(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Concert review - Funkma$ter, That 1 Guy

29 April 2009 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
Another pleasant surprise. I happened to be looking at Hodi's calendar and the description for That 1 Guy sounded so interesting that I had to check it out. I am so glad I did. The short and sweet review? If possible, see That 1 Guy live!

The opening act was a local one man band calling himself Funkma$ter. He also happens to be the percussion player for local band Euforquestra. He spent his set fenced into a tight cockpit of equipment, creating loops incorporating drums, keyboards, bass, guitar, percussion, and vocals. Most of his songs were covers, like James Brown's Get on the Good Foot and Dr. Dre's Let me Ride. Since he makes it a point not to use any samples, he even recreated the P-Funk sample of Star Child that Dr. Dre uses on that tune. He also played a couple of Cuban percussion-centered pieces.

Funkma$ter is a competent musician who's adept at more instruments than I am. But his looping approach reduces to a technical exercise in assembly and mixing. So, it misses out on much of the show that an looper like Keller Williams or Arthur Lee Land can create.

That 1 Guy
When it comes to That 1 Guy's show, you really have to see it to believe it. From the moment he took the stage and unveiled the Magic Pipe, I knew this was going to be special. Almost immediately, we were all baptized into a techno-tribal/modern primitive rite that lasted for the rest of the night. About the pipe...That 1 Guy got his start as an upright bass player. Eventually, his experiments in percussive playing and solo performance motivated him to get really creative. Creative enough to envision and build this unique instrument that features two long sections of pipe, each with a bass string, linked together with a series of movable joints. The pipes are also festooned with synthesizer triggers that he can hit to get drum sounds or play samples. The pipes themselves can be played with the hands, a bow, drumsticks or whatever else he can find.

Watching him play the Magic Pipe was astounding as he capered around, grimaced, and frenetically attacked the pipes. But that wasn't enough for him, he was also surrounded by a set of kick-drum pedals wired to additional sample triggers. So, sometimes the beat was synthesizer based and other times he drummed on the pipe. He also had a few other tricks up his sleeve, like his Magic Cowboy Boot and his amplified musical saw.

Musically, this all fit together to cover a range of styles. At one point, we'd be in rave mode, feeling the bass and percussion beat through our bodies, then things would shift into more of a Primus/Beefheart jerky syncopation. A bowed bass sound might get transformed by a ring modulator into a distorted metal guitar grind. Over the Rainbow on musical saw and then Black Sabbath's Iron Man. Despite the random nature of this, it all flowed.

The cool toys, incredible stage energy, and wild music could have been enough to make a memorable show. "But wait, there's more", as he often tossed out during a brief lull. That 1 Guy has the natural instinct of a true entertainer. Aside from his expressive physique, he incorporated a lot of wonderful touches that kept the crowd rapt. He'd gesture with one hand (while the other was tweaking the pipe) and you'd swear his shaking free hand was making the sound on its own. He threw in a number of minor magic tricks that fit together with the music (glowing lights appearing and flickering, making cards appear and levitate). He had a street performer's sense of how to "play big" and keep even the back of the crowd engaged.

That 1 Guy's vocal style drifts from Stan Ridgeway (Wall of Voodoo) irony, through Peter Murphy (Bauhaus) gothic moan, to Iggy Pop growl. You can hear musical influences from Captain Beefheart and Primus. Some of the material also reminds me a lot of Mike Kineally's work in terms of meter and absurd lyrics that sound more than they mean. He played a lot of songs from his most recent album, The Moon is Disgusting. The title track was a high point point in the show, with it's free association rhyming:
The honey tastes sweeter when you anger the bees,
The moon is disgusting, it's made of cheese
Other high points included Weasel Pot Pie and Buttmachine. As you can see from the videos, watching him work the Magic Pipe is hypnotic. I'll let you search for Rainbow to track down his musical saw work. The show was full of surprises and originality. Most of the crowd was already familiar with him from his last tour with Buckethead, so their energy combined with his. The bass and drums beat through my body, the floor shook beneath my feet from the dancing, and the lunacy filled my heart and head with joy. I'd pair this up with absinthe and try to figure out That 1 Guy's lyrics.

