Jenny Scheinman, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade @ The Village Vanguard

Well, it was quite a week for live music.  There are a lot of things that can be substituted or forgotten.  If you wanted, you could get away with never speaking another word to another human being.  Never read an actual bound book.  Forget seeing a movie in a theater.  But there is no substitute for live music.

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The week came to an end with Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, and Jenny Scheinman at The Village Vanguard.  Well, it was Thursday, but who’s counting.  The Vanguard is a NY institution, that looks nearly exactly as it did in its heyday.  Every legend of jazz has played there, and the more spiritual among us like to imagine that there is a little spirit of those left behind.

It was a fitting week to visit, as Paul Motian had just passed away, the Vanguard was his home for the last few years, and Frisell was a member of his long running trio with Joe Lovano (who else would have the balls to have a trio with sax, drums, and guitar??)

One of my favorite shows of all time was the Brian Blade Fellowship at this venue a few years back.  I couldn’t see a thing (which happens if you sit anywhere except the very front) but it made no difference.  Everyone in the venue was straining their necks to see what Blade was up to behind the vast array of musicians on that tiny stage.  This evening was a little easier, there were only 2 other up there.

The set was less experimental than you would imagine.  Frisell had his pedal board, some looping devices, probably a magic pedal that allows him to play a Statocaster at the Village Vanguard and not look ridiculous doing so…and probably not a Boss Metal Zone.  Scheinman was leading the band, playing most of the melody, but in truth, you can’t have Brian Blade on a stage and expect him not to be the focus.

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It’s not even through showmanship or excessive display of chops.  Blade could probably play just a ride cymbal with a broomstick and most of us would have been captivated.  The man has something most do not.  It goes beyond time.  Its not speed, or some Dave Weckl-esque shit, he’s just operating on a level different from the rest of us.  I commented to my friend that this is what Elvin Jones must have sounded like at the Vanguard.  You can see everything he’s doing – he’s using the same tools available to anyone else.  But he’s just extracting something different from them.  He’s from New Orleans, let’s call it Voodoo.

This week it will continue, at a much more relaxed pace, with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, also Peter Lugers steak, and while that is not music, it is certainly worth noting.

Ryan Adams Dec 6th 2011 at Carnegie Hall Review

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I consider myself a man of science.  Not an active practitioner of science, but certainly an enthusiast.  (this basically means when Planet Earth or NOVA is on, you know where I’ll be.)  But some things defy common knowledge.  I was thinking of my old friend Eric yesterday, a bass player in a former band, and all around unique character.  We hadn’t spoken in nearly 2 years, he’s not on Facebook, I figured he dropped off the map.

That evening, I’m walking home from purchasing a synth in the most sketchy craigslist transaction of all time (and thats saying a lot) it’s pouring rain, and my phone rings.  Its Eric.  How do these things happen?  These weird little experiences happen to all of us, lets get someone to fund some research on this shit.  Anyway, he asks “Want to see Ryan Adams tonight? I have a free extra”  To that there is only one response  “Is he performing as his Rap and/or Metal alterego?”  If the answer to that question is “No” then the followup response is “Yes, of course”

This is the only pic from the night you get, I'm not loading up the post with shit like this
This is the only pic from the night you get, I'm not loading up the post with shit like this

I tried to get tickets to this event initially, it sold out very quickly, and was very expensive.  Its strange how things like that work out sometimes.  I have had 3 live experiences with Ryan Adams in my life.  First, he played a Bob Dylan tribute at Lincoln Center, and lit the venue ablaze with a cover of “Isis.”  Next, I met him in a Deli, told him I enjoyed the “Isis” cover, to which he was very nice and responsive.  Finally, I saw The Cardinals at Town Hall.  Adams came out in giant leather moon boots, with a little ponytail on top of his head, and played a very long set of what sounded like Grateful Dead covers, lots of solos…we had to take a break.

This tour seemed a little different, Adams was performing solo acoustic, he had taken time off from music for the last year, he had cleaned himself up, it’s worth a shot.  I haven’t heard much of his new album, a friend commented “it almost seems too easy for him, like he just wakes up and writes 45 fairly decent songs”  You definitely get that vibe.  None of his songs are hideous, but only a few are truly great.  I won’t go into a full on “Heartbreaker vs the 297 albums that came after” analysis, but you know what I’m getting at.

Adams came out, picked up his red white and blue guitar, and went into “Oh My Sweet Carolina”  Things were pretty much all good from there out.  While I was up in the nosebleeds, Carnegie hall is a beautiful sounding venue, made for music like this.  You could hear every quiet note, the natural sound of the room enhancing everything.

The show was not without its signature Ryan Adams banter, calling out various photographers “thanks for bringing your camera from 1981, do you have to change the flashbulb after each shot?” Commenting on the snakes in the balcony (one dude kept shushing everyone who clapped at parts of a song) and creating several on the spot songs – One woman yelled “That was beautiful!” he responded “did you say Howard Is Beautiful?”  a full song about Howard being beautiful followed.  Apparently Howard gets all the Apple products first, and controls inter-dimensional force fields.

The highlight of the show was unexpected.  We heard all the hits, “Winding Wheel”  “Come Pick Me Up” all that, but I was blown away by “New York, New York”  Played on piano rather than guitar, and slowed down a whole bunch, it just got to the heart of the song.  It bypassed the sax solo and conga parts that made it the pop song it was, and stood up completely on its own.  You got the feeling that when Adams is at the top of his songwriting game, he taps into some magical shit.  How many others could hold the attention of a venue like that completely on their own?  It’s almost as if you could see these mythical women he writes about, a cartoon version of all his famous exes combined, 14 feet talk, swinging one of those spikey ball chains from fantasy thriller movies.

We did get a cover of RATT’s “Round and Round” and a closing number thanking everyone, including C&C Music Factory, a running joke throughout the evening.  So until he puts out 16 albums in a row about space travel, or decides to write a series of novels about a sea captain trapped in a worm hole with Tom Brokaw, I’m confident in saying, he can still perform a serious show.

Jeff Mangum Review, Jersey City, 11/6/2011 ….or In An Aeroplane Over The PATH

Jeff Mangum is a mysterious character. A front man for a band who disappeared just as he was receiving critical acclaim. Vanishing into the woods to hunt the last remaining American Bison while youngins the world over reflect on the beauty of his lyrics. I completely made that up, I think it was moose he went to hunt. But the rest is true.

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How many songwriters have written the elusive perfect album? In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is one of those. It sounds like it could have been a psychedelic concept album in the late 60’s. A mix of “We’re Only In It For The Money” and something by an alternate universe Neil Young. I’ll admit I came very late to the party, only learning about Neutral Milk Hotel a few years ago, but that makes it no less powerful. (Maybe it makes it MORE powerful, ever think of that? Eh?? DID YOU?! Ok, on we go.)

It was announced about 8 months ago that Mangum would do a series of solo acoustic shows, including one at the greatest venue on earth, the Loews Landmark Theater in Journal Square, Jersey City. This blog may be filled with sarcasm, but that statement is 100% sincere. I lived in Journal Square, the cultural center of the known universe, for several years. We had the chance to see Beck, The Magnetic Fields, The Decemberists, and a ton of classic movies at the Loews, and it never disappointed. If Dracula suddenly appeared in one of the dark imposingly giant boxes beside the stage, no one would be surprised.

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Seeing iconic figures after years of absence is always a tricky proposition. Someone who’s songs meant so much to so many, has a lot to live up to. What if he just plain doesn’t have it anymore? There are a lot of long notes in those songs…What if it’s just a money grab and he doesn’t really care? (solo acoustic….you’ve got NO overhead man, rake in the dollars!) Then it gets you thinking about why Mangum backed out of the spotlight in the first place.

