep within fossilized turntables, have determined that during its mid-’60s origins, psychedelia initially embraced peaceful, colorful expressions of love and mental awakening. Listeners fed their heads, kissed the sky, then broke on through (to the other side).

Today, however, the genre often strives to pummel the senses rather than awaken them. Perhaps the drugs have changed. The times they certainly a-have.

Tonight’s show—held not in a flowery field in sunny California but instead a poorly ventilated coffin on the fringes of Paris—attests to this radical evolution.

Opening act Noyades offers a deliciously violent take on acid rock. One hears Harsh Toke recreating Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record and Japanoise merchants reimagining Hawkwind. The band name is French for “drownings”—an apt description of the Lyonnais trio’s sound and its effect on the crowd. All instrumental, the group’s music is a thrilling, white-knuckled ride through thrash-y hardcore and frenzied metal, all awash in feedback, reverb and squalling guitar solos.

While Noyades feels like a mad dash, headliner the Cosmic Dead is a test of endurance. The Glasgow quartet’s free-form space jamming is a warm mush of psych-metal drone. The performance is driving, ferocious and hypnotic. The keyboards lend an experimental krautrock flair, alternately accenting the band’s robust riffing with spacey sound effects and washing it all down with white noise. The payoff is considerable: One is satisfied and spent, deafened and dumbfounded.

Art, at its finest, opens one’s consciousness to new possibilities, broader perspectives. Both bands on tonight’s bill aspired to, and more often than not achieved, this noble goal. Their ancestors from the psychedelic Pleistocene heightened the senses with finesse, while tonight’s performers dulled them with force.

—Eric Bensel