Monday, March 9, 2015

A Genre-bending Trip to the Past with Swervedriver and Judy Collins - Feb. 5 & 6, 2015

What an interesting journey this has been. First an evening in the nineties followed by a night that spanned the sixties through the eighties. Swervedriver and Gateway Drugs played at The Roxy on Thursday, Feb. 5 representing a piece of indie history along with a jolt of the new with the young upstart shoegaze/garage/psychedelic band.

Back in 2008, when I was still getting my feet wet regarding the indie rock movement, I knew that Swervedriver were a profound influence on many of my favorite local bands at the time, including Film School and Xu Xu Fang. So when I heard that they had come out of retirement for a reunion tour and were going to play The Fonda Theatre, with Film School and Xu Xu Fang as opening acts on May 31, 2008, I jumped at the chance to see them live. I consumed as much of their recordings as I could, leading up to that night and it turned out to be one of those evenings you never forget.

It was fun to go back to The Roxy, where I haven't been in quite a while. But I will say, as much as I enjoyed the evening, there was a bit of overkill in the arena-like sound that moshed all the low end into a distorted drone that all but obliterated the vocals on most of the songs and allowed little opportunity for subtlety. Still the energy and precision that went into the Gateway Drugs set was inspiring as this young band already have considerable stage presence, led by
Liv Niles (at right) cool reserve, that is matched by the confident songwriting skills they display. This attractive band is going places!

I'm glad their album has already burned its way into my brain so I could mentally fill in what was missing in the vocals. It appears that all four band members are singers but the sound mix only favored one. Both Magick Spells and the Swervedriver album, I Wasn't Born To Lose You, rely on stunning vocal harmonies, only some of which I got to hear that night.

In particular, the first Swervedriver album in 17 years reveals a mellowing from the sheer bombast of their past to a more melody driven style which absolutely fits them. There are so many reverential, hypnotic passages that make you feel as if you're floating six feet above the earth in a meditative state. It's a truly beautiful album, maybe their most beautiful and that may sound like a sacrilege to their old fans, but I think it's true.

They fed a hungry audience a superb mix of old and new material which fits together, matching the maturity of their new material with the raw ferocity of their early work. Judging from the audience reaction they delivered just what they wanted. Their new album makes them sound like a fresh new band and their live performance was just as fresh. In spite of my bitching about the sound, I did enjoy myself and the energy level from both bands and the audience was intoxicating.

The following night represented the flip side of the coin, but great music is great music. Saw the legendary Judy Collins for the first time as she held a sold out Saban Theatre audience in the palm of her hand on Friday, March 6. She sang a remarkable array of songs in her 1 hour 45 minute set and with the accompanying pianist and the Passenger String Quartet, was able to sample all the many genres she has explored during her 55 year career.

I had many of her albums from the 1968 Wildflowers through Judith in 1975 and she had a huge impact on me (and the blooming folk rock movement) achieving a life-changing effect with that 1968 album which took me by the hand and led me toward the Hippie movement. I had just left home for college and was ripe for every new experience, having just barely being accepted to university in the nick of time to stay out of the draft. The album was a huge best-seller and it also introduced the world to the writing of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, featuring two of her songs and three of his. So as a long-time fan, I was familiar with everything she played, beginning with "Song For Judith" which proved her voice can still still strong and flexible and pure as a mountain stream.

Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Collins, Arlo Guthrie (1968)
What I didn't expect was what an expert raconteur she is. She paused between each number to either relate some history surrounding the next song, or regale us with stories of her past, including an unashamed admittance of her alcoholism 37 years ago. Her stories of the mid sixties folk movement in New York City and the Laurel Canyon hippie scene a few years later were both informative and incredibly amusing. Lasting friendships with Joan Baez, Stephen Stills and Leonard Cohen and other has sustained her, as well as her family.

Cass Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Collins, Joan Baez

Following the opening number she sang a series of songs written by contemporaries to which she lent her considerable interpretive skills that make hers seem like definitive versions. First, her biggest chart-topper, "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell was performed at a slightly different tempo, revealing a jazz element I never would have associated with the song, but which was fresh and original.

