Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 3

esperanza400It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As I mentioned, the 30th Montreal International Jazz Festival is a sprawling operation of immense scope and volume. It’s not just jazz and it’s not just music, and the entire city gears up for the two-week celebration. The festival organizers have created their own jazz universe, including an art gallery, which is now showcasing the photographs of Herman Leonard—and the esteemed photographer was on hand for the opening. Born in 1923, Leonard is responsible for some of the most memorable, iconic photographs of famous artists like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and countless others from the golden age of jazz (1940 through 1960). Leonard’s black-and-white shots have been reproduced all over the world, and his unique use of backlighting inspired numerous photographers. Herman has wonderful anecdotes about his encounters with these artists and is a model of discipline, integrity and joyous enthusiasm. If you aren’t familiar with his shot of saxophonist Dexter Gordon with cigarette smoke pluming around him, you don’t know jazz. Hats off to Herman!

I caught a rehearsal by Quebec-based recording artist Patrick Watson. Patrick Watson is the name of the band, but the band is led by singer/musician Patrick Watson. They are popular up here, and I think they are supposed to be like a Canadian version of Radiohead. The band will be playing a big free outdoor concert here on Sunday and will be accompanied by a string section, horns, special guests and special effects. This is going be a mammoth spectacle, and the locals are going to be out in full force. Still, I wonder if these guys can break in America. Check out their new album, Wooden Arms, and see what you think.

Just to keep things down to earth, I walked over to the Metropolis Ballroom to hear Susan Tedeschi and her band open for Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy. Tedeschi was in total command, singing in a strong, urgent voice and playing the heck out of her guitar. This is roots music, pure and simple, and her mix of blues, soul and gospel continues to evolve. Tedeschi’s band plays a solid version of Southern rock, but they all could loosen up a little bit more and have some fun with these great tunes. And Tedeschi should engage them even more. I only saw a half-hour of Guy, but I can pretty much tell you that there’s no other 73-year-old on the planet that can play blues like Buddy. He was wailing—I mean wailing—on the guitar and really knows how to please crowd: singing, screaming and picking the blues, doing shtick with the audience and letting his band strut their stuff. Tedeschi has been opening for Guy for years, and she should take a few more lessons from the master!

I left the Guy show to run back to the Gesù for a late-night gig by Esperanza Spalding (pictured). Spalding has a buzz going, as the singer/bassist has played with Prince and performed for President Obama. It’s not hard to see why. Spalding is a lovely, petite young woman with a huge afro-styled hairdo and a most charming demeanor. The Gesù gig was totally sold out, and Spalding had the crowd eating out of her hand. Literally dwarfed by her massive double-bass, Spalding scatted, crooned, jammed, joked and jived jazz in a soulful, modern style. While she treats her band with loving camaraderie, she’s clearly the star of the show. I can’t say that I loved the music, but Spalding’s winning enthusiasm is hard to resist and I understand the interest. Verdict: She’s a very promising young artist on her way to much wider appeal, and when her chops (both bass and voice) catch up with the rest of her act, look out!

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 2

luciana-souza400It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is a large, amazing beast spanning 13 nights and showcasing talented artists from all parts of the globe. With loads of world music, soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll as well as top-notch jazz, the festival is impressive for the huge number of free outdoor events that are geared to satisfy the Canadian public while hardcore jazzbos scurry from one indoor gig to another. I missed the opening night’s concert with Stevie Wonder, but well more than 200,000 people braved the rain to see Wonder’s show, which was chock full of jazz charts, old Motown favorites, a Beatles tune and a loving tribute to Michael Jackson. Rumor has it that Wonder got paid a half-million dollars for the gig—not bad for a night’s work.

Easing into the cosmopolitan scene, I went to Club Soda and caught a set of duets by Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza (pictured) and acoustic guitarist Romero Lubambo. The intimacy between Souza and Lubambo was impressive and should lead many to Souza’s wonderful duet CDs. Singing in Portuguese and English, Souza embraced the songbook of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Pablo Neruda’s poetry and a couple of jazz standards. Lubambo, who lives in the United States, is probably the most in-demand Brazilian guitarist working today—his jazzy arpeggios were delicate and sometimes reminiscent of guitarist Joe Pass, but his sound is still distinctly Brazilian and uniformly excellent. Souza and Lubambo played in perfect tandem, mirroring each other with romantic grace.

