Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We Are The 2 Live Crew: The Year In Live Music

Looking back on my year in live music, I realized that I was accompanied by my daughter, Hannah (11 in January 2010), to all five concerts I managed to get to. She will add her comments to mine.

The Nose - I have been a Shostakovich fanatic for decades so when I heard Valery Gergiev was leading a production of his rare opera (based on the Gogol novel) at the Met, with a production designed by William Kentridge, there was no way I was going to miss it. I took Hannah and one of her best friends and it lived up to every expectation I had - from the staggering stagecraft to Paul Bott's unforgettable lead performance, to the virtuosic orchestra, it was a blast from start to finish. Although Hannah has been to opera performances before, this was her first trip to the Met. Here's what she had to say: "This was a quality performance that had both great music and great humor."

Tanglewood x2 - Although getting to a chamber music concert at 10:00 am on a Sunday might seem painful, it was more than worth it. And the price was right - $11 for me and $0 for Hannah. They don't list the program on the website so we had no idea what we were going to hear. As we waited in our seats for the music to begin, I scanned through the program. I told Hannah she was in for a real treat - two pieces by Takemitsu, which meshed nicely with her interest in Japanese culture. Elliott Carter, Gabrieli, Hindemith and Strauss were also on the varied program. Day Signal opened the program, with the brass lined up on the balcony producing a creamy, otherworldly tone. It was absolutely captivating and the musicians, all students from around the world, were flawless. 

After Gabrieli's clever Canzone for 12 In Double Echo and Takemitsu's Night Signal, it was time for Carter's Tintinnabulation. This is a piece he wrote for untuned percussion - no xylophones sneaking a melody in - and it was deeply involving and theatrical to watch. The engagement with the materials - wood, metal, etc. - of each instrument was brilliant. Imagine our surprise when, during the ovation, the 102 year old Carter himself stood up to soak up the applause. Quite an experience. A few weeks later we went again and the standout was the fascinating Economy Of Wax by Nicholas Vines, which is part of a multi-composer series of works based on the work of Charles Darwin. If you're in the Berkshires on a summer weekend, set your alarm and treat yourself to one of these remarkable concerts. Hannah had this to say: "These concerts have such a variety of pieces and it was a good experience to meet some famous composers."

Burning Spear - It's been a tough year for reggae. With the deaths of both Sugar Minott and Gregory Isaacs, there are few legends out there, and even fewer still performing with the vigor of The Spear. Instead of coming from the hills of Jamaica, he came over the bridge from Queens for this a free concert in the River To River festival in Rockefeller Park. While there was admittedly some shtick to his act, his crack band's dubbed out jamming, his own conga playing and dancing and his still potent voice, conjured a mood of joy and contemplation as the sun set at our backs. I last saw him  about 25 years ago and he's scarcely lost a step. Here's what Hannah thought: "Great, both beautiful music and beautiful sound and the instruments were in good harmony with the vocals."

Waiting For Holly
Holly Miranda - Since the NY Times (!) directed me to her MySpace page, I have been nattering on about Holly Miranda to anyone who will listen and waiting for a chance to see her live. The chance finally came when she played the Prospect Park Bandshell (with Metric) so Hannah I trekked out to the old hood for the show. Although it was only a 45 minute set, she showcased her gorgeous voice, generous spirit (many invited friends joined her on stage) and dream-like song writing. Her band injected an angular energy into her music that countered the introverted sound of her recordings and made for a great live sound. Her cover of I'd Rather Go Blind, featuring a blistering solo by Kaki King, was a raw expression of her talent. Can't wait to see her as a headliner! This was Hannah's first rock concert - here's what she thought: "I love the way there were so many people on stage at once at times, it was great how good even small sounds sounded amazing with everything else."

The only live lowlight was the one show I didn't see - Belle and Sebastian at the Williamsburg Waterfront. Had my ticket for months but the threatening weather discouraged me from going. Having already survived a tornado on the Driscoll Bridge in NJ, I couldn't countenance tempting fate again. My sister and nephew went and said it was fantastic. Oh, well. B&S will remain on the short list of bands I need to see live, along with Radiohead, The Walkmen, TV On The Radio and a few others. 

Looking forward to hearing and seeing what 2011 brings for me and my intrepid concert companion - the 2 Live Crew!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Year In Disappointments

As the world begins to assemble top ten lists and look back over the year in music, I find myself thinking about those moments in the past 11 months where my excitement turned to disappointment upon hearing an anticipated record. 