It has often been said, that had Vampire Weekend died in a fiery plane crash directly after their first album, they would be remembered as legends. Forget how much you hate them, and imagine if it were not overplayed and there were no backlash. Maybe Mangum realized this, and took a step back. Maybe he figured “Well, there’s 11 perfect songs, many people work their whole lives for much less, I’m goin’ on break.” Who knows, this is not Being John Malkovich, although we were fairly close to the NJ Turnpike.

After a leisurely stroll around the Loews (seriously, the bathroom lounge must have been THE place to hang during the 1930’s) the lobby lights flickered like an opera performance, and it was time to go. Mangum appeared with several acoustic guitars and launched right into it.

His voice seems nearly unchanged.  Yes, there were some almost flubs…but those crazy high sustained notes were all there.  The man has breath control like a fucking dolphin.   All the hits were played, and the crowd was very respectful, at least from where we were sitting.  Yes, it was beautiful, but at times I wished there were a little more sound.  At one point, he brought on some Flugelhorn and Clarinet, and it was fantastic.  If they had played the classic horn lines with him the entire show, I would have been an emotional wreck, collapsed on the ground bawling like an infant.  Imagine the water damage?  There were a LOT of sensitive people in that theater.  Maybe it was a safety issue.

Seeing a songwriter perform solo, often gets you right into the heart of a song.  For some reason, I think Mangum’s songs are pretty wide open to begin with.  Even with all the beautiful noisy arrangements on Aeroplane, the song always comes through, its as if Mangum was the Sinatra in front of the Basie Orchestra of whimsical noises.  So maybe this was just showcasing what we all knew already.  Not to say it wasn’t a great performance, it certainly was, it’s just hard to fill an entire theater with a tiny guitar  (his voice certainly did the job, we’re talking instrumentally here.)

So who knows what will happen.  His last release of new music was many years ago.  What has he been doing since?  If he was sitting in his living room playing “Two Headed Boy” over and over again…no one would blame him, but we’d like to think something new could be on the horizon.  He played a set at  Occupy Wall Street, so there must be some motivation there?  I refuse to speculate.  Let’s just let Jeff be Jeff.  He has a heavy legacy to deal with, he can do whatever he fucking wants, ok?

James Taylor at Tanglewood

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You know what sucks?  Don’t Stop Believin by Journey is a fantastic song.  It’s a beautifully crafted pop tune that will undoubtedly stand the test of time.  It would be a flawless piece of music played on an acoustic guitar, or sung by a barber shop quartet.  Nothing can stop it.   Not even every douchey frat guy or wannabe real housewife that sings it at the top of their lungs in a Murray Hill Kareoke Bar.  Well, maybe them, but even so, every time I hear it, it just gets to me.  No real point to that, other than to listen to the actual song.   Moving on.

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While celebrating America this weekend up in Massachusetts,  I attended a James Taylor show.  This may not be my typical musical event…but I did enjoy it quite a bit.  Lately I’ve come to respect Taylor as an all around badass.  The main turning point, was when he posted free guitar lessons on his website.  What other legendary songwriter/players do such a thing?  Kudos to you JT, kudos to you.

They call this type of music “Easy Listening” and it is just that.  The melodies are  pleasant, the tempos are just in the right place to bob your head a little bit, the show is not too long, there is nothing at all offensive about this type of music.  While I will not analyze James Taylor’s songwriting style, I will talk about the musicianship of those performing with him.

When you’re at that level, you probably don’t have a lot of time to waste with less than stellar musicians.  I once saw a workshop with drummer Greg Bissonette, who played with Taylor.  He basically said, they go to his house in the Berkshires for a few days, have a BBQ and rehearse, and that’s it for the tour.  It’s the old “I cheat, I just use great musicians” thing. There were no extraneous notes, no rushing or lagging, everything was dead on.   There were about 14 people on the stage, 5 backup singers, horn section, extra percussion…but no toes were stepped on.

On drums was Chad Wackerman, best known for his work with Frank Zappa.  Zappa is the musical equivalent of having unquestionable street cred.   Its like playing for The Yankees early 2000’s while winning the superbowl, and having 14 gold medals in various sports.  Are those terms accurate?  I was kind of winging it.  Yes, that was the only sports reference you will ever see on this blog.  Deal with it.  Here is Wackerman and another Zappa Alum:

Not the first person you’d imagine playing with James Taylor…but he can hold his own in any musical situation I’d imagine.  He’s not shredding 128th notes over “You’ve Got A Friend” or something.