After telling a story of sitting in the stairwell of a Greenwich Village hotel, and being transfixed listening to a young musician behind one of the doors finding his way through the writing of a song,  she sang that song; "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan. Her long friendship with Joan Baez
Collins, Stephen Stills
seemed cemented when Collins recorded Baez' "Diamonds and Rust", which she had written about a bad boyfriend (Dylan). It's a beautiful song and she sang it to perfection.

It was during the Laurel Canyon years when she fell in love with Stephen Stills that he wrote "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" for her, but instead of performing that multi-part opus, she elected to sing "Helplessly Hoping". She also gave us a rendition of "Albatross" which is an intensely challenging song that she wrote evoking a very French/Piaf mood, and her voice, once again, was up to the sudden tonal shifts that would confound any normal singer.

Leonard Cohen urged her to try writing her own music after she had released a number of albums featuring other artists work and she answered with the lovely "Since You Asked" which she sat at the piano to play. Always one of my favorites of her songs, it was surprisingly moving to hear her sing it live.

Tales of her childhood with a father, a disc jockey who loved show tunes, and his contemporaries who introduced her to folk music via Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie set her on a path toward music and an appreciation of a variety of genres. She studied, piano as a child and was expected to pursue that instrument, as she was quite accomplished, when folk music led her to discover her voice. She dropped everything to focus on that, much to the consternation of her piano teacher.

This story made poignant the  medley of "Children And Art", "Sunday", and "Move On" from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George, which got her the first standing ovation of the evening. We share a passion for Sondheim, as I got to see four of his first shows during the 1970s in Boston before they went to Broadway. So when she sang "Send In the Clowns" I couldn't help but get one of those 'circle-of-life' moments as I recalled sitting in the Colonial Theatre in Boston in 1973 watching Glynis Johns introduce the song to the world as A Little Night Music was in try-outs (photo at left). 

 She announced that she's taping a special for PBS called Finding Sondheim which will air later this year, that she had been in New York City that morning, flown to L.A. for this show, and was at the Metropolitan Opera the night before. At 75, this woman is unstoppable. Bravo.

Leaving the stage at the conclusion of "Send In the Clowns" to tumultuous applause, she returned a minute later to send us on our way with an encore that was no surprise, "Amazing Grace". Coaxing a very willing audience to sing along, her voice still soared above the rest with another one of her biggest successes. Reminiscing on the evening, one can't help but wonder at the range and impact she's had and how her reputation has yet to be assessed properly, a common problem with genre-hopping artists like Judy Collins. Perhaps the next 15 years of her career will remedy that fact.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Emily Gold

Come out and see Emily Gold when her band plays Hotel Cafe next Thursday, February 19th. Info here. After a debut performance at Los Globos two weeks ago, the band is ready for prime-time and sure to garner attention. The following is an interview with Emily that I've been working on.

With all the new acts that come to Los Angeles, it becomes a daunting task to try to keep up with all the talent vying for ones attention, but this one stood out. A few weeks ago I received a message and a link to a song from a local artist asking me to take a listen to see if I wanted to feature it on my blog. The name on the message was Emily Gold and when I got to the line where she said she was the daughter of seventies singer/songwriter Andrew Gold, a light bulb went off in my head.

Andrew Gold was one of the large group of musicians and writers including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, JD Souther and many others who brought a Southern twang to the folk/rock movement started in the mid-60s by the likes of James Taylor, and spawning groups like Little Feat and The Allman Brothers and more. As a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist, he was an important part of Linda Ronstadt's touring band during the mid-seventies and that would have been when I'd seen him around 1976 when Linda played the Music Hall in Boston. A concert I still remember well.

I became convinced of his musical bona fides, once I learned that his parents were Oscar winning film composer Ernest Gold (Exodus - 1960) and vocal artist, Marni Nixon, who provided singing voices for three heroines of three of the top musical films of the late 1950s and early 1960s: Deborah Kerr in The King and I - 1956, Natalie Wood in West Side Story - 1961 and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady - 1964.

I bought his 1976 album, What's Wrong With This Picture?, around this time and loved some of the songs, understood his heritage, and the album was a popular one in my house with me and my friends. So listening to "Cyanide Lollipop" was fraught with a certain amount of nostalgia and maybe a misplaced parental pride. Similar to how I feel when I talk to Inara George, since her father, Lowell George, and his band Little Feat were so important to me in the seventies. I have no real right to feel proud, but I do.

