Friday, December 02, 2011

2011: The Year In Live, Part 1

With 2011 still ringing in my ears, and on the eve of my first concert of 2012 (Jonathan Wilson, Mercury Lounge, 1/19/12), here's the first rundown of live shows from last year.

Concert-going ran the full gamut this year, from a tribute to a legendary soprano to a world tour with a string quartet, and from psych-rock and folk-rock master classes to ear-splitting metal. Add some filthy hip hop and some twisted jazz and you would have a fair representation of my musical diet. Maybe in 2012 I'll hit all of those marks.

My daughter and I are The Two Live Crew - back for a repeat engagement in 2011.
At the Bon Iver concert, Prospect Park

The Return Of The Two Live Crew - River To River
We once again filled the summer with cornucopia of musical delights. I have already written extensively about the Brooklyn Rider concert we saw during the River To River Festival. That same organization gave us the opportunity to see Sean Lennon's Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger in full flower at South Street Seaport. While I have been his fan since Into The Sun in 1998, this recent project seemed to be getting by largely on the charm of Sean and Charlotte Kemp-Muhl, his partner in music and life, as evidenced in their, yes, charming appearance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. So I was not expecting the full-on psychedelic freak scene they brought to the little stage by the sea. While his solo albums have focused on his ravaged heart, the new songs are full of play and imagery. Sean is a stunning guitar player and his maniacal exertions were contrasted perfectly by Charlotte's effortless cool and precise bass playing. The three musicians who filled out the band were uniformly excellent. While the Acoustic Sessions album was pleasant enough, I can't wait for the full band album - although with their website two months out of date, I won't hold my breath... The opening act was the entertaining Blood Orange - when his first song ended I thought, "That's what I hoped Lightspeed Champion would sound like." Then I realized it was the same guy. His bedsit pop is punctuated by unexpectedly convincing guitar heroics, a great combination that doesn't quite come over on his album, Coastal Grooves. Worth a listen, but try to catch him live.

The Return Of The Two Live Crew, Pt. 2
Hannah and I also trekked out to Brooklyn for the Bon Iver experience in Prospect Park - and it is an experience to see Justin Vernon & Co. onstage. The large band gave the new songs an increased dynamic range that revealed their structural and emotional intricacies more effectively than the album versions. Vernon is a massive talent and although he seemed to give his all, sometimes heading for an emotional brink, I never worried about him, as he projected a grounded and healthy air. He's the real deal and I expect we'll have him around for awhile. He is also a generous musician, including his band and the audience fully in the proceedings. If you're a fan but found yourself somewhat confounded by the second album, catch the concert - it will all make more sense.

The Return Of The Two Live Crew Pts. 3-5
After summer 2010, Hannah and I were dyed in the wool fans of Tanglewood's Sunday morning chamber concerts. We managed to make it to three this year and were introduced to some amazing music. One concert included Fred Ho's Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball, a witty romp that was an entree into the world of an idiosyncratic and brave musician. We also had the privilege of attending an all-vocal concert that was a 90th birthday celebration for Phyllis Curtin. Appropriately enough, the concert opened with Britten's complex A Birthday Hansel, but soon moved into a wild array of exclusively American song, including a fantastic performance of Marc Blitzstein's poignantly brash The New Suit "Zipperfly" by bass David Salsbery Fry. YoonGeong Lee's take on Joseph Schwantner's Black Anemones was also unforgettable. And I doubt there was a dry eye to be found when the entire company sang The Promise of Living chorus from Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. I know I was tearing up watching Curtin's beaming face as the young singers performed. If you're in the Berkshires at all next summer, stop by Tanglewood at 10:00am on Sunday - you never know exactly what will happen but you know it will be wonderful!

The Return of The Two Live Crew: Encore!
Combining one of our favorite places (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) with one of our favorite activities (live music) seemed like a guaranteed good time and the New York Philharmonic's Contact! concert in December did not disappoint. Hosted by the ever-amazing John Schaefer, the show featured a world-premiere by young Brazilian composer Alexandre Lunsqui, a new classic by Magnus Lindberg and, the big piece of the night, H.K. Gruber's outrageous Frankenstein!! The Lunsqui piece was knotty but propulsive, with some cheeky references to his native Brazilian rhythms. Lindberg's choice of symphonic sections of woodwind and brass - as if "the other bus of musicians didn't arrive" - was an exploration of instrumental textures, but not in an academic way. Frankenstein!!, with its toy instruments, theatrical vocals and (admittedly somewhat dated) pop-culture obsessed poetry, is a unique work that deserves to be experienced at least once, especially with Gruber himself in the role of Chansonnier - although ring-leader might have been as apt a description.

Still to come: The Year In Live, Pt. 2

Did you take your kids to any concerts last year? Tell us about it!

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