Live Review: Exposure Series 2019, Chicago, May 2-4, 2019

The Exposure Series is a residency sponsored by Elastic Arts, a Chicago-based non-profit center for artistic and community action. The Series’ iterations take a different form every year, but the purpose is always the same: to acquaint Chicago’s creative music scene with under-exposed musicians from other locales. This year the organization invited three musicians, each of whose aesthetic approach differs profoundly from the others, to present solo concerts and play with local improvisers and each other. MAGNET writer Bill Meyer and photographer Julia Dratel followed percussionist claire rousay (San Antonio), guitarist Ava Mendoza (Brooklyn), trumpeter and electronic musician Forbes Graham (Boston) and 10 Chicagoans as the Series unfolded at two locations on the city’s north side. 

Exposure Series 2019 was structured symmetrically; each of its three events consisted of a solo set by one of the guests, plus two first-time encounters between at least one visitor and their local counterparts. The first two events took place on successive evenings at Elastic Arts’ multi-purpose space, which presents visual and intermedia art as well as musical concerts. The third occurred during the afternoon at May Chapel.  

Forbes Graham

The first set brought together transgender Texan percussionist claire rousay and local vocalist Carol Genetti. While they had never played together before, each musician quickly found ways to complement the other’s approach. While past recordings indicate that rousay has ample chops as a conventional kit drummer, she currently uses two drums, some small gongs and metal bowls, and various found objects to create assemblages of perpetually changing sound. Genetti is a vocalist who has been searching out the common source where language and music converge for decades. At one point rousay echoed Genetti’s electronically distorted, back-of-the-throat rasps with slurps from her whiskey glass; at another, the friction between lullaby-like coos and scraped drum heads generated a tension that could not be denied. 

While the duo’s improvisations carved music out of the unknown, Ava Mendoza’s solo performance made a forceful argument for standing on the solid ground of familiar forms. The electric guitarist’s CV includes stints with Carla Bozulich and William Hooker. She possesses prodigious technique, combining flat-picking with intricate fingerpicking that allows her to amalgamate staccato punk assaults, rustic blues themes and jagged intervallic leaps. However far into noise she adventures, she always returned to song-based form. Several times during her set, she stepped up to the microphone to deliver plain-sung verses that recounted earnest grievances. 

claire rousay

The first night’s final set underscored the no-net riskiness of free improvisation. Forbes Graham has a diverse background that encompasses free jazz, heavy metal and electro-acoustic sound exploration. He was joined by free-jazz bassist Kent Kessler, new-music cellist Lia Kohl and spiritual jazz singer/clarinetist/pianist Angel Bat Dawid. All are worthy players and game improvisers, but their starting places are so disparate that it took some searching for them to figure out how to work together. The key to their eventual success lay in each musician’s willingness to yield to one another, which made the moments when one mode of activity shifted to another the most compelling parts of the performance. 

The second night began with a duet between Mendoza and one of the festival’s organizers, alto and tenor saxophonist Dave Rempis. While Rempis is an old hand at free improvisation, he embraced the crunchy solidity and forward momentum of Mendoza’s chord progressions, inserting long, fluttering lines that supported them from within. Their set built gradually but inexorably to a climactic blowout of stentorian cries and pulsing, pure sound.

Ava Mendoza

Next came Graham solo. Playing his trumpet while seated at a table behind a laptop computer, he sounded like a Polynesian sentry blowing warning conch-shell cries. The computer served as both sound back and processor, dropping fuzzed-out piano notes, disembodied drumbeats and snatches of podcast chatter around the periphery of his horn cries. The music seemed to represent an internal conversation between the Graham onstage and the Graham who had assembled the computer’s audio archive; eventually the former seemed to disassociate himself with the computer’s sound stream, rather like a person tuning out the omnipresent media blare to figure out for themselves what they’re thinking.   

The second night’s final set was another first-time ensemble, but there was little of the first night’s searching for commonality between rousay, trumpet/electronics player Graham Stephenson and classical cellist Katinka Kleijn. The three musicians instantly found concord. The cello and horn created thick, stable textures that both grounded and contrasted with the percussionist’s more dynamic activity. Ranging from bold bell tolls to light swarms of sound made by scraping crumpled cans against the drum heads, she complemented the static bulk of Kleijn and Stephenson’s sound masses with quick, lightly asserted movement and change. 