It's a lovely song revealing the probability of an inherited songwriting talent from a family of wide-ranging accomplishments. Her mother was a classical pianist, though never professionally. Here's a link where you can hear the song. I wanted to find out her story so we traded questions and answers last month and here's what I found out. Although born in London, her family moved almost immediately to Los Angeles, though annual travel back to England made her feel like a dual-citizen, and she still toys with the idea of settling there.

When Emily was seven the family moved to the East Coast settling in Connecticut, and over the course of the next seven years, her parents split up, with her father moving to Nashville and eventually back to L.A., while she stayed in Connecticut with her mother. At 14, she decided to follow her father to the West Coast and joined a pop group, making music an early career choice.

Not being a musician, and more of a visual artist, I've always been interested in the motivations that bubble up in a child compelling them to pursue the arts, whether it be music, the visual arts or writing. For me it happened before I can remember...maybe even before I learned to talk, and stuck with me through thick and thin. Like a third parent. I asked her when that choice became clear to her and whether her family's musical heritage played a part... and I'll let her tell it in her own words:

Q: How early did you realize music would be your calling?:

"I used to tell people I wanted to be a singer in elementary school, it’s even in my 5th grade yearbook photo where you say what you will be when you grow up", she told me. " I let that dream go in high school cause it kind of got bullied out of me. I didn't think it was a possibility. Around 18 or 19 I started to go to a lot of shows and I would feel so sad that it wasn’t me on stage so I started to learn guitar and write songs. Then it became crystal clear that that was the most important thing to me and that I had to be a musician and I got tunnel vision.

I think as a kid I didn’t really appreciate the cultural context of what my family did. But that’s just normal for a kid,  I was concerned with kid things, like playing Nintendo 64 with my sisters. My dad was just my weird, embarrassing dad. It never seemed different that we always had a music studio in our house or that my Grandparents were who they were. I started to appreciate my family’s musical history when I got older and started to get into classic rock and realized my dad played on a lot of those albums. Or looked through old photos of parties my parents threw when I was a tot and seeing David Crosby in the background and thinking 'holy shit! I did not care about this old man at all! I had no idea!'

Something to keep in mind is that my parents split when I was about 9 and so I didn’t see him as much and my grandfather had suffered multiple strokes and was unable to really interact for what I remember. But I think I absorbed a lot with out really being conscious of it and at the same time I came across all these genres music in my own time.

I think what stuck with me was not the type of music but the feeling of being in a studio. The smell of black leather couches and studio gear, seems funny but it is a very specific feeling that feels like home for me."

Q: I then asked about any formal musical training:

"I have kind of a hodge podge of 'training' with various stints in choir, orchestra, theatre, dance, and piano throughout grade school. I never took much of it seriously it was just a given, I could’t have imagined not doing some sort of music or performing. [Meanwhile] my mom actually had a big part in cultivating an appreciation for art and culture in me and my sisters. She always took us to the ballet or theatre or whatever."

Q: How did you develop your own musical style. I hear a bit of your father's musical vocabulary in the song I heard, plus a little of the lush orchestrations I would associate with your grandfather:

"It’s hard to say how much I learned from my family and how much I just happened upon my style.  I was never directly taught by my father or really listened to my family's music until more recently. I’m sure I subconsciously absorbed certain tastes and styles but I always gravitated towards lush, thick arrangements . I used to make songs in garageband when I was 14 with the preset loops they have and I would have like 20 tracks weaving in and out of each other. I just love layers and effects. I am very similar to my dad in that way, I had to learn how to use restraint."

Q: Did you find it helpful or a hindrance to have your family heritage when breaking into the local music scene?

"It had been both helpful and frustrating at times. Since my fathers passing, many of his friends and colleagues have come out of the woodwork and offered me advice and spiritual guidance. A few opportunities have definitely been handed to me because of him, however I pride myself on being a self taught, self sufficient musician and I don’t really push the family card too much, I don’t feel entitled to peoples help but when it is offered or even just to hear stories about my father in his earlier days I am super grateful. The only annoying thing is when people tell me I should rearrange or rewrite songs to be more like my dad. He was a frickin’ genius but I’m not trying to be like him, I’m a different kind of artist completely."

