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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Interview: Pete Pidgeon of Arcoda, part one

A relative newcomer to the Front Range, singer/songwriter Pete Pidgeon moved here from the busy New York music scene. In the few months he’s been here, he’s fallen into the local music community and also made strong connections on the business side. Part of what makes him fit in so well here is his earnest, engaging nature and his open stylistic approach that includes pop, Americana, jazz, and even some funk.

I had the chance to talk with Pidgeon at DazzleJazz club in Denver, before we both enjoyed listening to his Arcoda bandmate, pianist Adam Bodine, lead his jazz combo through a solid set.

This is part one of our conversation, which has been condensed and lightly edited.

100 Arcoda

How would you define your music, if you had to do it?

Pete Pidgeon: I usually say songwriting because that’s really the core of it. If you listen to Bob Marley or Paul Simon, or if you listen to Whitesnake, all of those bands are songwriting. It’s based on form and a verse-chorus and lyrics and all that kind of thing as opposed to jazz or jam band, which are mostly instrumental.

If you took Billy Joel, for example, he’s got a genre of songwriting, but his style changes from tune to tune. So, he can do a doo-wop '50s song and then he can play a straight out pop tune, and he can do piano ballads. He has these different styles within his own genre. So when you think Billy Joel, you think Billy Joel. You don’t think he’s a reggae guy and then he’s a world music guy

I think we - we meaning the band and myself; I write the tunes -- we sort of fall into that category. There’s a genre for the band, which is the umbrella of songs. I may write a song in a reggae style or an R&B style, but the genre is based on this verse-chorus type of organization.

I do hear a lot of different influences in your music. I can hear some some Phish on a few things. I can even hear a little bit of Moxy Fruvous. Certainly I get what you’re saying about songwriting because you have that kind of singer/songwriter stage presence. Listening to your songs, you tap into that to either tell a story or create a mood.

PP: No matter what the style is that you’re conveying, you can still get a similar message across. If you listen to Tesla’s albums, like their Five Man Acoustical Jam record and you break that down, it’s straight ahead songs. You think of them as a hair metal band or whatever, but really, if you strip all that stuff away, it’s just song forms. And part of the genre aspect of that was hair metal '80’s, but stylistically, they’re pretty much a songwriting band. Whether it’s disco or pop. It makes it more fun and more flexible as a musician to be able to do different stuff and keep it interesting and not be limited.

With the kind of eclectic sound that you have, do you think that’s it harder or easier for you?

PP: I think it’s 50-50, but in the long run, it’s easier. Because, for example, we could open for Leon Russel or Bonnie Raitt and do a stripped down show. We could do a straight ahead rock show because of songs like “Will” and “Whirlwind” and “She’s Right”. We could play a folk situation, like Newport Folk Festival or something like that. I could play solo acoustic. I just did that “Wharf Rat” performance for JamBase, for the GD (Grateful Dead) 50 “Songs of Their Own” series.

I saw that on YouTube.

PP: So, it gives me all these opportunities to do different things with different people and different areas of the field rather than being limited. If we were only a folk band, we can only play in that little niche. I also have so many songs at this point. I probably have 120, or 130 tunes that are completely finished, recorded, polished and everything. Within that set of a hundred or so tunes, say we do thirty on a gig, that gives me almost four or five complete sets of music that we can play in these different venues. If we did a show at Dazzle, I’ve got a jazz instrumental set. If we did a show at Cervantes or at OneUp, we have enough jam band style material that we can make that show a success and get people off.

You said that it was 50-50, though. What’s the downside?

PP: The downside is probably just when you book shows or when you’re asked to define yourself in very limited circumstances, you have to come up with a thing. Like with ReverbNation: they ask you to come up with your genre. I think currently our genre is Americana. That’s what the new record is for the most part. So, if we’re focusing on what’s one thing we are right now, I have to come up with a response and coming up with that response is sometimes difficult if I don’t have a defined situation. I think Americana is what we’re doing in 2015 and where we’re headed with the new record and everything, so it’s a little bit of an easier answer, but if you had asked me three years ago…we’re rock. I guess, because there’s no songwriting genre. Coming up with that definitive answer can be difficult at times.

Talking about the different kinds of gigs you say you can do, though, doesn't it make it harder to have an identity that you fans can connect to? Your fans have to work a little bit to figure out what is it that makes you their thing.

PP: I think that’s what is so great about Denver that’s not really present in a lot of other areas of the country is that the fans here will go to an EDM show one night, the next night they’ll go to a country show, then they’ll go to a folk show, they’ll go to a rock show, They’re almost tuned into accepting the eclecticism of these bands. So, here we’ve been very successful. We can do different styles of music and people aren’t going to say, “Oh, this isn’t what I thought you were.” And they’re not only accepting of it, but they like seeing that diversity. It makes it an interesting show. We’re not going to come out and play the same show every time. It’s always a different setlist, depending on who’s on the bill or what room we’re playing in. I think that’s probably our biggest asset. Because if you’re a hard rock band and you end up playing a rockabilly club, you’re kind of in trouble. But if we play Little Bear in Evergreen, for example, we’ll play rockabilly for two sets and people will love it.

So, what brought you to Colorado? You’re pretty much an East Coast guy -- New York and Connecticut.