The final gathering of Exposure Series 2019 took place in the afternoon at Graham Chapel, a small sanctuary located in the middle of Rosehill Cemetery whose stained-glass windows proved a welcome change after Elastic’s dim lighting. Changes of venue, time and circumstances shone new light on Forbes Graham’s skills. His first set was a duet with cellist Tomeka Reid, who lived in Chicago until recently but grew up near Washington, D.C. There, she and Grahams lived in neighboring suburbs and played in youth orchestras around the same time. The music they played probably didn’t sound much like what they played as kids, but it highlighted some commonalities that date back to their shared experiences. Each musician worked with reduced resources; Reid had no bow until someone passed her a loaner late in the set, and Graham played without amplification or electronic enhancement. Their improvising incorporated classical counterpoint and bluesy slurs, and when Graham shifted from one mute to another, you could hear both his engagement with his horn’s jazz history and his sense of how to complete another improviser’s ideas. The music felt simultaneously sparse yet complete, conscious of the past yet dialed into the present.

During the final set, Graham proved just as attentive to building a whole by listening to the parts while playing at much higher volume. He and Mendoza, joined by local bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Tyler Damon, engaged in a burning, free-rock blowout. Their jousting interactions caromed around the space, melding into looming sonic critical mass. In between, rousay played a solo set in which the visual poetry of her physical gestures dovetailed with the symbolic communication of her sound choices. No instrument or object was taken for granted, and during a passage where she kept metal bowls rocking on her drum skins while she played, each sound underwent a transformation as it was played. This brought a biographical/existential dimension to her that gave it a power that had nothing to do with physical force. 

Live Review: Patti Smith, Philadelphia, April 29, 2019

Patti Smith contains multitudes: artist and muse, poet and interpreter, model and memoirist, rock ’n’ roll messiah and recluse, androgynous punk and wild-haired earth mother, iconoclast and acolyte. No single performance is expansive enough to showcase all of her brilliant facets, but a recent appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House—her first full-on concert in Philadelphia in far too long—did a marvelous job of balancing borrowed songs and her own fiercely original work. 

At her best, the 72-year-old is coolly cutting, warmly illuminating and feverishly improvisational, with a band that can be as tight or as loose as she wills it to be. She was all that and more at the Met, joined by original Patti Smith Group members Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, longtime accompanist Tony Shanahan on bass and piano, and son Jackson Smith on guitar (with daughter Jesse Paris Smith sitting in on piano for a few songs late in the show). 

Only two songs Smith composed this millennium made the cut. “April Fool” (from 2012’s Banga) opened the set with a touch of coquettishness, but “My Blakean Year” (from 2004’s Trampin’) had just the right weight to it; at that point, four songs in, any vague hopes for the evening or mere goodwill gave way to a realization that this show was special. 

Even a blunder was serendipitous. After dedicating “Beneath The Southern Cross” to the late Sam Shepard—her onetime lover, longtime friend and collaborator on the play Cowboy Mouth—Smith got lost in the lyrics and had to start over, but she didn’t mind a bit. And she didn’t care what anyone else made of it. “Sam really loved it when I screwed up,” she recalled, imagining him chuckling and shaking his Stetson.

Two back-to-back songs drawn from 1978’s Easter (“25th Floor” and “Because The Night”) were fiery, tender and frankly sensual. Inspired by Fred Smith, the man for whom she willingly left the public eye for the better part of two decades, they were made all the more powerful by being channeled through the lightning fingers of the Smiths’ son, who looks more than a little like the dad he lost almost 25 years ago. 

Smith’s boundless devotion to those who came before was evident in her choice of covers, which included a hard-hitting, goosebump-inducing version of Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning,” a flawless reading of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and a hallucinatory take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Kaye took the lead on the Avengers’ poppy, punky “The American In Me” (which he dedicated to legendary Philly DJ Jerry Blavat) and shared the mic with Shanahan on a mash-up of the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free” and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”

Smith made no apologies for going so long without playing in the city where she spent some of her most formative years, but she expressed her thrill at singing in the recently resurrected theater where so many opera stars performed more than a century ago, and she acknowledged Philly’s importance in a lot of other ways, from weaving Thomas Paine into the epic “Land” to reminiscing about seeing Motown’s biggest stars in concert at the Airport Drive-In on Independence Day 1963 to claiming she learned everything she needed to know in the three years she attended elementary school here.

Throughout the night, Smith radiated with a holy intensity and a lusty frenzy, daring and demanding the surprisingly rowdy, multigenerational crowd to get up and move in a stately venue that was neither designed for dancing nor prepared for intense confrontations between aggressive security guards and fans determined to abandon their seats and rush the stage.

When one middle-aged fellow bellowed, “Patti, they won’t let us dance,” she mocked his whining, attempted to broker a truce and contrasted the plight of the restrained audience member with that of families embarking on a difficult journey to the United States. But if the great sage left us with any words of wisdom that will stand the test of time, it’s this: “You want to dance? Then fucking dance!”

Amen.