I also picked up The Moon is Disgusting and gave that a spin. Rather than write a separate review, I'll just mention a couple of notes. Overall, the CD presents the songs well. Although it can't begin to capture his live energy, it's a great listen. Oddly enough, it's not mixed to be as bass heavy as I would have expected. The title cut is fun, as is Buttmachine, but the peak experience is the raga-like psychedelic trance of Rainbow.

More photos on my flickr.

Monday, April 27, 2009

DVD review - My Morning Jacket, Okonokos

My friend Tommy loaned this to me specifically for me to review it. I really appreciate any suggestions for stuff to review -- especially when it's something that the person has strong feelings about.

My Morning Jacket has a very interesting history. They started out as a sort of alt-country band out of Louisville, KY but they've evolved past that into popular indie rock stars. The progression reminds me a little bit of how Jeff Tweedy reinvented himself: leaving Uncle Tupelo to form Wilco and then taking that band well beyond its Americana roots. My Morning Jacket has some sonic links to Wilco, as well -- some of the vocal styling and lyrical turns sound like Tweedy and sometimes the guitars have that post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot vibe.

Overall, though, My Morning Jacket has more of a British sound, especially with their arrangements. Many of the songs are intricately assembled with neat little simple pieces that fit together to create a more complex whole. Think of Radiohead or a less keyboardy version of Massive Attack. Add some Flaming Lips (especially the drum parts) and some of Nirvana's shoegazing intensity and a splash of Robert Pollard's writing style (Guided By Voices). Taken together, the music in Okonokos is an intense psychedelic take on progressive rock.

Okonokos is a stunning concert film but there's an odd little story bookending the show. At the beginning, we find ourselves outside a large house with a party in full swing. A man (Brandon Jones) arrives and joins the party. The costumes and set are all designed as a sort of Victorian pastiche. After failing to connect with the other guests, the man sees a (slightly glowing) alpaca and the two step outside. They hear some tones and follow the sounds to glowing lights in a nearby forest, thus joining the concert. In the first song and a few times later in the show, the man is sort of a visual touchstone. The camera revisits him to track his reaction to the music. At the end of the show, the man and alpaca leave and the man is attacked by a bear.

Sitting here afterwards, I'm not so sure I really appreciate this. The beginning section is whimsical but short and it gives a dadaistic slant to the early songs. The end, though, seems gratuitously violent and it really breaks the mood of the show. If the music (especially at the end) were more threatening, it might have worked better. At least it doesn't interfere with the music.

Visually, this concert DVD stands out. The lighting was designed by Marc Brickman, who's also worked with Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd. This was stunning. The lighting was always in service to the music. A great example was during It Beats 4 U, where the music is providing an interesting groove. The foreground is drenched in a deep blue, while the background is full of red, yellow, and orange. The back scrim of trees and vines is clear and all of the band members are backlit and outlined. It emphasizes some of the musical contrasts going on at the same time. Later, during One Big Holiday, the colors are intensely saturated and, combined with heavy strobe, they give the band an animated look. Prior to this, I've considered Phish to make good, innovative use of lighting but this was more complex and more tightly coupled to the music. Dondante could be used to teach the craft: the lighting almost drives the tempo and mood changes instead of reacting to them.

The editing was also significantly better than most concert DVDs. There was a balance between showing detailed action on the stage and pulling back to give a wider angle. All of the musicians get attention from the camera, which helps showcase the intricacy of how these pieces all come together. The Way That He Sings has some beautiful camera work. I'm sorry I can't find a better clip to share than this. In particular, I wish it had one of the songs I've already mentioned instead of Anytime.

All of this talk about lighting and editing, I shouldn't forget the music. These are all fairly powerful songs, played by a tight band in peak performance. I loved most of them and could easily walk through each one but I'll show a little discipline and pick a smaller set. If I could only pick one, it would be It Beats 4 U. Rounding it out to four, I'll add Off The Record, Dondante, and Run Through. It's hard to choose, though, because Jim James is a great writer and these are all excellent songs.