PP: Yeah, I was born in Connecticut and then I spent a few years in New Jersey at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. Then I moved to New Paltz, NY, about an hour and a half north of Manhattan. It’s out in the woods. It was the hippie town of hippie towns in America when I was there, anyway, between ‘95 and 2000. I lived in a house called the cloud house, which was yellow when I lived there, but it used to have clouds and sky painted all over it like a Peter Max painting. It was like the San Francisco of the East Coast, but in very small, subtle town.

That’s where Arcoda started. I sort of made this band thing and tried to sort of congeal all of these ideas to one name and one direction. The lineup continually changed, but just having that idea of a band that’s a repository for all these songs that I’m writing. No matter who’s in the group, we’re going to do these songs and play out.

I graduated SUNY New Paltz with a Jazz Studies degree and then moved to Boston until the end of ‘07. That was a great time. From 2000 to ‘02, '03, there were a lot of great bands on the scene: The Slip, and Percy Hill, and Madison Project, and Uncle Sammy. There was this great vibe but then the dynamic of the town and the clubs changed and a lot of the bands broke up and the clubs started shutting down or being bought out by corporate companies and stuff. Then I moved to New York City, I lived in Brooklyn for three and a half years and that was great because it was the kick in the ass I wanted about just learning the hardcore business aspect of everything and getting to meet some of the big names and work with bigger people.

Unfortunately, the skyrocketing rent and ability to live in that town became impossible. So, I moved back home for a little while and back to Connecticut to sort of figure out what I was doing. I bounced between Millerton, NY and Canton, CT, and Boston for a couple of years, just trying to make some money and save up, figure out where I wanted to go. I did a lot of research. I had come to Denver in 1996 for the Phish concerts at Red Rocks. I thought it was amazing. It was just the coolest town and a great buzz. I knew I always wanted to get back here. Then I was the lighting director for The Slip in 2000 and we played the Gothic and the Fox on that run. Just incredible people, great vibe, great music scene. So, I knew some people out here. Eric Imbrosciano, who was one of the drummers in Arcoda back in the day, he ran the funk jam at the Armoury on Wednesdays. So, he brought me down there and introduced me to a bunch of people during the Phish concerts at Dick’s in 2014, Labor Day. So, I hung out here for a week and I loved it and I came out and it‘s been...It was the right move, it’s been amazing.

You mentioned the changing lineup for Arcoda. Did you come here alone and then build the current version?

PP: Right. The band I was playing with in North Hampton, Mass, they were some of the most talented young players in central Mass. Really, really good players and good people. The trouble was that there aren’t any paying gigs in central Mass. That whole scene is very difficult to get paid as a musician. We did a few gigs, but they weren’t paying much money, if any money, and they were getting a little frustrated that the bread wasn’t there, and I was getting frustrated because I was paying out of pocket and losing a whole bunch of money. So, I knew I had to get out of there and make a change and move. I just came out here and with Eric’s help, he introduced me a lot to the scene and I got my feet on the ground. Slowly but surely, I met all the musicians and found out the ones that would work.

I’ve seen you open for Atomga’s CD release party for Black Belt at the Bluebird [review] and then I saw your recent show headlining at the Fox [review]. I think you’re getting out and about well in the area. Does this feel like where you want to settle in for the duration?

PP: It blows my mind. A lot it has to do with the talent buyers here being human beings. Like Chris Peck and Jake Nixon for example, who do Z2 [Entertainment]. They had faith in the band and in myself. I’m not used to people either taking a chance or having faith in us. I have a great bio, of course, but in New York City, everyone has a great bio. So, I was used to this sort of brick wall mentality. Where I’m just beating this wall until my hands are bleeding. I’d say, “Look I’m good, I’m really good. I’ve played with these famous people and I’ve been at the Grammy Awards and I’ve done these great things.” They’re like, “So is everyone else who’s trying to apply here. So why are you any different?” Being out here, where people are actually receptive, that’s been the biggest difference. It makes me work harder as a performer to live up to their expectations. If they’re going to believe in me, then I’m going to work hard for them and try to make sure that they’re going to get their money’s worth out of it. It’s a great symbiotic relationship. I’ll definitely stick around for that.

It’s interesting to me to hear about a musician coming to our market with intention. Coming from a hothouse scene like New York, and then seeing your performance of “Just Like a Woman” at the Jeff Buckley tribute show - your cover of his version is just fantastic…

PP: Thanks.

Your phrasing and the emotion you brought to it was really sharp. It was his version, but you made it your own. I respect that.

But you were in that sort of crowded environment, where people can get discovered, so moving to Denver is surprising. There are a few bands out of Colorado that have moved up, but I’m not used to people coming here to do that.

PP: In general, if you have money in New York, you’ve got a great shot. If you can get a publicist that can hype every one of your shows and get you into big time media, then you’re probably going to do well, if you’re a good artist. But the hustle on the ground to get the gigs, to get paid for playing your gig, and then retain that audience for your next performance in a city where you have people playing at Madison Square Garden… You’re going up against Billy Joel, you’re going up against Phil Lesh and Friends, you’re going up against these major artists that are playing for tens of thousands of people. And it’s not just one venue, you have Barclays Center, all these huge spots. So, no matter what you’re doing, your competition is so enormous, it’s so hard to draw in New York.

By coming out here, you don’t have that overarching pressure where you have to be in the New York Times tomorrow in order to get anywhere. or if you’re not spending $4000 on a publicist, you can’t play and get gigs. There’s enough of a grassroots scene here. If you do hustle and work hard, you can get the fanbase energized and get people out to your show and get people out to the next show, which is the biggest hurdle. No matter how many people came out to that first show, if they can bring a friend to the next show, and you keep growing on it, that’s the whole point. I think that’s possible out here.

Also the venue sizes are manageable. There’s a ladder here that didn’t exist in Boston. In Boston, there are very few mid-range venues.  You skip right up to 4000 at House of Blues and even, the Paradise, which I think is 600 people, is a generously sized room, but it’s considered a lower tier room in that town. Getting from ground one to the Paradise, you might have Church, which I think is a couple of hundred people, a couple of venues. Two or three venues, literally, and then you skip right up to 600, then after that, you skip to 4000. The ladder’s all messed up. Out here, you can play the Walnut Room for a hundred and something people or the Armoury for one hundred, two hundred people. All these clubs, there’s so many options where you can get on at a certain level to get up to the next rung of two or three hundred people, and then you’re at the Bluebird for 500 people. and then 800 at the Boulder Theater, 1000 people at the Gothic.

It makes the business much easier. And it’s not as expensive a town, so I can pay my band, which I couldn’t really do out East, unless I was really taking a hit. Also, literally the fans. What blew me away on day one, was that the fanbase in Denver is so energized. They go out to shows on a Monday at midnight. You can go to a show and there’ll be 100 people there. Meadowlark jam on Tuesday night or the funk jam that I do at the Armoury every Wednesday, we get people out at midnight in the middle of the week and that does not happen in Boston. Because the fans here love going out, they love supporting music, seeing music, being part of the scene. That’s the number one reason I moved here. It’s got an energy to it.

How do you see this playing out? In your dreams, how do you want things to go from here?

PP: Considering that the Arcoda launch party was at the Walnut Room in February -- in a little more than four months, I’ve already done more than I expected to do in four or five years. I’ve played the Fillmore, I’ve played the Boulder Theater, Bluebird, headlined the Fox., I’ve worked with a bunch of great musicians in town. So, my expectations have not only been met, but exceeded through this period of four months.

I mentioned those recent shows, but I know you have also some busy weekends lined up. By the time this interview has posted, you’ll have played the Colorado Brewer’s Festival in Ft. Collins and Crested Butte later that same day.

PP: Yeah, the Brewer’s Festival, there will be 20,000 people. We’re playing the mainstage. We got offered to headline that festival, but because we’re playing Crested Butte, we have to play an earlier slot, but still, it’s a great opportunity.

And you’ve already got things lined up in July, too, right?

PP: We have the Bluebird District Music Festival. Going back to what I was saying about the talent buyers, Tony Mason and Drew Gottlieb have been really supportive of our band and believed in what we’re doing. they put us on the inaugural Bluebird District Music Festival, which a huge honor and we can’t appreciate that enough. We’ll work really hard for that. And we just got the direct support spot for Anders Osborne at the Breckenridge Brewery Hootenanny after-party at Cervantes. And we’re co-headlining the Rialto Theatre July 17 with Miles Lee Band. He’s a really good friend.

As far as goals go, though,  the next big goal that I want to do is play at Red Rocks. I’m trying to get into the Film on the Rocks clique and hopefully we can get a call on that someday. We have an album coming out, called All the Little Things, probably in October, which has Levon Helm from the Band on it and Chris Pandolfi from the [Infamous] Stringdusters, and Ryan Zoidis from Lettuce, who just sold out Red Rocks

We finish our conversation in part two of my interview with Pete Pidgeon of Arcoda

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What's cool? Mastodon, "Asleep in the Deep"

What a long, strange trip

Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds may have slipped his leash recently when he ranted about his hatred of heavy metal in an interview with Guitar Player. He's evidently been trying to overthrow the band from the inside for years, to make them into something "not such a heavy metal band." A quick listen to their latest single, "Asleep in the Deep" from last year's Once More 'Round the Sun shows that he's still got his work cut out for him.

The song has a fair amount of progressive rock influence, with rhythmic shifts, an interesting harmonic flow, and a trippy bridge interlude, but the band's metal credibility remains intact with offset guitar grind, restless bass throb, and a thickly shadowed vocal atmosphere.The lyrics paint a paranoid picture of threat, but ultimately seem to find victory against the dark miasma of fear. Maybe so, but the feeling is anything but joyful or confident.

As enjoyable as it is to settle into the Gothic embrace of "Asleep in the Deep", this showed up on my radar because of Mastodon's new surreal video for the tune, directed by the artist, Skinner. Think of it as the psychedelic response to the GoPro cat channel on YouTube. With his owner passed out on the couch, our feline hero splits in search of adventure. Almost immediately, he finds himself in a strange black-light zone, surrounded by a pack of bizarro cat-monkey puppets. And that's before the cat is dosed with some psychoactive milk. Then it gets a little strange...

This is definitely a treat, so sit back and enjoy:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Recording review - Bohannons, Black Cross, Black Shield (2015)

Missed connections and missing links


Did you ever have one of those first dates that started out so promising, but then left you checking your watch, waiting for it to be over? It's like the person could hold it together for the first five or six minutes, but no matter how intriguing and cool they seemed then, the rest of the evening had them unraveling until you wondered if that first impression was just a fluke. Maybe you even began to question your earlier enthusiasm. That's exactly where I find myself with Bohannons' Black Cross, Black Shield.

The title track starts out awesome, opening with a heavily compressed guitar riff joined shortly afterwards by a harmonized guitar in the foreground. The tone has the visceral slam of AC/DC, but with a mellower retro blues rock pace. The reverberating vocals line up quite nicely with that, giving me a good idea of what it might sound like if Mick Fleetwood fronted a Black Sabbath tribute band. The droning guitars and thick pentatonic riffs conjure up a raw intensity. The bridge turns to old school psychedelia, reminding me of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men", and I'm caught up in the hypnotic swirl of distorted guitars. The best part is that it keeps showing kaleidoscope flashes of almost recognizable riffs: a touch of "Iron Man" here, a smear of "Sister Ray" there.

So, six minutes in, I'm thinking this could be the start of something great and I settle in for more. The Bohannon brothers' twin guitar assault continues on "White Widow". The classic rock vamp at the start isn't as catchy as the first track, but the band still plows into the full sound with enthusiasm. The music is pretty decent and the lead near the end throws in some speedier runs, but the initial attraction is starting to fade, in large part because the lyrics can't hold the song together. They sing the lines with gusto, but it's hard to pull a linear theme from lines like, "Who's to say you're out of touch/ Just because you feel so much/ I just got born/ And then I died."

From here, the die is cast: the solid guitar work can never quite overcome the vague or repetitive lyrics. Bohannons slog through a string of hard hitting garage rock, but they never find the momentum that seemed so natural on the title track. Songs like "Dias de Los Muertos" or "Lightning and Thunder" plod along and never really deliver any satisfaction. The best of the lot, "Death and Texas", has a righteous Neil Young shred (in fact it's fairly derivative), but the platitudes about illness and loss offer little insight: "To watch you fade / Day by day / Has got me a little down on God / And his mysterious ways."

I toughed it out to the end, hoping I could salvage some of the magic of that initial taste. The final tune, "Red, White, Black and Pale",  is a doom-filled, apocalyptic vision but it doesn't measure up to anything Mike Doughty wrote for his recent ambitious musical, Revelation: A Rock Opera. So, no magic miracles to save the day. It's rare to turn so sharply from hot to cold on an album like this, and I began to doubt my memory. Was I suckered in somehow at the start or did Bohannons lead with an uncharacteristically strong tune? Unlike a disastrous date, there was an easy way to check the facts. I steeled myself, hit replay, and dove back into "Black Cross, Black Shield".

On the second listen, I still enjoyed the song's classic metal grind and dynamic pacing, but I also noticed some cracks in the facade. In particular, the similarity between the chorus and Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle", became impossible to ignore, even though the band cloaks it in wailing guitar tone. That revisit makes it easier for me to send Black Cross, Black Shield on its way with no regrets. It's not fundamentally flawed, but we're just not compatible after all.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Commentary: Unclear on the concept

Subliminal messages

It's all about the sound bite. Politics has developed to the point where major policies, political agendas, and complex issues are all boiled down to the simplest of phrases that no one could possibly argue with. If your guys says it, it's obviously right and the other guy's equally catchy battle cry can only be dismissed with cynicism about whether he actually means it. That race to the trivial catchphrase seems to work both ways, though. In particular, Songs like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" have been praised by politicos from both sides who can't seem to hear anything more than the anthemic chorus refrain. Both of these tunes in particular have struck a chord with people who never seem to have listened to the darkly critical words in the verses. Springsteen sang, "I'm ten years burning down the road/ Nowhere to run, ain't got no where to go," referring to the hypocrisy of how America treats it's soldiers and working people in general, and Ronald Reagan's team ignored all of that to focus on that soundbite chorus, even asking the Boss to endorse Reagan in '84. It did not go well.

Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" has had similar treatment. Even as he mocked George H.W. Bush directly with, "We got a thousand points of light/ For the homeless man/ We got a kinder, gentler/ Machine gun hand," neocons took the song as a celebration of capitalism's triumph over communism. The latest moron to miss the point was Donald Trump, who used the song for his entrance when he announced his 2016 presidential run on June 16. That led to Neil Young making the most unnecessary official statement denying a tie to Trumps campaign:
"Donald Trump was not authorized to use "Rockin' In The Free World" in his presidential candidacy announcement.  Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America."

Using either of these songs, or any other similar pieces should be a new litmus test for political fitness. Ignoring the main thrust of the lyrics just because a line in the chorus resonates is not just a sign of shallowness -- we are talking about politicians here -- it's a sign of poor judgment. We don't have much choice about whether to settle for the soundbite. We should cry foul, though, when the slogan undercuts itself.

As a service, here's the lyrics video version of "Rockin' in the Free World" to help Mr. Trump out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Concert review - Pete Pidgeon and Arcoda, with The Way Down Wanderers and Mama Magnolia

13 June 2015 (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)


Sometimes, I think the hardest thing about playing music professionally isn't the hours of rehearsal time, nor is it loading equipment in and out. It's certainly not standing up in front of an audience and baring your soul. No, the hardest thing is to get those people there in the first place. Each of the three acts playing this bill at the Fox managed to entice a small cadre of fans to turn out, but most only stayed for their one band, leaving a lot of space in the hall. The performers all took it in stride, making the best of it, but there's no denying that a bigger crowd would have fed the energy for the evening.

