24 April 2007

Review(s): Quadrangle

As I was saying... caught 4 shows last week, 2 on Wednesday and 2 on Thursday. Each represented a point on 4 different axes of disappointment. Not that they were all bad shows -- in the grand scheme of things, they were all good to some extent -- they just all found their way to disappoint me in some way. As such, I'm going to do my best to keep this short. A paragraph or two for each one. Picture free.

Bill Frisell Sextet, Village Vanguard, 18 April 2007 (early set)

I didn't necessarily plan on hitting this one, but the pick-up-sticks fell just right that I was able to eke this one in there before the regularly scheduled hit. It was Frisell's normal trio of Scherr + Wolleson with a horn section of Don Byron (reeds) and Ron Miles (coronet) with the bewitching violin of OTW favorite Jenny Scheinman. Sounds can't miss, right? Well, they missed. This was disappointment at its core: all star musicians play listless music for $35. Frisell has both blown me away and disappointed me in the past and the latter seems to happen when he's forced to direct a larger ensemble. I guess "direct" is being a little generous -- this set really suffered from Bill's lack of any taking-it-over gumption whatsoever. After a couple of tunes of what I would describe as jazz mumbling it was up to Jenny to take over. Maybe it's my pro-Scheinman bias, but she seemed to take it upon herself to make the music as enjoyable as possible. She carried the flag of the Frisell aesthetic better than Frisell himself and was as transcendent as I could have hoped. Byron who seemed so uninterested for the first part of the set actually had the proverbial fire lit under his ass by Jenny and rose to the occasion midway through. The pairing of his clarinet with Jenny's strings was an ethereal mix. Too bad it was few and far between. Miles was painfully bad -- can a trumpet be out of tune? There was a lack of professionalism (hey man, we're talkin' 'bout practice!) that was a bit upsetting. The Scherr/Wolleson combo tried in earnest and I would love to see a quartet with them, Jenny and Frisell sometime. Wait -- did I forget to mention Bill Frisell's awesome playing and otherworldly presence? No, no I did not. C+

Ratatat, Webster Hall, 18 April 2007

Well, if the music wasn't happening, at least I was in the zone travelwise. I actually hopped out of the Vanguard early and got to Webster in time to find a niche in the sold-out hipsterdome. Ratatat's 2006 release Classics was highly regarded by folks that matter... and by lil' ole me as well. Sweet, pure, well-crafted pop instrumentalism at its finest. Despite its deep, inherent goodness, it's one of those albums that you wonder about in the live setting. That's a certain kind of disappointment and I was aware I was setting myself up for it. Ratatat on stage is a weird mix: no drummer, all beats played by drum machine; a bass player who is in touch with his inner groove and lays it down sweet and simple; a guitar player who wore a faded AC/DC t-shirt and had "Eddie Van Halen wannabe" tattooed to his forehead; and the most-of-the-songs presence of a synthesizerist with strong birth-of-MTV level 80's influences. In the studio, these juxtapositions aren't felt too strongly -- the compositions and the production tie it all together in wrapping paper with a neat little bow: red, shiny and pleasant to the senses. On stage, you realize that it's not really songs that they've got but glorified hooks. The pieces are all there, but there's no talent to bring it together -- in lieu of wrapping paper, it's the classified ads from the free alt-weekly tempered with haphazardly placed Scotch tape. Each "song" was locked into the unchanging drum machine loop, said its piece and ended abruptly. Why they couldn't hire a drummer and go somewhere I have no idea. Hey, sometimes this worked and when the sweet melodies were allowed a chance to shine through, it was moderately enjoyable. The bass player was decent enough -- he knew his limits and his tone was lush and lovely, big bubbles of bassy goodness. The guitar player was woefully inadequate with his skills and yet so wildly overconfident in his playing. He wants so badly to shred and yet... and yet. The amazing thing is how nuts the crowd went for this. I mean, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't the end-all. There are 20 jambandy bands out there that can do instrumental music with equally refreshing hooks while also doing something incredibly interesting... or at least interesting. And yet, most of these dudes packing it into Webster Hall wouldn't give dem dudes a second look. Packaging, framing, context... it's amazing, but true. I was also annoyed at the Vanguard crowd for clapping some of the more crummy solos of the night. Polite is one thing, but c'mon! Maybe it's just me.... Ratatat's lights were pretty decent, though. Given the choice, might be best to stay home and listen to the album. B-