It Beats 4 U has a fairly basic beat but the drummer (Patrick Hallahan) throws in a quick little riff that adds complexity. This song is a showcase for the kind of arrangement I mentioned earlier: a simple arpeggiated guitar and simple keyboard parts contrast with with the manic intensity of the drums and bass. Vague vocals and a slightly drifting melody add another layer and the result is quite trippy. The amazing lighting is just icing at this point.

A drum machine starts Off The Record, with very stripped down vocals and bass. When the band kicks in, the rhythm is jerky but cool. The overall sound is like Wilco trying to play like the Clash. Frequent references to the Hawaii 5-0 theme become a regular leitmotif. Soon, the Clash gives way to a more psychedelic section, which plays behind Alpaca Man's weird flashback to the party. It comes down at the end with some keyboard. All in all, a pleasant roller coaster ride.

Dandante starts with a naked vocal, sometimes slipping up into falsetto. The guitar comes in faint and thin but it builds in volume and tempo. Then the song is overwhelmed in a wall of sound. Hypnotic vamping drives the sound while the lead guitar flails. Then things settle down and, as the guitar switches to a thick, tremolo-laden repetition, the saxophone comes in. I need a rest after this, it's so heavy.

But almost immediately, a sweet distorted guitar kicks in, starting Run Through. Maybe it's hinting at Eric Clapton playing Little Wing... Washes of sound from the second guitar arise with the first guitar surfing across the top. Eventually, this slips into a bass groove section that shifts the mood and finally ends in mind blowing feedback. But wait. It's not really over, the grind starts again, slower this time, and it drives to the real end of the song.

In general, I'm not a big proponent of concert DVDs. I'd rather have my memories of seeing the band or my own images to go with the music. But this is a clear exception to that rule. An outstanding DVD of a great band, it has everything: great visuals supporting intense music. Pair this up with some electric Kool-Aid or a Belgian strong golden ale like Gouden Carolus Tripel.

News update

It's been a busy couple of weeks, so I've slipped away from writing like I should. That will soon be remedied: I've got a couple of CDs ready to review (Prince and Gogol Bordello) and I'll be posting my review of My Morning Jacket's Okonokos DVD shortly.

Even though I haven't been writing, I have been playing. My band, the Fabulous Juveniles had our first gig in almost a year at a private party, which went relatively well. And I played a freezing cold solo gig at the local Farmers' Market this last weekend. Of course, I've been listening a lot, too.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Concert review - Good Gravy,Jerry Garcia Band

9 April 2009 (Aggie Theater, Ft. Collins CO)
What an interesting night. We get a lot of good music here in Ft. Collins but this was odd. We had the Wailers at Hodi's and Jerry Garcia Band at the Aggie. Which dead guy's band do you want to hear? Bob Marley's or Jerry Garcia's? The jam band/college crowd had to decide. I'm not sure how Hodi's did but we had a decent crowd at the Aggie. I think either show had some advantage but I won tickets to see JGB, so the fates decided: if you're going to listen to the dead, pick the one that's most Dead;-)

Good Gravy
The opening act was a local bluegrass band called Good Gravy. I'd never heard them before. They had a touch of jam band in their mix, which made them a reasonable fit for JGB. They're a five piece group: bass, drums, percussion, guitar and mandolin. They bill themselves on MySpace as very eclectic, mentioning styles like hip hop and electronica. Maybe so, but for this show, they were more focused on bluegrass. They did push beyond bluegrass into simple rock jams on a few songs.

The band does a decent job. The drummer is very steady. The bass is strongest and most comfortable on the bluegrass songs. The percussion player is easy to overlook but he adds a lot of texture to the band. The band is fronted by the mandolin player and the guitar player. The mandolin is pretty competent but he needs to connect better with the crowd, he seemed a little shy or standoffish. The guitar player was a little smoother about that. What I enjoyed most about the guitarist was that he could toggle between bluegrass mode and jam band mode so clearly. On the whole, I'd like to see them work a little more on their vocals to get some stronger harmonies and pull in some of that "high lonesome" sound.