034 Mama Magnolia
Preparing for the show, I was already familiar with Arcoda's sound and I knew that the Way Down Wanderers were a bluegrass band, so that set some expectations for the line up. Since, I hadn't come across Mama Magnolia before, I assumed that they'd fit in with that: sort of folky, maybe a bit country or bluegrass. Seeing the horns on stage pretty much put that idea to rest, and when they jumped into a jazzy soul groove, I felt the pull.

001 Mama Magnolia
Despite the lazy sway on that first tune, it quickly became clear that the band was a crack squad of musicians. The horn punches fell perfectly into place and the solid rhythm section left plenty of room for ornamentation. Lead singer Megan Letts was great. Between songs, her stage presence was very unassuming but quietly confident. Before that first song began, she seemed a little mousy and shy, but it took no time to dispel that impression. Her vocal range was very dynamic as she dropped from full powered diva mode down into a softer emotional space, only to build the songs back up again. All the while, her gestures subtly supported the mood. During the instrumental breaks, she gave over to the music and danced along.

033 Mama Magnolia
Letts was a strong front woman, but she didn't eclipse the rest of the band. The horns got plenty of chances to step forward as the set developed. Carrie McCune's trumpet riffs were particularly sharp, but Sean Culliton did a fine job on sax, as well. Later in the set, the songs brought in more funk rhythms and Zachary Jackson pumped up the party with his sharp bass lines. The last song they played wrapped up with a cool vocal ending that segued into a dreamy floating interlude, building and subsiding as they looped through the changes. This is definitely a band to catch live; their versatility introduced a good range of sounds from danceable funk to pop R&B.

084 Way Down Wanderers
I never thought of Chicago as a haven for bluegrass pickers, but banjo player Ben Montalbano assured me that the city has a healthy, supportive scene, and it's diverse enough there that I'm willing to believe him. On their website, The Way Down Wanderers bill themselves as folk-Americana, but their set at the Fox was steeped in bluegrass, with a fair mix of modern folk and the occasional country twang. Instrumentation goes a long way towards setting that mood, with banjo, upright bass, and a tag-team fiddle and mandolin combo.

059 Way Down Wanderers
But more than that, the vocal stylings and tight harmonies were right on target. Guitarist Austin Thompson had a Dylanesque sound, reedy and nasal, but blending with the others, he could push the songs into that high-lonesome zone. It turns out that most of the band's front line could sing, and the vocal trade-offs meant that each of them got to share lead singing duties.

072 Way Down Wanderers
The Way Down Wanderers had a relaxed, friendly stage presence and a genuineness that resonated with the audience. Even though the venue was far from packed, the band had been out earlier at the farmers' market and had generated some local interest, including a group of Chicago transplants that were happy to reconnect with their home town. The music stayed fairly upbeat and the crowd caught the rhythm and moved along.

085 Way Down Wanderers
The playing was topnotch, but Collin Krause was the most impressive as he alternated between mandolin and fiddle. At one point, the band dropped out to give him some room and he tore it up on the mando, tossing off lightning fast runs as he developed his motif. When he hit his final note, there was just the briefest pause and then the song began with a vengeance as the whole band launched into the changes that Krause had just laid out. Krause may have stood out the most, but the rest of the band were no slackers.

061 Way Down Wanderers
The Way Down Wanderers hit most of the songs on their new EP, Wellspring, Of these, my favorite was "Burn This City". Although the banjo and mando tied it to their core sound, they pushed the folky sound of the recorded version into a darker rock direction, driving to a speedy thrash ending that had the audience jumping along. "Circles" was a close second, drawing on a host of comfortable, familiar sounds like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Ryan Adams' folkier material.

082 Way Down Wanderers
Within the relaxed bounds of folk-grass playing, the band still managed a number of nice unexpected treats, including a couple of surprising covers. The first was a treatment of "Someday" by the Strokes. A couple of tunes later, they introduced "a very sentimental tune," which turned out to be their ripping version of "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5. The audience played their part and sang along. The band wrapped up their set with a strong take on the old standard, "I'm Sitting On Top of the World". The Way Down Wanderers' version was fairly peppy, taking it home with a big bluesy ending that tipped it's hat to Cream's reworking of the tune.

131 Arcoda
After seeing Pete Pidgeon and his band open last week's show for Atomga, I was excited to catch them as headliners. Where they were an outlier on the bill at that show, this time Arcoda straddled the two opening acts. Their retro 70's vibe and Pidgeon's soulful vocals fit with Mama Magnolia's work, and the main folky/Americana thrust was in line with the Way Down Wanderers' approach. As a bonus, the mix was a lot clearer, making it easier to hear everybody's parts. Both Pidgeon and keyboard player Adam Bodine had great lead chops and this time I could pick out both instruments.

108 Arcoda
It was probably coincidental, but as Arcoda were completing their setup, the house music came around to a jazzy arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing". This provided a perfect segue for a very relaxed start. Pidgeon improvised along with the house music as they were getting their levels set, and then the band sidled into their first real song, playing some spacy, amorphous changes that fit well with Pidgeon's earlier noodling. The meandering keyboards and gentle swells contributed to a trippy groove before it coalesced into a soulful singer-songwriter arrangement, but still with a loose jam band vibe. That made the impact of the tight punches and breaks more powerful when they came.