Q: And what are your goals for the near future?
I finished my LP this year and I am planning to release it in 2015, I also hope to license some of the songs for film and TV. I am collaborating on a music video for the single, “Cyanide Lollipop” with my drummer, Sean Draper, which will also come out early next year. I do have a band of some awesome dudes [David Burris, Sean Draper, Nolan "Danger" Schneidermanand] and we will be playing as many gigs as we can get our hands on all over town! We love the east side venues such as the Bootleg, Echo, Satellite etc. so hopefully we will be making the circuit!"

Thank you so much, Emily. It's so nice to hear about context and background from a developing artist. I'll be at the show at Hotel Café on Thursday, February 19th when The Emily Gold Band takes stage at 11.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cat Stevens/Yusuf Peace Train Tour - Nokia Theatre, December 14, 2014

How to describe one of the best and most rewarding shows I've ever seen is the dilemma facing me after seeing Cat Stevens for the first time in concert after waiting for over forty years. I had given up on the chance of his returning to the concert stage years ago, after he dropped out of public life for family and religious reasons. He became persona non grata for a lot of bigoted and narrow-minded people after his conversion to Islam in the late 1970s, changing his name to Yusuf Islam. It seemed he would remain a fondly (or not, depending on your politics) remembered pop superstar from a bygone age who we lost to religion, and that was that.

There were occasional noises here and there and a few random appearances beginning in the 1990s, giving hope that he might return to music at some point in the future. He credits his son with bringing a guitar back into the house to pursue his own music, which Yusuf picked up and began playing again. Acknowledging how much he missed making music, and spurred on to keep going, the result was the release of his first new recording of non- and less-religious music in almost thirty years called An Other Cup in 2006. I thought how remarkable his voice still sounded after all those years.

Still, the thought of new concerts seemed remote at best, considering the resentment of all things Muslim in the still raw aftermath of 9/11, and his short-lived (and ludicrous) appearance on our no-fly lists in the mid 00s. So the announcement this fall of a series of shows across the U.S. to mark his return to the land of rock and roll was as surprising as it was welcome. How I scored a ticket was pure luck as the tickets were gone almost as soon as the box office opened.

My own personal history with Cat Stevens goes back to April 1971 when I was 20 and purchased Tea For The Tillerman, because "Wild World" was a hit single, and it became one of the cornerstones of my record collection. When Harold and Maude opened that December, I was already well aware of the music that helped that movie go from overlooked box-office flop to cult film within a few years. It came and went so quickly in it's first release that I didn't even get to see it until it was screened a year later at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass in December 1972, before it became a cult classic. By 1974 it had been rediscovered and was playing year-long engagements in many cities across the U.S.A.

In spite of his disappearance, his music survived decade after decade, never losing a drop of it's emotional power or its relevance. He'd struck a nerve in the popular culture and we were determined not to give it up, even if he never re-emerged. I, and many others, never stopped listening to his records and I always regretted not seeing him on one of his tours through Boston.

By the time Sunday, December 14th rolled around, I had settled into a low grade excitement which only intensified as the time to take the subway downtown approached. Never having been to the Nokia Theatre before, I made sure to get there with plenty of time to spare. The buzz of anticipation was palpable among the crowd standing in line to get in, no matter what their age. The range of his appeal was still overwhelming and undeniable.

A glowing crowd filled the lobbies of the Nokia and I wanted to enjoy a beer and take in the whole scene before heading to my seat in the loge section. The stage was set up as a run down railroad station stop with a sign reading "Los Angeles" (interchangeable with the tour stops) and a backdrop that looked like a prairie landscape out of the dream ballet in the movie of Oklahoma!.

Onto this evocative and plainly symbolic set wandered Yusuf/Cat Stevens and members of his touring band and the first notes of "The Wind" hit the audience like a ton of bricks. Cue: squeals of delight! His voice sounded exactly the same. The arrangement, updated but remarkably the same, and the song itself was emotionally perfect for the state of excitement in the crowd, proudly stating the 'journey' theme of the whole show: "I let my music take me where my heart wants to go."