The set started out with a cover of Jonathan Edwards' Shanty Song. They also played quite a few original songs. Bluegrass really is their primary thing, even though they threw in a funky little jam early on. One of the best moments came when the mandolin player had to sit out, fixing a broken string. The band filled the time with a guitar based jam that sounded like Led Zeppelin covering Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile. The groove was a little stiff but it was still my favorite song of the set. The mando made it back in for the end of the jam, to help drive it home. They had a few songs like this that were more rock than bluegrass

Here in Ft. Collins, I've heard many bands work the bluegrass/rock mix and Good Gravy didn't seem that different except for a few sound effect touches, like the bass player using an envelope follower (listen to one here), some occasional echo on the mandolin, or the percussion player using his synth pad. This last bit caught my ear as something more interesting. While the rest of the band played a fairly traditional set of changes, he threw in some trippy sounds and some odd little textural bits that added a more modern reference. This character took them beyond the standard improvisational bluegrass band. I'll have to catch them again to see how typical this is.

Jerry Garcia Band
From the moment the Jerry Garcia Band took the stage, Jerry's ghost presided over the show. Before I can talk much about the playing and the show itself, I really need to talk through the weirdness. It's been 14 years since Jerry died. Even though Melvin Seals is a link to Jerry's old band (he played keyboards in the band when Jerry was alive), this was more like a tribute band. And I felt the same kind of surreal disorientation.

Tribute bands try to freeze a moment under glass, as a sort of a museum piece. I know a lot of people miss Jerry and appreciate the chance to relive the past and tribute bands give people a taste of what used to be. Still, I'm always uncomfortable hearing a very talented musician bury his ego to reproduce someone else's sound and performance. Stu Allen is a great guitarist and he's done an incredible job capturing Jerry's sound, both vocally and on the guitar. But I wonder what he'd sound like on his own. Stu was so immersed in his role as virtual Jerry, that he even played band leader, calling the tunes and cuing the rest of the band. Even though the band poster says "featuring Melvin Seals" and Melvin was a strong player, Stu seemed to be the driving force of the band.

But despite being close, Stu just isn't Jerry. I was talking to Steve, a guy I met there, and he said it best, "It's like the Jimi Hendrix Experience without Jimi." Of course, most of the audience was too young to have seen Jerry in his prime. That night, though, the crowd didn't care. They were more into grooving to the moment and enjoying the scene, which is closer to what made the Grateful Dead such a cultural phenomenon. Enough complaining, I think I'll follow the crowd's example and focus on the music.

The music did not disappoint at all. The band played a lot of songs straight off JGB's old setlists: Lee Dorsey's Get Out Of My Life, Woman and several Jerry/Grateful Dead songs, like Lonesome and a Long Way From Home, Cats Down Under the Stars, and Gomorrah. They also did several Eric Clapton tunes like Lay Down Sally and After Midnight. Regardless of the legacy and other mind games, the band was tight and deeply musical. Melvin's keyboard work was intense. He had a Hammond organ as well as a Roland keyboard but he favored the Hammond, which has that rich sound you've heard on so many songs from the '60s and '70s. The bass and drums fit together seamlessly, the backup singers added a classic R&B feel, and the guitar had plenty of room to take off.

I won't run through the whole setlist, but the beginning of the first set was perfectly arranged to set the mood and get the audience locked in. They led off with a smooth jam on Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come. Melvin's organ bounced in a bubbly rhythm chank on the verses. Then, on the lead, he showcased the churchy melodic sound of the Hammond. They slowed things down a little for the second song, Sugaree, played in a gospel style. This took us all straight to church. I was ready to testify. The crowd swayed and danced. All the pieces fit just so: the bass was warm and beautiful, the backup singers were soulful, the church organ pealed, and, if you shut your eyes, you could hear Jerry's voice in Stu's hesitating phrases.

From there, they launched into Get Out Of My Life, Woman, sounding like Booker T and the MGs. The keyboard solo in this was blistering and Stu and Melvin traded licks as the song built up. Then they shifted gears again to play Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Slow, emotional verses slipped into faster, reggae beat choruses, propelled by the drums. The transition was smooth, but it kept us from getting complacent.

These four songs alone were a great example of how to mold an audience: wake them up in the beginning, pull them all together, raise the energy, then whipsaw them off balance enough to hold their attention. We settled in for two full sets of beautiful music tinged with a sense of nostalgia because these were all songs we've heard many times before.

This was a night for a fruity, medium sweet rosé wine and dancing with abandon.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Everyone's got an opinion...