I also enjoyed a late-night set at the wonderful Gesù Theatre, featuring French pianist Baptiste Trotignon with an American band that included sensational saxophonist Mark Turner, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Greg Hutchinson. While Trotignon’s style is a little too passive for my tastes, the improvisational strength of his group elevated the ensemble performance to a serious art form. Turner, who’s still recovering from a very serious injury to one of his hands, played remarkably, as did Pelt. This group of young all-stars is going to be around, individually if not collectively, so keep your eyes on them and watch the future of jazz unfold.

Much more from Montreal in the days to come—au revoir!

Live Review: Sinner’s Salvation!, Philadelphia, PA, June 30, 2009

burlesquegroup420“I love when people tell me I look like a monster!” squealed Athena Onatopp before taking the stage, squeezed into a creamy latex dress dotted with black tassels. Onatopp, the MC for the Sinner’s Salvation burlesque/rock/sideshow event at Fishtown venue Kung Fu Necktie, kept the crowd screaming for more as Olde City Sideshow shocked and made even the strongest stomachs shiver with its display of pain-inducing instruments. Danny Borneo (a.k.a. the Human Blockhead) pounded a rusty nail—the tamest of the various instruments of torture used—into his nasal cavities while Reggie Bugmuncher swallowed swimming goldfish with a smile. The Hellcat Girls stepped in to bring the color back to the audience members’ pallid faces with a blend of Vaudeville comedy, burlesque glamour and ‘60s grindhouse. From new-mom bombshell Candy to fresh-meat burlesquer Rose, the gals entertained the crowd before Olde City Sideshow re-emerged for another performance involving eyelids and an iron (“instrument of domestic torture!” screeched Athena) and a handmade contraption dubbed “the barbed-wire bunk beds.”  “We do believe in unicorns and rainbows, but nothing you see here tonight is magic or gimmick,” Athena assured us. Next to take the stage were rockabilly freaks Sasquatch And The Sickabillys, with frontman David “Sasquatch” Caetano channeling a mean Johnny Cash melded with hardcore metal. The high-energy, grizzled trio toe-taps to Cash’s “Jackson” one minute and then blows the drink out of your hand with a Metallica cover that leads into a 30-second bit of semi-silence during which Sasquatch repeatedly smacks himself in the face and mutters obscenities before busting out of the post-lobotomy stupor with hardcore thrashing. Caetano elegantly described it as “Filthadelphia rock.” Just your average Tuesday night in Fishtown.

—Cristina Perachio

Live Review: The Feelies, Chicago, IL, June 29, 2009

feelies550The Feelies took the stage at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on Monday night, playing their first Chicago gig in 18 years. While even more time has passed since the group’s post-punk guitar shtick first reigned in 1977, the little old band from Haledon, N.J., started out rocking hard and only picked up speed as the night progressed, strumming away the years and playing many old favorites in front of thousands.

The weather cooperated nicely for the outdoor show, making it the perfect summer evening for Millennium Park’s free concert series. Bill Million was the penultimate rhythm guitar hero while Glenn Mercer blazed on leads—and the double drumming of Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman pushed the beat (and bassist Brenda Sauter) into bouncing, droning overdrive. “Punk never sounded so innocent,” said one observer.

After a blistering 70-minute set that included familiar tunes such as “Deep Fascination” and “Too Far Gone,” the band encored with a cover of R.E.M.’s “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars),” its own rave-out “Fa Cé-La” and the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.” Then, with the overtime clock ticking loudly and a huge throng of dancing fans crushing in the front of the Pritzker stage, the band returned for an accelerated version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Word to the wise: Catch the Feelies’ upcoming shows in Hoboken, just so you can say you were there.

—Mitch Myers; photo by Jerry Goldner

Live Review: David Byrne And DeVotchKa, Morrison, CO, June 20, 2009

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What’s different about David Byrne in 2009? His suit fits. The notorious image from Stop Making Sense of Byrne in the big-and-tall suit, undulating like a used-car-lot figurine, is burned in the brains of the YouTube generation. These days? He’s that weird guy with white hair who curated a stage at Bonnaroo two weeks ago. Thankfully, neither of these preconceptions was visible at Saturday’s show at Red Rocks, where Byrne played to an audience who more than likely bought original Talking Heads releases on vinyl.

Known mostly as a “newgrass” and jam-band hub, Colorado has seen a recent wave of indie-leaning acts, highlighted by Denver’s own DeVotchKa. The foursome came dressed for the occasion in matching black suits, save tubist/bassist Jamie Schroder in a black polka-dot dress and red cardigan. Singer Nick Urata crooned in usual fashion over the tribal-orchestral beats supplied by the rotating violin, accordion, tuba, stand-up bass and drums behind him. As made famous by the opening credits of Little Miss Sunshine (for which DeVotchKa played the score), “The Winner Is” was a crowd favorite.  The group closed with a raucous European polka jam that sparked droves of uninhibited Coloradans to dance in their rows, Fat Tire cans in hand.

Like every element of his set, Byrne’s entrance was carefully choreographed. The 57-year-old took the stage at the stroke of 9 p.m., leading a parade of white-clad musicians and back-up singers. Generously offering to forego his customary pre-show babble (he told us this through two minutes of pre-show babble), Byrne opened with a lush version of “Strange Overtones.” It was the first of several songs off of last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today with Brian Eno, quickly followed by the heaven-reaching “One Fine Day.” Throughout the set, Byrne was sporadically joined by three interpretive dancers. In the usual style of his live show, their moves seemed to exist independent of time or contemporary culture. But, in the end, that’s a large part of what David Byrne is. Old, but not really. Corny, but still somehow cool. At one point late in the performance, Byrne led the ensemble in a choreographed “sitting” office-chair routine, complete with a high-speed rolling slide across the diameter of the stage to conclude the song.

The natural acoustics of Red Rocks boded well for Byrne and his 10 stage performers, with warm reverberating bass tones and vocals that seemed to carry miles away from the hills of Morrison. The audience contributed to the late-show appearance of power duo “Once In A Lifetime” and “Life During Wartime,” the latter releasing a bottled-up dance blowout in the aisles. Byrne returned for three encores, the first of which included Al Green cover “Take Me To The River.”

—John Hendrickson

David Byrne And Brian Eno’s “One Fine Day” (download):

DeVotchKa’s “You Love Me” (download):

Live Review: Shellac, San Francisco, CA, June 18, 2009

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And, lo, there came a time upon the land, soon after the reign of Nirvana, when many rock bands took on names found on the labels of empty containers that filled the dumpsters of industrial construction sites. And among the hardiest, yet most confounding of these to some, was the group known as Shellac.

I sampled (and eventually discarded) the wares of many of the noisy new bands I found in the pages of MAGNET when I began writing for the mag in early 1995. Chokebore, Unsane and the Jesus Lizard all eventually fell by the roadside. But Shellac‘s 1994 album, At Action Park, turned out to be a keeper. There was something brutally honest about that record, cut by famed alt-rock engineer Steve Albini on guitar, bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer. Fifteen years later, here was the same trio back on the prowl. I donned hard hat and eye protection, slipped a six-pack of earplugs into my pocket, grabbed my lunchbox and headed off to the job site.

I’d seen one of Albini’s previous combos, Big Black, at San Francisco’s I-Beam in the summer of 1987, and since my ears only recently have stopped ringing from that very loud night, I knew what I was in for. But there comes a time when you’ve had it up to here with eccentric, bearded neo-folkies. You have to get your brain laundered. As expected, Shellac’s show is a no-bullshit affair: no chatter between songs, no choreographed stage moves. With lyrics all but indecipherable, Albini’s vocals could have been the shrieks emanating from the nearest urban gunshot-wound emergency trauma center. The only concession to planned hysteria tonight is the set’s opening sequence, with Trainer pointing a drumstick to the heavens to conduct a slow-motion slide into the first tune, whose thundering opening chords after this brief pantomime are a real sinus-clearer. There was one song intro that hinted at the minor-key, surf-guitar pyrotechnics of Dick Dale. Other than that, it was pure Albini, a man who may look like a tax accountant, but has your H&R Block dude ever twiddled knobs for acts that range from PJ Harvey, Cheap Trick and Joanna Newsom to the Pixies, Superchunk and Dirty Three? Toward the end of the set, Weston asked for questions from the packed house. The only good one was: “Is Todd still sponsored by Calvin Klein?” to which Weston answered, “No, but he’s getting blown by Christy Brinkley.”

Almost every time I walk around the faux-painted marble columns inside the ornately Edwardian Great American Music Hall (built in 1907), it reminds me of the Barbary Coast joint where Clark Gable and Jeanette McDonald rode out the first shocks of the legendary 1906 earthquake in the 1936 film San Francisco. After a night of Shellac at its most punishing, it looks like the old club might be good to go for another 100 years.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Miss Derringer, Philadelphia, PA, June 16, 2009

miss_d0270You could tell who the members of L.A.’s Miss Derringer were as soon as they walked into the crowded Khyber: the boys (guitarists Ben Shields and Morgan Slade, bassist Sylvain de Muizon and drummer Cody James) decked out in their rockabilly-styled outfits and singer Liz McGrath in her bright red uniform and feathers in her hair. When they took the stage, McGrath was all smiles and dancing as the band played ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, American style. The evening’s highlight was “All The Pretty Things,” during which Slade and McGrath dueled it out like Johnny and June. Miss Derringer’s new album, Winter Hill, will be out July 14.