Ordinarily, I would complain about the size of the venue, as I was a quarter of a mile away from the stage but for this, it didn't matter. I was zeroed in on the stage. The next song was "Don't Be Shy" and that started the water works. To think he would perform one of the two songs he wrote specifically for Harold and Maude as the second song was more than I could take, through the tears I could envision Bud Cort hanging himself.

He seemed so at ease and comfortable on stage, and was obviously moved by the love he felt coming from the audience, that he was chatty and chummy, making the huge venue far more intimate. By the time he sang two more of his early hits, it was clear he would be reviewing as many of his most popular songs, along with newer compositions, as he could fit in his 32-plus song set. I think the whole audience relaxed together and realized we were in for a special night.

Surrounded by a powerful flock of musicians, including long-time guitarist Alun Davies, who has been with him since the beginning, and pianists, violinists, horn players, drummers, they made a formidable rock band. The songs stayed close to their original arrangements with only additional augmentation when called for. Passages of almost solo acoustic performances by Yusuf were contrasted with richly orchestrated celebrations, each appropriate to the song being rendered.

He seemed eager to acknowledge the wide range of influences that have affected his own songwriting, including songs by Curtis Mayfield, Edgar Winter, Sam Cook, and, beautifully, Procol Harum ("The Devil Came From Kansas"). His wonderful recent song "Maybe There's A World" proved his songwriting skills are undiminished, which then segued into a version of Lennon's "All You Need Is Love" (which had all us old hippies singing along) and it was was a high point of the first act. As soon as he said the words Harold and Maude the audience erupted into wild applause. (pretty amazing for a movie that could have been forgotten 45 years ago) and he played "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", as the tears flowed copiously leading to an intermission.

The second act was even longer than the first, and continued alternating covers, old classics and new music. An additional thrill was seeing Cat Stevens playing the piano again, which he did on half a dozen numbers. Highlights for me were hearing "Oh Very Young", Where Do The Children Play?", and especially "Father and Son". I think that with all the singing he has been doing on this tour that his voice is showing far more flexibility that it did a few years ago, when he first started singing again. The muscles are oiled and in tip top shape. I can't believe he was ever better, even back 35 years ago. I'm glad we were the last stop on the tour, to enjoy the fruits of all that non-stop singing for the last month since he started this tour in London in November.

He came back for four songs on encore which included the climactic "Peace Train", "Sad Lisa" (on the piano again) and ultimately "Morning Has Broken" resulting in a sequence of standing ovations. I was like putty in his hands by this point, We all were.The love and appreciation he exuded was strong enough to envelope all 7000 plus audience members in the Nokia Theatre. It's a concert experience I will never forget, and here it is, 48 hours later and I'm still in a state of euphoria.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Horse Feathers at The Satellite - December 6, 2014

I'd be hard pressed to say that there's a better live band around right now than Horse Feathers. This band is just about perfect. I'd seen them twice before, the last time they were in town and played The Echo in May and December of 2012, but when two years went by and I heard nothing from them, I was unprepared for the impact they would have on me this time.

Apparently after the last album, Cynics New Year, and supporting tour in 2012, band leader Justin Ringle felt the need to step back and reassess where the band was headed. Though lauded for their original and committed take on gothic/indie/chamber Americana music, there was a dourness to the material that some critics felt made them less than exciting. I disagree, but it was enough to revitalize Justin and led to the creation of So It Is With Us, perhaps the most accessible of their five albums.

They are another of those bands from the Pacific Northwest who come to the table fully prepared but with a unique sound that sets them apart from all the other bands from that region giving them all specific identities. Think Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, The Parson Red Heads, Mimicking Birds, Sallie Ford, these guys. Though, to me, with the soft-spoken vocals and chamber sound, they most closely resemble Canada's Great Lake Swimmers or North Carolina's Lost In The Trees, both in performance and in style. But the new album adds a bit more rock to their signature laid back appeal, enlivening things considerably, though still keeping their realistic and sombre outlook intact.

Recorded partially in a barn in Oregon (doesn't everybody?), which gives the music an ambiance of being played in a tall, dank, wooden cathedral and infuses the album with a sonic dampness that suits them. But live, the music springs to vibrant life on stage with an immediacy and punch that makes the songs even better. Silky smooth vocals sit atop a first rate chamber orchestra which includes violin, banjos, keys, two drummers, occasional mandolin and harmonica to lay a gorgeous carpet for the superb melodies to rest upon.