When it comes to judging music, most people assume that a musician's opinions are worth more. Someone who has the power to create music? Surely they're in a better position than anyone else, right?

Wrong. Flat out wrong. A skilled musician may know all about their instrument and how to play their chosen style of music...and yet their perspective may be fairly narrow. I know musicians who love to play but are mostly just casual listeners. They know what they like and they don't immerse themselves in music. Sometimes, they're even proud of their lack of interest; as if other styles of music or other perspectives on their own music are just not relevant. That is no basis for a real opinion about music.

Ultimately, informed appreciation is worth a lot more than skill at creating music or musical talent. It's like comparing a skilled cook to a gourmand. If you're hungry now, the cook may be of more immediate help. But if you're looking for recommendations or insights, talk to the gourmand first -- someone who's dedicated their energy to enjoying and understanding food. Regardless of whether they've made rack of lamb or boiled water, they can talk about how to understand a given cuisine and the flavors you'll find. They can lead you to a richer life even if you're not a food freak like them. You may not necessarily agree with them but their opinions are meaningful because of their investment and effort.

Keep in mind, these qualities are not mutually exclusive: a musician may also be an aficionado. When the two come together, it's often a case where the love of music grows into the desire to play and create. That's how it worked for me. Some of my earliest memories involve music. I remember listening to my dad play jazz standards on guitar and also listening to a small collection of 45's. Over time, this fixation grew -- the more music I listened to, the more I needed to hear. Eventually, I started making up little songs with silly lyrics and stolen tunes. As I evolved into a songwriter and musician (in that order!), it was my growing musical appreciation that drove me forward.

As a teenager, I developed more experience, expanding the styles of music I listened to and then learning more about them. I started to recognize sonic similarities and to learn more about culture and history. I built up a mental music box of different bands and songs. This fit in well with my analytical nature; I found connections between these things and pieced together mental relationships. This is added depth to my playing but I did it for its own sake. As an adult, I still constantly listen to music and I'm driven to expand the music I listen to. It's a rush to find a new band and work out how their music relates to what I already know and hear. In the last couple of months, I've added Cambodian influenced rock and symphonic power metal to my musical landscape, making it a richer world.

People often acknowledge my musical obsession by assuming that it's because I'm a musician. Of course, playing feeds back into my appreciation, adding another facet. But I know it's the other way around. That doesn't make my opinions any better than theirs. It just means I've thought about it more than most and, maybe, I can offer a little insight about what I hear.

What about you? Where are you on the spectrum between casual listening and obsession?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

CD Review - Bettie Serveert, Private Suit

Music can be a drug -- a shot of speed to jump start the night, psychedelics to spin off on, or opiates to soften the edges. Bettie Serveert's Private Suit(2000) is a dram of codeine that helps put some distance between the rest of the world and my head. Especially when I'm in one of those introspective moods. Part of it is the echoing guitars that shimmer with reverb and tremelo. Carol Van Dyk's vaguely detached vocals are another piece. The bass and stripped down drums are rooted, but still meander slightly. The whole album drifts languorously through a contemplative mindscape. The sharp edges, distortion, and punch are muted. This is an album I come back to often, like probing a toothache, because it resonates deep inside.

On the surface, Bettie Serveert sounds like Liz Phair, but without the smart ass attitude and humor. The similarity is mostly in the vocals, though Van Dyk has a sweeter tone. Musically, many of the songs also have an '80s college radio feel -- early R.E.M. or Cowboy Junkies. The chord progressions are more complex than most rock music but they're locked into an simple emotional space.

It's hard to pick a favorite track, but Sower & Seeds is the strongest. It starts off with a simple pair of guitars. The song builds, layer by layer, adding a compelling bass line, jangly detuned guitars, then organ and distortion. Great dynamics. This sucks me in. The intensity climbs and then drops back out to a subtle finish. Four and half minutes long, but more satisfying than 8 or 9. Each time I listen to it, I pick up more details (the subtle backup vocals...).

Another great song is ReCall, which starts out with a prog-rock sound like King Crimson. Then a bass line straight out of Brian Eno's Miss Shapiro. This mutates into their more typical '80s college radio sound. There are a multitude of little details hiding within if you want to dig for them (slide work, odd synthesizer bits, etc).