“Black Tears” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/BlackTears.mp3

Jazz Notes: Vision Festival, Day 6

peterbell380bThis week, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers reports from the Vision Festival, the avant-garde jazz event in New York City.

As the 14th Vision Festival winds down, I’m struck by the array of artists whose creative work is considered avant-garde. A number of great musicians were hanging around this week, and the programming for Sunday night’s show was full of amazing talent. Trombonist/composer Steve Swell presented his trio Planet Dream for a matinee performance of utopian chamber jazz, showcasing an intimate collaboration between himself, saxophonist Rob Brown and Daniel Levin on cello. Swell’s compositions were smart and imaginative, but it was the gentle improvisatory aspects of this group that really came across.

Chicago free-jazz patriarch Fred Anderson (pictured) made a memorable, early-evening appearance, supported by his longtime associates and Vision Fest mainstays Hamid Drake and William Parker. Anderson is 80 years old, and his history with Chicago’s avant-garde community goes all the way back to the very first concert given by the AACM in the mid-’60s. On Sunday, Anderson found his way onto the stage, put his tenor saxophone to his lips and didn’t move again for the length of his segment. Behind Anderson, Drake shifted from hand drum to full kit while Parker dabbled with Eastern instruments before settling on his upright bass. This was highly emotive free jazz, echoing the spiritual works of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and the amazing set ended far too quickly. I guess that’s how you cater to geriatric jazzmen—keep their sets short and the audience wanting more.

Michele Rosewoman has kept Quintessence—an ever-shifting performance collective—together for more than 20 years, and she presented two new compositions. Straddling the line between modern classical and jazz, Rosewoman is a talented pianist/composer, and she surrounded herself with a band of ace musicians including bassist Brad Jones, trombonist Vincent Gardner and alto saxophonist Loren Stillman. Toward the end of their highly arranged set, Quintessence broke into a funky groove with Rosewoman playing an electric keyboard in the style of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

The wholly improvisational trio of Whit Dickey (drums), Eri Yamomoto (piano) and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter started out slowly but gained momentum, especially as Carter switched from flute to trumpet to clarinet to saxophone. Dickey’s drumming was flowing and Yamomoto’s piano work cerebral, but Carter demanded the audience’s full attention as he put on a bold display of spontaneous improvisation. Carter deserves more of a spotlight, and Vision Fest programmers would be wise to bring him back next year in a greater capacity.

Finally, much to the chagrin of the weak-hearted jazz fans, German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann closed the evening with his group, Full Blast. A virtual power trio with Brötzmann, electric bassist Mariano Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller, Full Blast lived up to its loud/fast moniker with a thundering racket that sent some of the Vision Fest faithful scurrying for the exits. Brötzmann’s brain-frying tenor screeds were imposing, the rhythm section pounding, and despite an occasional melodic interlude, his set was one full force gale and louder than love—the perfect way to finish up an evening of wild, diverse jazz performances.

With just one more night to go, I’m putting my dashiki and skullcap back in the closet and mourning the end of the 14th Vision Festival.

Live Review: The Church, San Francisco, CA, June 12, 2009

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It’s a monumental occasion for faithful Oz-rock worshippers: The Church has once again returned to California. One of the keystone elements of college rock back in the ’80s, the Canberra-bred Aussie combo, led by bassist Steve Kilbey and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes, was once part of a dazzling Australian contingent that included the Saints, Radio Birdman, Hoodoo Gurus, Died Pretty, Celibate Rifles, Screaming Tribesmen, Stems, Scientists, Moodists, Lime Spiders and Sunnyboys.

Kilbey has a sunburned look these days, like he’s just returned from a couple of months in the Australian outback with Mel Gibson, shooting Mad Max XII: Burned To A Crisp, continuing the endless search for gazzoline in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. “Hello, I intended to have flowers in my hair, but they never arrived,” said Kilbey. It’s a dead giveaway for anyone who hasn’t seen them in a while, to the musical direction the set will take. Rather than the jangly, slightly Velvet Underground-inspired folk rock of Church classics like 1983’s “Electric Lash” and 1981’s “The Unguarded Moment,” it’s the dreamy psychedelia of the band’s current album, Untitled #23, heavily under the sway of David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd, that will daub your evening with shades of paisley.