Right from the first song, a normally noisy Friday night Satellite crowd was hushed into rapt attentiveness as the seven member band overwhelmed with their cohesive, carefully structured compositions that are so clean that each instrument can be heard and appreciated for their contribution to the entirety of the texture. Justin Ringle's (at right) voice sounds more supple and varied than on record, and his duets with mandolin/guitar player Brad Parsons are even more natural and powerful in person.

By the time they launched into their third song, "Middle Testament", I figured each song was going to be better than the one before it and just had to go with it. I was already approaching that nirvana-like space where the music takes over and you feel alone with the band.

There wasn't a single lag in the entire set list that consisted of plenty of older material as well as a healthy sampling from their latest album, So It Is With Us. Nathan Crockett's virtuoso violin was regularly rewarded with applause after each of his solo highlights during the evening and the presence of two drummers added immeasurably to the new power this band has found. Distinctive keyboards on certain songs and the anchored bass work all lent the perfect balance to the stunning orchestrations.

They seemed very relaxed and happy, saying they'd been looking forward to coming back to L.A. for a long time and it showed. They played an hour set and two encores. The perfect sound mix at The Satellite didn't hurt either (though I could have used some of Rebecca Balin's lights). Even though I've seen them twice before, it couldn't have prepared me for this astonishing performance. Got to greet Justin and Brad outside after the show which put a perfect capper on this memorable night.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gruff Rhys presents American Interior at The Echo (11/20/14)

"Walk Into The Wilderness"

I really wanted to get some of these thoughts down on paper (so to speak) so I'm just going to go for it. Even though the Gruff Rhys show at The Echo was weeks ago. I have been a big fan of Super Furry Animals ever since 2005, when they were one of the bands I allowed to pull me back to rock and roll. I picked up Rings Around The World and Phantom Power at that time and devoured them. I'd been listening to rock and roll for the first time in 20 years, with nearly, newly virgin ears, since August 2005, so when I saw they were coming to town in November that year, I decided it was time to take the plunge and go out to a show!

November 29, 2005, was the exact date, at the Avalon on Vine St. I had no idea what to expect, didn't know if I'd get laughed out of the room as 'that old guy in the corner' or what. I knew no one who was into rock music at the time so I had zero expectations. This was the tour where they came on stage wearing space suits (at left). Super Furry Animals took me on a trip that night that launched me off in an entirely new direction in my life.   Music, music videos, CD's, getting into the local indie scene, eventually blogging. I mean, you're reading this aren't you? See what I mean?

Passion for live music exploded like a bomb in me. Within 4 months I was seeing 7 concerts a month, within a year I was seeing 12 a month. Now nine years have gone by, and I have seen Super Furry
Animals three times and Gruff Rhys once before solo on his Candylion tour in 2007 (at right). When I heard about this show on November 20, I didn't know what he was up to until I checked out his new CD, American Interior, and read about this latest solo project, which originated a few years ago.

Apparently, Mr. Rhys took a trip a couple of years ago across a great swath of the American Middle West, touring and performing and in search of any trace of a distant relative from a couple of centuries ago who scoured the Native American territory for evidence of an ancient tribe of Welsh Indians...??? Too bizarre to relate here, suffice to say, I was doubtful. But curious. And I love his music so I wanted to see this show.

I got there really early and saw the entire set by East India Youth. All pre-programmed beats and pre-recorded backing, still the vocals of singer William Doyle are stylized and varied enough to merit attention, all bathed in trippy swirling lights which filled the venue. But it was LOUD LOUD and I was either glad I wasn't tripping, or wished I was.

Gruff Rhys delivered one of the oddest sets of songs and storytelling events I've ever seen. When I first read about his latest project I wasn't sure that he wasn't telling a true story. Welsh Native Americans? How was I to know?

As soon as he took the stage, all doubt was erased. It was all a big fabrication of the devious, mischievous mind of Mr. Rhys. He welcomed the audience with an introduction to the short mockumentary we were about to watch with a series of cue cards he held up. Earnest sarcasm dripped from his lips. It was equal parts Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Mad Magazine.