Private Suite rewards the obsessive listener with novelty even as the music cocoons him from the outer world. Ideally, I'd suggest a rum and Coke with the original recipe Coca Cola. Barring that, I'll leave the opiates to your discretion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

CD Review - Nightwish, Wishmaster

My friend, Kyle, passed this on to me and I gave it a listen and decided to review it. Now, I have to admit that, metal is like Celtic music, bluegrass, and opera for me: I'm just not that into it. If one of those styles are in your must-hear list, please hold your flames. And I'm not really including bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple because those seem more like mainstream rock bands to me. In any case, I'm laying out my perspective because I want to make clear that I don't quite have the context to critique this within the boundaries of style.

After I listened to the Wishmaster, I did some research on Nightwish and they are generally described as symphonic power metal. To be fair, I had never even heard of that sub-genre, but I get the idea. For all of you other uninitiated (and link averse) people, symphonic (or opera) power metal is heavy metal music that has symphonic elements, often with signature female lead vocals and operatic or classical themes (thanks Wikipedia).

On the surface, Wishmaster hits the typical sound. The music is often quite theatrical, even a little overwrought. The vocals are a little reminiscent of opera. There are lots of keyboards and occasional orchestral accompaniment. The drums parts are rooted with staccato, rapid-fire bass drum kicks. The guitars provide a mix of crunchy rhythm punctuated with the piercing speed of sweep-picking. These last two aspects reminded me a lot of some of the Euro metal I've heard but never paid much attention to. Lyrically, the songs are very thematic and reference a sort of epic struggle.
Sleep Eden sleep
My fallen son
Slumber in peace

Cease the pain
Life`s just in vain
For us to gain
Nothing but all the same
The deeper I listened to Wishmaster, though; it became less of a dry definition and revealed its nature. The vocals weren't really operatic but classically trained: more Annie Haslam (Renaissance) than Aida. In fact, the musical motif developments made me think of Renaissance a lot. These songs are classically influenced but maybe they're more shaped by movie soundtrack sensibilities. This would make sense: in some ways, soundtrack music is the modern classical (think John Williams). The album had quite a few progressive rock elements, too, which blur the genre line: so is a band like Porcupine Tree a little bit metal or is Nightwish a prog-rock band? They both have some similar elements. If I had to pick key feature of all of this, it would have to be the extensive use of dynamics to build a mood and tell a sonic story, within songs and through the album.

The second track, The Kinslayer, is the song that triggered my prog-rock comparison. It has some very nice keyboard melody twinned with the guitar. This approach was used in a number of other songs, including the fourth cut, Wanderlust. Wanderlust sounded a lot like Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Wizards in Winter) to me. Wizards in Winter is the music you might have heard online, synched with incredible Christmas light displays.

Two For Tragedy (which I quoted above) is a great example of the similarities with modern soundtrack work. The music is slow and emotional , with crossing vocal parts. It builds in intensity, layering in instruments, culminating into a feeling of reflection in the aftermath of some overwhelming loss. This transitions into a faster paced, grindy orchestral sound in the title track, Wishmaster.

Tarja Turunen’s vocals are a rich soprano. She has a classically trained delivery that's a little odd in some of the more rock sounding tracks like Bare Grace Misery, but her voice is the defining element of the band for me. In a few places, they mix her vocal with a bit of a chorus effect and layer vocal takes together, so the impression is sort of an "Enya on steroids" kind of thing. Listen to the intro of Deep Silent Complete, for a great example (Two For Tragedy also has some of this element). This song was certainly my favorite track, but Dead Boy's Poem, with its spoken word sections, was also strong. Crownless rounds out my favorites from this album.

Overall, this is a very interesting album even for my non-metal ears. I was surprised that my wife (who's not much of a rock listener) also enjoyed Nightwish. I think this was probably because of the classical influences bringing in chordal complexity and strong dynamics that regular rock music misses out on.

I'm torn between recommending a strong, traditional mead (semi-sweet, light carbonation) or
something like Himbeergeist (a dry Raspberry schnapps). Either would stand up well to the music.