100 Arcoda
My first impression last week was that Pidgeon seemed fit to channel one of those early '70s folk-rock bands, but this show expanded on that with a wider range of material. Arcoda brought in some jazzier rhythms and retro tones that, along with Bodine's keyboard work and the band's polished arrangements, were very reminiscent of Boz Scaggs and also of Rickie Lee Jones. Pidgeon's voice was flexible enough to support all that and more. His ballads were especially nice. On "Growing Pains", his singing anchored the sweet, wistful music with a grownup wisdom and depth.

154 Arcoda
While the band did a fine job on their own, the evening included a couple of guest appearances that really deserved a bigger audience. Soul singer Dechen Hawk joined the band for a tune, and his voice was a perfect match for Bodine's Leon Russell style playing. Hawk and Pidgeon turned out to be birds of a feather, reinforcing one another and finding the emotional heart of the song. Later, local guitarist Peter Stelling sat in and added some great leads on his classic Gibson SG. In both these cases, Arcoda created a good match between their song selection and the guest artist, showing everyone off to their best effect.

204 Arcoda
I'm not all that familiar with the band's originals yet, but there were two songs that really jumped out the most for me, maybe because they pushed the band to test their technical ability and generate some excitement at the same time. The first of these was "The Wind and the Lover", a funky number that could have been an outtake from Frank Zappa's Over-Nite Sensation. Bass player Nate Marsh locked in with Pidgeon on the tag riff and then settled into a foot-stomping, gut-bucket bassline. Jared Forqueran contributed to the fun with some wicked drum fills that made the chorus snap. The other high point was near the end of the set; it must have been the next to last song. I didn't get a title for it, but it was a jam band instrumental that started out jazzy, but developed into a monster tune that reminded me of Jeff Beck. While everyone stretched out here, Pidgeon's guitar work was the star attraction. Despite the late night and the poor attendance, this was an ecstatic celebration of shred.

134 Arcoda
I'm sure the band would have appreciated a better turnout, but no one in the hall could complain about Arcoda's performance. Like professionals, they played like it was a sold-out show and they challenged us to be an audience worthy of that experience.

109 Arcoda

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Recording review - Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)

Music vs. narrative: take your pick


Context is often the key to appreciation. I prefer to approach new music with as little baggage as possible, so I came to Steven Wilson's Hand. Cannot. Erase. as a blank slate, ready to see where it led me. His music usually has an ambiance that is best experienced without any preconceived notions. This time, though, I had a hard time getting a grasp on the album; I couldn't find the context. The bigger, more progressive moments were beautiful and moving, but the first two tracks seemed emblematic of the project as a whole. There was a discontinuity between the slow fade-in amorphousness of the first piece and the dynamic expansion of the song that followed.

Normally, Wilson helps his listeners keep that tabula rasa mindset by offering little commentary about his music. Even though he isn't too fond of putting his work under a microscope, this time he’s had several interviews where he’s discussed the story of Joyce Carol Vincent that inspired Hand. Cannot. Erase. She was a young woman who dropped away from her friends and family sometime around 2000. What made this newsworthy is that she died in her London apartment in 2003, but her body wasn't discovered until 2006. Wilson came across the documentary/drama, Dreams of a Life and found both the movie and the real story compelling.

It's a good starting point for a concept album: aside from the poignant ending, there's a fundamental mystery that gives an artist room to speculate and expand upon. Fittingly, the songs on Hand. Cannot. Erase. are fairly indirect, offering their own oblique signals as they outline the woman's gradual abdication from her community, punctuated by kernels of loss and pain. Wilson doesn’t tie himself to the details, but steps into his own parallel narrative. For example, his ending expands on a minor factual detail to suggest a final hope for reconnection that comes too late. With a freer hand, he positions his character at the center of a self-imposed conflict. The songs are full of ambivalence, sometimes repurposing or reframing the same words to offer cross meanings. The music is similarly hard to pin down. Sparse simplicity lurches into stormy surges of emotion, and electronic elements are juxtaposed against warm analog instruments.

Knowing the inspiration clarifies things a bit, but ultimately, it’s not quite enough.The larger musical gestures like “Ancestral” fall outside the project's conceptual arc because their scale dwarfs the delicacy of the story. It’s a tough trap for Wilson to avoid. The indirect approach lets him leave room for interpretation, but that subtlety can't compete with the scope of his musical expressiveness. If that’s the downside, the upside is that he is continuing his creative growth and expanding his palette by integrating more sampling and electronic sounds as well as bringing in a female singer, Ninet Tayeb, to represent his lead character.

The album starts slow and thoughtful, but the second, longer track, “Three Years Older”, picks up the pace with the energy of The Who spliced with flashes of Rush. The instrumental section spins out for a solid three minutes before the first words come in. The song is effectively an overture prologue that sets the stage for the album’s story. Wilson sings with a gentle sympathy, sketching out a chain of disengagement that, by the end, suggests a suicidal solution. Once the vocals are out of the way, the remaining three minutes launch into a series of diverse themes that range from pensive introspection to a frantic King Crimson style break. These sections try to bridge the polar ends of his character’s solitude and her seething social anxiety.