If you’re a die-hard Church-head, you probably enjoyed watching Koppes (or a roadie who resembled him from the back of the barn-like Slim’s) tuning a small arsenal of guitars for the 50 minutes that preceded the set. Others might have preferred a dozen Popeye cartoons. Then there was the amp meltdown that brought things to a grinding halt for 15 minutes, about half an hour into the set. The breakdown seemed to catch Kilbey at a loss for standup material to fill the void. To kill time, he described the band’s drive north from Los Angeles, which must have taken a strange turn, indeed. Kilbey referred to both the Andersen’s Split-Pea Soup restaurant near Buellton on the coast-hugging Highway 101 and the cattle-staging area dubbed “Cowschwiz,” located near Coalinga. It’s actually the Harris Ranch, the major supplier of ground beef for the In-N-Out hamburger chain, and it’s deep in California’s central valley on Highway 5. You can’t take both roads. Then again, who’s to say the band who cut the enthralling “Two Places At Once” in 1994 couldn’t pull it off?

“Have you ever noticed, the farther north you get in California, the less you hear people shout out, ‘Play some rock ‘n’ roll!’?” said Kilbey to Willson-Piper. “They’re more sophisticated up here.” And play the Church did after the amp was fixed, although not the mindless party soundtrack some L.A. hecklers might have preferred. It was a treat to finally hear 1988’s “Under The Milky Way,” the grizzled Aussies’ sole American chart entry, played live. The last time I saw the Church, opening for Echo & The Bunnymen in 1986, the song was just a glimmer in its collective eye.

“Deadman’s Hand,” “Happenstance” and “Pangaea,” all from Untitled #23, are taken at a measured, Dark Side Of The Moon pace. It’s surprising to hear the Church has soaked up a bit of the Bunnymen’s essence over the years. Kilbey enriches the new songs with his 12-string, while Koppes’ slide work on “Happenstance” is exemplary. If the recent stuff isn’t as groundbreaking as its earlier material, the Church, like the Rolling Stones before it, should be granted a lifetime pass from creating spectacular new music. The band has already done plenty of that.

—Jud Cost

Jazz Notes: Vision Festival, Day 4

charlesgayle400iThis week, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers reports from the Vision Festival, the avant-garde jazz event in New York City.

As the week wears on, I’ve noticed one thing about the (14th) Vision Festival—that is, it’s a lot of the same people. Every night, it’s the same staff, the same vendors, as well as much the same audience and, often, the same musicians. Not that there is anything wrong with that—a number of music fans came from points abroad (Germany, Japan, etc.) just to see William Parker and company stroll out the representative best of their free-jazz subculture.

Things seemed a little off-kilter on Friday, and although the music started late and was subsequently rushed throughout the evening, there were still plenty of fascinating musical moments. Miriam Parker’s Corridor combined her interpretative dance routine with the atmospheric sounds of Jason Kao Hwang’s violin and Joseph Daley’s tuba. Parker was elegant, agile and lovely, while Hwang and Daley provided the perfect avant-garde ambience to compliment her performance.

The Charles Gayle Trio was an appropriate choice for the Vision Festival, and Gayle (pictured) was absolutely commanding on alto and tenor saxophone. He is a humble, expressive musician who has overcome some imposing obstacles in his life (including homelessness), and although his noted saxophone style is still intense, his overall sound is kinder and gentler these days. With bassist Lisle Ellis and drummer Michael Wimberly, Gayle gave an amazing performance and finished up the set on piano. Let’s all pay more attention to Charles Gayle!

The Ayler Project is a quartet devoted to the music and memory of late saxophonist Albert Ayler, who provided a guiding light to many during the free-jazz explosion of the 1960s. Trumpeter Roy Campbell is the leader here, but saxophonist Joe McPhee, drummer Warren Smith and bassist William Parker all contribute equally. The band’s first performance in America was all it could be with a spoken invocation from “Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe” followed by hymns, marches, meditative chants and expressive blaring. Those familiar with the Ayler songbook were thrilled, except for certain nitpickers (i.e., me) who wanted to hear the composition “Ghosts.” Maybe next time.

The evening concluded with a segment featuring critically acclaimed saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, who hails from South Africa, supported by Vision Fest all-stars such as pianist Matthew Shipp, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Parker. I missed the show, but it was supposed to be a big deal and the place was packed when I left. Maybe I can ask some of those same people about it when I return to the Vision Festival tomorrow.

—Mitch Myers