—M.J. FIne; photos by Chris Sikich

Ramblin’ Man: Mark Lanegan Brings His Phantasmagoria Blues To Brooklyn

When a couple of us at MAGNET think of Mark Lanegan playing New York City, we remember a disaster 1997 show at the Westbeth Theatre that lasted roughly four songs. The only thing that the Mark Lanegan Band’s recent performance at Brooklyn’s Warsaw had in common with the show 22 years ago is that both were dimly lit and at venues with names beginning in “W.” The former Screaming Trees frontman and crew played a killer 24-song set including “Stitch It Up,” off Somebody’s Knocking (out October 18 via Heavenly). MAGNET photographer Wes Orshoski was there and still can’t come down.

Motown Mother’s Day With Martha And Mary

Twas the night before Mom’s Day
And people celebrating the eve
Were treated to the timeless music
Of Motown legends Wells and Reeves

On May 11, Mary Wilson of the Supremes and Martha Reeves And The Vandellas brought their spectacular back catalogs (more than 50 top-40 between the two of them) to the St. George Theatre in Staten Island. “You Can’t Hurry Love.” “Dancing In The Street.” “Stop! In The Name Of Love.” “Heat Wave.” “Baby Love.” “Jimmy Mack.” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” MAGNET photographer Wes Orshoski came and got these memories.

Live Review: Valerie June, Parker Gispert, Ardmore, Pa., May 3, 2019

Listening to the luminous Valerie June is like being a confidant to a warm, wise friend who happens to do all the talking. At the Ardmore Music Hall, she moved seamlessly between instruments (a couple of banjos, a couple of guitars), sentiments (love, loss, gratitude, grief) and genres (folk, soul, blues).

She looked positively beatific under the perfect stage lighting, but sounded gorgeously gritty and deliciously down to earth on songs like “Astral Plane,” “Got Soul” and “This World Is Not My Home.”

Parker Gispert of the Whigs opened with an engaging set that played off his natural chattiness and broad emotional range. Highlights: “Magnolia Sunrise,” “Volcano” and the unexpectedly funny “Is It 9?”

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich

Parker Gispert

Slothrust Never Sleeps: Leah Wellbaum & Co. Send Greeting From Asbury Park, N.J.

Slothrust is still on tour promoting last year’s excellent The Pact (Dangerbird), and the L.A.-by-way-of-Boston, Leah Wellbaum-led trio headlined a show at Jersey’s Asbury Lanes. Portland’s Summer Cannibals, whose Can’t Tell Me No is out the end of June via Tiny Engines, opened the show. MAGNET photographer Chris Sikich and everyone else there found a cure for the Sunday-night blues.

Summer Cannibals

The Who Brings First Leg Of “Moving On!” Tour To Madison Square Garden

Today is Pete Townshend’s 74th birthday, and to celebrate, here are some live photos from the Who’s performance last week at Madison Square Garden. Townshend, Roger Daltrey and band (including drummer extraordinaire Zak Starkey) are currently on their Moving On! tour, with a different symphony orchestra backing them in each city. MAGNET photographer Wes Orshoski is glad he didn’t die before he got old.

Live Review: Julia Jacklin, Black Belt Eagle Scout, Philadelphia, April 25, 2019

Impassioned, melodic songs about personal autonomy and interpersonal conflict from Julia Jacklin and Black Belt Eagle Scout made for an absorbing double bill at Philly’s Johnny Brenda’s. Terrific guitar work, too, from Black Belt Eagle Scout’s Katherine Paul.

Highlights: Black Belt Eagle Scout’s “Soft Stud” and “Indians Never Die” (both off last year’s Mother Of My Children, which has just been re-released by Saddle Creek) and Jacklin’s “Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” and “Body” (both off Crushing, issued by Polyvinyl in February).

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich

Black Belt Eagle Scout

Live Review: Death, Thaylobleu, Philadelphia, April 22, 2019

It was pure joy to see Death play pure rock ‘n’ roll, from the material the Hackney brothers recorded 40-odd years ago to the stuff that the resurrected, reformulated and recharged trio has done since 2012 doc A Band Called Death.

Post-funk and proto-punk—they did the Motor City proud. No matter that Bobby Hackney’s voice got pretty raspy from pushing hard for five shows in five nights; the crowd at The Foundry at The Fillmore was happy to help out.

Highlights: “Rock-N-Roll Victim,” “Politicians In My Eyes,” “Resurrection,” “Freakin’ Out,” “Let The World Turn” and “Where Do We Go from Here???”

D.C.’s Thaylobleu was a solid opener, with hard licks, easy banter, emotional lyrics and a genuine appreciation for the black rock giants who paved the way for them, including Death and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who shared a song dedication.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich