Saturday, February 16, 2019

Best Of 2018: Three Concerts

I only had a chance to write about a fraction of the live shows I saw last year. There were spectacular shows from the realm of rock by PalmBon Iver and Jonathan Wilson. Then there were contemporary classical performances at The Kitchen as part of the MATA Festival, by ACME in memory of Jóhann Jóhansson, a Red Bull-sponsored concert featuring the music of Tristan Perich (50 violins!) and a portrait of Du Yun at the Miller Theater. But there were several more moments of music in the dark that stuck with me. Here’s a brief selection that I hope will point you towards some of your own moments of transcendence. 

Killing Joke at Irving Plaza, Wednesday September 12, 2018

I’ll state this plainly: everyone should see Killing Joke. Just as everyone should experience the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, the canals of Venice, or the Grand Canyon, everyone should come face to face with this uncompromising band of brothers who put forth a sonic blast like no other. But good luck - when they come to NYC it’s typically for two nights at at Irving Plaza (capacity 1,200), which sell out months in advance. Well, pardon me for being among the converted when they came to preach during their 40th anniversary "Laugh At Your Peril" tour - a more generous man would have donated his ticket to the uninitiated!

Part of my impetus for going was that I hadn't seen them perform since 2007. Plus, their last album, Pylon from 2015, was among their best and I wanted to feel the physicality of those songs come towards me from the stage. Also - 40 years. How many other bands are still touring with their original lineup after all that time? 

Killing Joke
After an ambitious but ultimately forgettable opening set from PIG, the four men of Killing Joke - Jaz Coleman (vocals), Geordie (guitar), Youth (bass) and Big Paul Ferguson (drums) - took the stage along with a touring keyboard player and kicked the night off with Love Like Blood. By the time the colorful guitar arpeggios faded and they had barreled through European Super State and Autonomous Zone, it was obvious they were in top form. In some ways it was not unlike the last time, in 2007, with Geordie standing stock still, spraying notes and chords from his trademark Gibson ES-295, Youth slouching and plucking his bass seemingly without a care, Big Paul working his kit like a steam train stoker, and Jaz striking kabuki poses and pulling magnificent faces. But there was a lightness that was new, a joy in what they were doing, the glorious experience of craft and art overlapping, like a chair built by Picasso. 

The setlist stretched from 1980 to 2015 and, although the records occasionally trucked with the production whims of their eras, on this night it was as though that 35-year span pancaked into a continuum of urgency that remained at a white heat. I stood there and let it burn me, accepting that this might have been the last time I see Killing Joke. But I sure hope it isn't. And if they do happen to come around again, maybe I'll buy you a ticket so you can tell your grandchildren you saw one of the wonders of the world.

Summer Like The Season, Nnux, Elana Low at Sidewalk Café, Friday, November 9, 2018

Summer Like The Season (SLTS), a quartet from Detroit were both headliners and curators of this varied evening at Sidewalk, an East Village institution that just recently went under the renovator’s sledgehammer. Some may mourn, but if they can improve the awkward layout of the back room, where the music takes place, that will not be a bad thing. The sound was good, though, so hopefully they won’t fix what’s not broken. 

Elana Low started off the night, which confused me at first as she wasn’t in the information I had on the lineup. But I was instantly mesmerized by her harmonium and her honeyed, vibrato-free voice. Her songs, mostly original, found a fascinating intersection between folk songs of long ago and the immediacy of text threads between friends and lovers. At this point Low was still in her first year of music making, and seemed come an astonishing distance in that time. To prove to myself that she wasn’t an apparition, I went out to see her again about a month later at Pete’s Candy Store and she was even better!

Elana Low and Her Harmonium
None of the recordings on her SoundCloud quite do her bewitching work justice (Wolf Country comes closest), but I expect that to change when she releases her first EP later this year. In the meantime, follow her on all the socials, sign up for her extremely well-written and engaging newsletter, and try to get out to one of her upcoming concerts. Perhaps I’ll see you there. 