1. Goldfrapp - Head First. After three wonderful records filled with high-impact analogue synths, whomping beats and gorgeous melodies, the duo took a breather with Seventh Tree in 2008. It brought acoustic sounds into the mix and, though controversial among some critics, it was a fine extension of their sound. It also made me curious to see where they would head on the next album. My anticipation was high enough that, if not for Lala (RIP - another disappointment!), I would have just bought it. So glad I didn't. One thing the world does not need is another tinny ABBA-influenced electro-pop record, even one featuring the gleaming soprano of Alison Goldfrapp. There was none of the roof-rattling power or hypnotic rhythms of their previous work. And now they've been nominated for two Grammy awards, which may only make it harder for them to find their artistic compass again.  

2. Efterklang - Magic Chairs. Their album Parades was a fascinating and precious discovery of 2007. It was modern chamber music married to a quirky pop aesthetic that seemed both completely Danish and completely otherworldly. Tripper, their debut, included some glitchy electro in the mix and was also beautiful if slightly unformed. Magic Chairs seems to be a bid for wider acceptance, with solo vocals pushed forward in place of the choral approach of their previous albums. The songs are more linear and spacious and, ultimately, more ordinary. Next!

3. The Album Leaf - A Chorus of Storytellers. While I might be somewhat lonely in my devotion to In A Safe Place, I am devoted. Like a stainless steel chair with warm wood accents, the music gleams with a high-tech surface surrounding an organic center, creating an experience that overlaps with both the best of Eno's ambient records and the enveloping folk of a Nick Drake. On the new album, Jimmy LaValle has put that chair in the closet and replaced it with one made entirely of plastic. Every beat of the bass drum intrudes like a Twinkie at Per Se and the songs are flat and lifeless.

4. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening. Swimming against the tide here. Sound Of Silver was simply fantastic - all of the best of James Murphy's many talents in one place - warmth, wit, barbed affection for, well, everything, and music that backed up all the attitude with melody and funk. This new one strikes me as simply a tired re-hash. I mean really - Drunk Girls? You Wanted A Hit? This is taking self-parody to a new low. And All I Want was a Bowie rip that showed how far Murphy needs to go in the studio to approach the mastery of a Tony Visconti or a Brian Eno. If this is indeed the last LCD album, it's a sorry way to go out.

Good to get that off my chest before discussing the best music of the year! 

Note: my best of the year lists will be coming between Christmas and New Year's. I realize that many lists are already out there but I would rather not make a final decision on what the best of the 2010 is while there are still weeks to go in the year. Cheers.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

One, Two, Three, Four, Cough.

Then came Revolver. I got it for my birthday the year after the three 45's that started my collection. This was obviously a different proposition entirely from the Tommy soundtrack. Here was an album that took you through moods and past musical milestones you didn't know existed, ending with the ever-astonishing Tomorrow Never Knows. TNK, as the Beatle geeks call it, is built on a rhythm Ringo must have heard in a dream, as there was no precedent for that beat in rock & roll. Jerry-rigged on top are all sorts of drones and backward instruments. Then comes Lennon's voice, sounding (as he requested) like the Dalai Lama preaching from a mountain top, singing about the end of the beginning. For me, it was the beginning of the end...a large part of my life became devoted to music.

A couple of other things I love about this record are that outrageous countdown and cough that lead into Taxman--talk about cojones. That song also features one of the most blistering guitar solos in the Beatles catalog. The solo is so brilliant they simply repeat it on the outro, as if to give you another chance to hear it. How amazing to learn that Paul was behind that stinging lead! And how generous of George to give him the spotlight the first and last time he was given the lead track on a Beatles album. It could have been Paul exercising his droit de seigneur but I like my idea better.

It would be many years before I would discover the British version of Revolver, which ups the factor of greatness by many times (Doctor Robert, I'm Only Sleeping - killer!), but nonetheless I was hooked on music and records forever. As soon as I was old enough, I began going to record stores as often as possible and amassing records at a torrid pace. Now I have hundreds of pieces of black plastic, shiny silver discs and mp3 files. Let's just say that my wife is VERY understanding!

What record sucked you in and made you a music fanatic? Does that music still fascinate you?

Next time: The year in disappointments.