The music is a good reflection of Wilson’s usual style, and the.loneliness is clear, but the roiling emotion feels out of proportion. Later, “Home Invasion” and “Ancestral” will evoke a similar reaction: the music is among his strongest writing, but they seem tied to his own perspective rather than relating to the tale he’s trying to tell. Despite the tenuous connection to the album’s narrative arc, “Ancestral” turned out to be my favorite track on Hand. Cannot. Erase. The rich textures swing through extremes, from the sparse beat and brooding guitar at the start, accented by a jazzy flute, to the fluid, expressive post-rock shred on the solo. A mix of old and contemporary influences adds to the melange, creating a blend of Radiohead with Gentle Giant.

Even if the album has trouble balancing its song arrangements with the narrative, Wilson has done a good job of echoing the unknowns of Vincent’s life with lyrics that hinge on ambiguity. On the title track, “Hand cannot erase this love,” is an assertion of connectedness, but there’s also an undertone of co-dependence and a hint of domestic violence. On “Transience”, the line, “It’s only the start” initially seems optimistic, but then it turns around to represent the dark fate that’s coming. If there’s a moral here at all, it’s tied to how we should understand Vincent’s life choices. There’s a fundamental paradox: it seems she chose this path as a coping mechanism in reaction to social pressure and disappointment, but ultimately it led to her destruction as she faded from life and memory.

Wilson succeeds at using the bare bones of Vincent’s story to explore the nuances of this conflict. At the same time, his music writing and performance are as strong as ever. I just wish I didn’t have to pick between the two when I listen to Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Concert review - Atomga CD release party with openers

6 June 2015 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)


Concert lineups often make for strange bedfellows, but honestly, how many African-influenced, horn-intensive dance bands are knocking around Denver for Atomga to partner with? Okay, there are probably a few, but this bill opted for a potpourri of acts to build up the energy. For the most part, this worked out well. Atomga drew a big, supportive crowd, happy to move to the music. They've just released their new album, Black Belt, this week and this was a first chance for many of us to hear these songs live.

The Bluebird was an intimate setting for the show. The stage was a little cramped with band equipment and personnel, but the band transitions went fairly smoothly and quickly. Throughout the course of the evening, though, the mixes were far from ideal. The instrumental balance for the first two acts left some of the players seeming superfluous because their parts were so hard to pick out. Also the vocals were a bit muddy and indistinct for everybody. The audience had no trouble hearing the beat, though, and moving along.

013 Arcoda
Arcoda might have seemed like the odd band out: their retro-tuned Americana didn't have any horns and they only had a paltry four members. All true, but Pete Pidgeon and his group proved to be the perfect aperitif for the night. Pidgeon looks like he should be heading up one of those early '70s California rock bands, like the Eagles. Their set didn't settle for a peaceful, easy feeling, though. While the first song was relatively laid back, his cover of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" got things going with a tempo that was more upbeat than the live Rolling Thunder Revue version. Adam Revell's keyboard work recalled Billy Preston's soulful accompaniment, giving the tune a funky drive. Pidgeon's tight pedal tone guitar lines were buried in the mix, especially by the fat punch of the drums, but when they shone through, they sounded great.

016 Arcoda
The band largely deferred to Pidgeon, letting his expressive presence take center stage, and he had the confident spark to own it. Aside from that Dylan cover, most of the material seemed to be original, and Pidgeon inhabited the songs. As he and Arcoda deftly handled the dynamic musical shifts, his body language choreographed the intensity of the songs. Even though this was a very different groove than we'd hear for the rest of the night, the band's tunes did find enough funky rhythms to fit in, even when they shifted into a more modern indie rock style. I look forward to catching these guys at another show. I know they're playing at the Fox in Boulder next weekend.

021 Human Agency
On the surface, Human Agency should have been a smoother fit on the bill. Unlike Arcoda, they had a horn section and their heavy drum beats tapped into a dance friendly space. Unfortunately, their set never really gelled and they lacked the stage presence to engage the audience. To be fair, it turns out that this isn't really the group's usual milieu; normally, they're an electronic dance trio with a pair of DJ/sound engineers and a live drummer. In that world, the shoegaze focus on the equipment would be perfectly fine. Incorporating the brass and a guest guitarist for this show provided some protective coloration, but the amorphous repetition couldn't hide that they were out of their element.

027 Human Agency
The side players integrated in fairly well, responding to signals so breaks and endings were tightly synched, but there wasn't enough structure to suggest more than just some horns jamming along to a pre-recorded backing track. The muddy mix did them no favors; the turntablist may have had more technique than a transformer scratch and a bit of chopping, but it was impossible to tell. Even the horns alternated between blaring and anemic. The drums were the only instrument that consistently stood out. The good news is that Jonas Otto was a phenomenal player. Locked into his own world with eyes shut and headphones tight, he nonetheless nailed every tag and dismount.

032 Human Agency
Listening to Human Agency's Soundcloud page, they do have some decent tracks. I recognized some of "Half Plug" from the show, but the recording had nuances that we couldn't begin to hear at the Bluebird. They did provide a buffer between Pete Pidgeon's set and the horn heavy sound later, but it proved to be more filler than filling.

061 DBRS
About five minutes into Dirty Bourbon River Show's set, I realized I was face to face with my newest performance nightmare: the thought of having to walk on stage after this band and their madcap circus dance music. Aside from being great players, all of these guys are very visual, with the king of the crew being frontman Noah Adams. Adams had a thick, scary beard that three mountain men could easily timeshare, but he was also one of the most electric performers I've seen in quite a while. His sense of showmanship and magnetic personality were almost unnerving. While he mostly played keyboards, he had a couple of surprises up his sleeve. including a pocket trumpet and a miniature soprano trombone, so we were never sure what else he might do. He and the band knew how to work the crowd up and manage their energy.