Next on the bill was Nnux, the project of Mexican singer and composer Ana Lopez-Réyes. I had prepped for the moment by listening to her 2017 EP, Distancia, which would definitely have been on my Best Of 2017: Electronic list had I heard it. On its three songs, Nnux stacks rich electronics up against acoustic brass and percussion creating a fresh synthesis of familiar elements. It would be a fascinating, immersive listen even if she hadn’t lavished her gorgeous voice all over the tracks. Based on the EP alone, which I played on repeat, I knew I was in the presence of an artist well along her way to making a wider impact. 
Her stage presence and performance did not disabuse me of that notion, either - it actually strengthened it. Fully in command of her keyboard and other electronics, Nnux unveiled one incantation after another, nearly expanding the walls of tiny Sidewalk with her power. She is a major talent and, if given the chance, I can see her at National Sawdust, Roulette, LPR - and beyond - in the near future. Given a community and more collaborators, there's no telling how far she could go. She has a bunch of local dates scheduled - get to one of them and tell me I'm wrong! Back in the present, I was already floored by Nnux and Low, and there was still one act left to go, the group I had come to see in the first place. 

I was amazed by how quickly SLTS set up their gear, shoehorning it all onto the small stage. This was the moment I had been waiting for ever since bandleader, singer and drummer Summer Krinsky has sent me their music, which I found immediately captivating. She counted it off and they launched into their set, immediately in sync with each other, tight, adventurous, surprising - always anchored by Krinsky’s drums, although they’re all excellent musicians. 

Summer Like the Season
The set was a total rush, with tricky rhythms, bright melodies, otherworldly harmonies and a variety of almost tactile sonic textures. Even if it was too short for my taste, I came away completely convinced that SLTS not only has the material for an album, but the chops to bring it out to the world in a much bigger way than a pass-the-hat venue like Sidewalk, although no shade on them for giving artists like this an opportunity. Having seen Crumb, a great band with some similarities to SLTS, pack the house at Market Hotel on the strength of just two EP’s, makes it all too easy to envision them doing the same. Perhaps Sidewalk’s hiatus will inspire all three acts to make the push to the next level. Either way, consider this an insider’s tip that it won’t always be pay-what-you-will to go on the musical journey I was lucky enough to take that Friday night in November, and one I would relive in a heartbeat. 

Steven Isserlis with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the 92nd Street Y, Sunday December 9th, 2018

I’m not going to lie: it has been decades since I walked into the wood-lined glory that is the Kaufmann Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y - and it may take me a few visits before it recedes into the background entirely. It is truly one of the gems of Manhattan, with a design that will never look dated, and an acoustic that is so rich and present that I had to convince two older gentlemen that there was no amplification at work. Kudos are also due to the leadership at the Y for keeping it in tip-top shape!

The afternoon began with the American premiere of Hans Rott’s Symphony for String Orchestra, No. 37. It only took 143 years for it to be played on these shores, but it could hardly have had a more persuasive introduction than what the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra delivered. Their conductor-free approach was just as fun to watch as when I saw them at Carnegie Hall with Dawn Upshaw in 1994. Rott was a roommate of Gustav Mahler's and a student of Anton Bruckner's and they both thought very highly of his work. On first listen, I felt that while it is certainly not a major work, it deserved to be heard, and knowing he was only 20 when he composed it relaxed my expectations. It also made for ideal Sunday listening, a mood which would continue with the next piece. 

You could create a 1,000 sprightly pop-folk songs from the melodic DNA of the outer movements of CPE Bach’s Cello Concerto in A Major H.439 - and the way Steven Isserlis tossed his silvery mane while playing them suggests he is more than aware! Not having seen him before, I could only assume his joy was genuine and I let it infect me. The Orpheus seemed slightly more dutiful, if as musically excellent as always, in their performance. 

But the real magic of CPE Bach’s writing here is in the slow movement, the Largo Maestoso, in which he seems to see the future, becoming daringly spare and employing some shifting harmonies over which Isserlis was free to go very deep, emotionally. I continued to think about it for the rest of the day. 

The concert closed with a true meeting of the minds: an arrangement of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, AKA Death & The Maiden, that was planned out by Gustav Mahler and completed by David Matthews. Mahler’s inspiration takes the work out of the drawing room and throws it up on an IMAX screen for a highly dramatic and visual approach to Schubert’s narratively driven music. Orpheus gave a superb, ripping performance, completing an afternoon that showed off that amazing hall to beautiful effect. I’m looking forward to returning!

P.S. No photos allowed (boo) so you’re going to have to see it for yourself!

What live shows transported you in 2018?

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: The Top 25
Best Of 2018: Classical
Best Of 2018: Electronic
Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB And Reggae

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