St. Vincent (+ John Vanderslice), Mercury Lounge, 19 April 2007

There were lots and lots of (potentially) amazing shows last week, but there was only one that I wasn't, no way no how, going to miss and that was St. Vincent. You may recall my love-at-first-sight experience with Annie Clark when I was caught unawares during her opening set for Midlake in February. This set was similar if not identical to that one in terms of what she played, how she sounded and how freakin' impressed I was from top to bottom. So you can go read that and get a good idea. Maybe the performance, on the whole, Thursday night wasn't quite that good, but it was, well, awesome. All I can say is: GO SEE ST. VINCENT, after these two sets and buying her EP and a track here or there that this is the one artist I'm really excited about these days. She won't be opening for anyone for long... you heard it here first. Full package: deft skills on the guitar, great voice, looks good (think Wynona Ryder), really, really funny, awesome songs/lyrics. I defy you to go make it through her set without a big smile appearing on your face... plus great for the ladies or your lady friend. Judging from the reaction of the crowd at the end of these sets, I'm not the only one either. Signed to a label, album coming out this summer, I'm psyched, et cetera. A-

I was going to slip out immediately following her opening set, even though I was intrigued by the idea of checking out John Vanderslice. As I was about to grab my coat, though, I noticed a cellist setting up and had one of those, "wait is that...?" moments. Erik Friedlander was on stage and apparently in the band -- it don't get any better than EF, so I had to stay for a bit, even if it meant missing a few Duo tunes. They got started on time, but Erik was sitting off in the corner of the stage -- he wasn't going to play the whole time and was waiting for his chance. The music was good, though. Vanderslice on guitar and vocals and a drummer who also manipulated some Moog and some loops and pedals and stuff -- very deftly, I might add (get with it Ratatat!). The songs are good, the voice is good, the playing is good, I have no complaints with JV, but there's nothing there that puts it over the edge for me. I kept making little rules: if Friedlander doesn't come on in the next song; 5 more minutes; etc. But finally after a good 20+ minutes of watching him sit there unmoving, I couldn't take it any more. Disappointment. But knowing that the degrees of separation between Marc Ribot and Annie Clark is now uno makes me happy, even if I didn't get to see it. B-

Benevento/Russo Duo, Knitting Factory, 19 April 2007 (late set)

This show was originally supposed to be at Tonic (which is now, no doubt about it, put Marc in jail closed). This was disappointing. I walked into the middle of an exploratory jamming Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was the first of many old school Duo tunes reworked for the special evening of acoustic drums and piano. Marco didn't play a grand piano which was also a bit weird, but opted for what I guess is an upright as well as a little toy piano and some xylophone. Joe stuck to the drums but pulled a Billy Martin with a table adjacent filled with a nice collection of rattly type percussion. While the set was totally jazzed up and the guys were in their usual zone, the mood was incredibly loose throughout. Banter and booziness and horned-up guests a sort of ad hoc thing going. Everything was marked by lots of improvisation where songs kind of melted together or fractured out of the same spot. It was warm and intimate and fun and I couldn't help thinking almost the entire time that it would have been such a perfect show for Tonic. What a disappointment. There were highlights for certain: Skerik playing an incredibly unique (best ever?) version of "Mephisto" that shed that build, build, build vibe for a more orthogonal adventure; acoustic versions of deeply electric music like "Play Pause Stop" and "Something for Rockets" (the latter of which was a very special realization of something already quite beautiful); Joe Russo playing the part of cyborg: inhuman beats with sick drumsticks (were they made of leather?) that kind of dulled down his beats while splattering them in dozens of tiny pulsating pieces; and of course everything else that was good or great or downright sick that I'm forgetting. There were also some muddled moments, where too many horns brought some unwelcome squishiness to the mix. My biggest problem was the sound in the room which, coupled with Marco playing a kind of lightweight piano tone made some of the more subtle interplay wash out into the Knit's unforgiving ether. Oh to be on Norfolk! It wasn't the Kobe beef filet I might have wanted, but make no mistake about it, though, this was a very special night, especially for the Duo obsessed. A night where the line at the edge of the stage, the one separating the musicians from the music-lovers, was completely imaginary. B+

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