On guitar was Michael Landau, who I had never heard of, but who’s Wikipedia page claims played with Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, and all sorts of others.  The guy could play some hella tasteful solos, and even shred a few 12895th notes without looking like a dick.  Serious players all around.

There was one moment when Vince Gil and Amy Grant came out….well, not really a moment, more like 30 unnecessary minutes.  They played some cheesy pop-country, and some 90’s hits, it really had no place happening.  Maybe old JT was just feeling tired and wanted a break?  Who knows, I’ll forgive him

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One notable thing about the venue – Tanglewood up in MA, is absolutely beautiful. They encourage picnicking, and even allow alcohol!  What a concept!  No one gets out of control intoxicated, everyone has a lovely little area set up, some with candles and tables and whatnot, I felt so civilized!  Maybe its owed more to the artist than the particular crowd…I mean, If it were a Dave Matthews Band show or something, you know there would be a few kids in white hats shotgunning beers to Don’t Stop Believin’, ya know?

Nels Cline and Marc Ribot

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I believe there was once a famous showtune written in the golden age of song, in which the chorus was “Don’t Believe The Hype”  which is a brilliant statement.  These days when the hype often overshadows the event itself, we must all be weary.

Last week, it was announced Nels Cline and Marc Ribot would play as a duo at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village.  Thats like Picasso and Da Vinci getting together to do a little fingerpainting.  That’s like Steve Jobs and Eric Tarn getting together to build and internet.  The comparisons could go on and on.  Its no secret that I hold both of these musicians in high regard.  If you added Smokey Hormel to the mix, you would have the 3 greatest living guitar players.  So its no secret that I was quite excited to attend.

By complete coincidence, whilst strolling through the west village last weekend, Nels Cline appeared in front of me.  Caught off guard, i just said “Hey Nels!”  I guess when you see someone fairly often, they feel so familiar that a greeting is necessary.  Being the lovely fellow he is, he stopped and chatted with us for a bit, saying he had no idea what he and Ribot would play, which felt like a recipe for some fantastic guitar dueling.

When seeing either of these players on their own, you expect some fireworks.  And it inevitably happens.  Ribot could be playing a solo acoustic performance, but you know there will be that moment where he launches into orbit.  With Nels, its just his thing, he can’t help but be a highly evolved space alien, who carries a brain evaporating space gun with him at all times.

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The set started out very mellow, Nels on a Dobro, Ribot on an old Gibson acoustic.  The first few songs were spent feeling out some territory.  Very melodic, slightly haunting.  No shredding solos. Further into the set, Nels moved to lap steel, ribot played what sounded like a baritone electric, and things got crazy.

In this setting, with no additional instruments, no rehearsal, you can really see the true character of each musician.  Yes, they played a lot of notes, but no toes were stepped on.  It was not just shred for the sake of shred.  It was a conversation, all very tasteful.  Sure, the conversation was about things mere mortals such as us will never be capable of understanding, but a tasteful conversation nonetheless.  The lap steel portion bordered on country, spooky and western sounding.

The evening’s explosion came, as expected, when each musician moved to their most familiar instrument.  Nels to a Jazzmaster, and Ribot to what I think was an ES-125.  Their voice was immediately recognizable.  Ribot with the clangy edge to all his notes, and nels with a pure and focused tone, even when covered in all sorts of distortion.

In the end, it wasn’t a pissing match of epic proportion, or a chops display.  Really, none of us should have expected something like that from musicians of this caliber.  Lets hope somehow this was recorded, or leads to more collaborations like it.  On the other hand, the selfish elitist in me hopes this was a one off, so in 30 years, I can look back and say “yep, I was totally there, young child who now plays all music on a futuristic tablet like device, people used to play wooden boxes with strings on them!”