058 DBRS
DBRS opened with the Eastern European gypsy jazz of their song, "Wolfman" and Adams embodied the character, taunting and challenging the crowd. This was a strong start, but he showed that he could bring that same intensity to a more serious tune on the drag blues of "Esmerelda" from their recent album, Important Things Humans Should Know. As the band wound their way from these sounds through Dixieland turns to funky grooves, the overall sense was a mix of Dark Carnival and danceable funk. Several times during their set, a couple of the players referenced "Entry of Gladiators" in their solos to cement that sense -- if you imagine a circus song, that's almost certainly the one you're thinking of -- but, despite the sardonic humor, DBRS was no novelty act.

073 DBRS
Instead, they're like a high quality party band pumped up to Major League level, but leavened with just the right amount of quirky weirdness to keep the audience off balanced and intrigued. Adam's rough growl was more than balanced by backing vocalist Sandra Love, who drifted on and off stage to add her seductively soulful voice as needed. Regardless of who was singing, though, DBRS was always swinging. The crowd's dancing and cheers were all the encouragement the band needed.

043 DBRS
As much as I enjoyed Adams' musical romps from keys to accordion to trumpet, I was most impressed with their boss of the bottom end, Jimmy Williams. Williams divided his time between the electric bass and the sousaphone (and a one-off flute line). At one point, he muscled his way through a tight walking run of 16th notes on the sousaphone, maintaining the rolling rumble of bass notes without missing a beat or looking out of breath. Given that the band is from New Orleans and this was in the Mile High City, that was an impressive feat!

053 DBRS
At the end of their set, after the flashy drum solo on a full kit and extension ladder, DBRS finally took it home with their last song, but even then, they sprung a twist. They dragged out the ending with a final loose meandering riff that suddenly transformed into a quick reprise of their opening tune. Adams is indeed the Wolfman, and we cannot stop him.

089 Atomga
A lesser band might have worried about being upstaged by Dirty Bourbon River Show's manic set, but Atomga was unflappable as they set up for their turn. They were clearly excited to deliver the goods to the nearly sold out house. Everyone found their position on the darkened stage and, after a brief amount of preparation, a simple horn line coalesced into a steady vamp with everyone falling into place. In standard Afrobeat fashion, they took the time to assemble and set that groove until it became a foundation for wider exploration. This was actually a good model for the show as a whole, because the first several songs stayed on familiar ground before the group started digging into their new material.

106 Atomga
By the second tune -- "Empire", from their eponymous EP -- Atomga were playing wholly in the moment, finding that shared space were everything just flowed: Frank Roddy's hand offs to Leah Concialdi's baritone sax were effortless and natural, singer Kendra Kreie's voice was soulful with an iron core, and the drums and percussionists toyed with syncopation, inciting the crowd to movement. It's hard to identify the exact moment that it happens in a given show, but there's always a tipping point where it's not just music, but an invitation to hypnotic, ecstatic dance.

097 Atomga
Atomga's dedication to the groove and to the joy of their music eliminated any sense of competition with DBRS or any of the other acts. As always, it's a treat to witness the band's interdependent yin-yang aesthetic: their arrangements are tightly coordinated, but it's just as important to them to have fun up there and leave room for improvisation. Roddy and Concialdi were focal points, as usual, but everyone in the band brought their own zest to the show, whether it was Alice Hansen's energetic trumpet riffs, Casey Hrdlicka ripping through a wah-wah driven minor key solo, or Peter Mouser's classic psychedelic organ work.

094 Atomga
Everybody pulled their weight, but if there was an MVP for the night, it was Samual Lafalce on bass, who was amazing. Apparently in honor of the title of the new album, he wore a karate gi and black belt. Although he stuck to the back line, he put on his own show, mugging for the crowd with a melodramatic scowl (and twinkling eyes) and hamming it up with rock star poses. His campy pantomime was eye-catching, but it was even better to surrender to his expertly fashioned bass lines that locked into fine-tolerance perfection. His playing was central to setting up the backdrop for the rest of the band to work against, especially on the new tunes.

082 Atomga
Speaking of the new album, the setlist included some real gems that I'm looking forward to hearing again. I think my favorite was "Sly Devil", which set up a kind of reggae groove with Hrdlicka's guitar swaying through the chords rather than hitting a straight chank. Lafalce's bass provided a subtle bounce as Roddy's lazy, meandering sax work wound over the beat, but really everybody had the chance to contribute key elements to the intricately assembled whole. Kreie's vocal line reflected the relaxed mood of the sax groove, but the challenging vocal mix made it hard to catch the lyrics in detail. What I could discern sounded political in a similar vein to "Empire".

080 Atomga
Aside from all the musical fun, Atomga also celebrated Black Belt's release with their own party clowns for this show. Their "bubble brigade" filled the hall and they also tossed inflatable beach ball creatures out into the crowd. The only thing missing from this baby shower was a diaper cake. Check back here soon for a full length review of Black Belt, but in the meantime, if you get the chance to catch Atomga, jump on it: they continue to be one of the best live acts in Denver.

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More photos on my Flickr. Also Black Belt is available on Atomga's bandcamp page.