We then watched the 20 minute film which traced Gruff Rhys' long lost "fictional" relative, "John Evans", who fled Wales to try to find out the history of a lost tribe of Native Americans who spoke Welsh, owing to the fact that they were rumored to have emigrated to America from Wales in the 12th century. One quickly picked up the tone of satire with the outrageous tale told.

Following the film, Rhys took the stage alone with a guitar and it was just him and us as he sang acoustic versions of the songs from the album. The pleasure of hearing his wonderful voice, up close and without adornment, was a treat that kept the audience transfixed. The songs range in style through multiple American folk and country idioms to illustrate the varied tales he had to tell. On the album, the songs are fully orchestrated in the inimitable Rhys style, but here, stripped down to basic acoustic versions, his voice was really given a chance to dominate.

Between songs he presented short stories about the trials and tribulations of "Evans", the adventurous explorer, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Making his way through the plains states and the American south "John Evans" survived attempted murders, starvation, disease, animal attacks, hostile natives, until he was last heard from in New Spain under the name of "Don Juan Evans". He was never heard from again after the age of twenty-nine.

The whole presentation had a very free-form, almost improvisational, vibe as Gruff would sound like he was making it up on the spot. At various points he would bring out a doll to represent "John Evans" (at right) or invite audience members to join him onstage to pantomime characters he was describing (below).  Overwhelmed by the creativity, startled once again at how wonderful his unique voice is, and impressed by the easy, relaxed and conversational rapport he achieves with his audience, it felt like being invited into his home to watch slides and listen to songs.

I have to say, though, that conditions at The Echo were not optimal for a show that was often intimate and quiet. Whatever was going on downstairs at Echoplex was bleeding sound and beats up through the floor, becoming occasionally distracting. The gracious Mr. Rhys didn't acknowlege that, but when the hand blow-dryer in the ladies room went off, he glanced back over his shoulder and asked, "Is someone using a leaf-blower out back?"


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Owen Pallett, Avi Buffalo and Foxes In Fiction at El Rey - September 13, 2014

Saturday was one of those days that just restores all your faith in this crazy life pursuing rock and roll. First I go to Amoeba and pick up four albums, each one a special purchase in its own right. But my mission was to find the latest album by Owen Pallett (at right), as I was going to see him that night and wanted to acquaint myself with his product. As a huge fan of the violin, not only in its classical context, but particularly of it's use in the world of indie rock, I knew this was an artist I needed to catch up with.

Frankly, before Saturday Owen Pallett was only familiar to me as contributing string arrangements on Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Beirut's The Flying Club Cup albums, and his Oscar nomination for the score of Her. Hearing that he employs a looping technique similar to Andrew Bird, I figured he was playing in a genre and a style I was already very fond of.

When I got to El Rey on Saturday, September 13, Foxes in Fiction (at left) were already playing and I slid easily into the hazy, dreamy atmosphere they had created in the theatre. Very much in keeping with the artful line up of the night they sounded like serious students of shoegaze with classical elements. Hatched in the fertile mind of Warren Hildebrand as a solo project he now has a band and they create a hypnotic spell with ethereal vocals and honey-drenched instrumentation. The songs were nicely varied so I offered no resistance and became a fan.

My entire impetus for going to this show was actually to see Avi Buffalo playing at the beautiful El Rey and to hear his new music and to see what kind of band he has put together to represent his second album, At Best Cuckold, which was released last Tuesday and was my fifth album purchase of the week. I've been a friend and supporter of this band since the very beginning in 2008, so as soon as I heard the wonderful new album, I went right out and bought a ticket for the El Rey show, knowing I would regret it if I didn't go.

In the four years since the release of his first Sub Pop album, Avi Buffalo (below) has moved from teenage guitar prodigy to a professional musician in his mid-twenties with a large and dedicated fan base. Some hard luck came with the successful launch of his debut record when the band he had built his early triumphs on broke apart and he had to finish his first tour scrambling to find replacements that wouldn't disappoint fans who were anxious to hear songs from the album played live.

Time has gone by and I don't know why, but I hadn't expected the new album to be so cohesive, so lyrical, so closely related to the first album and so damned powerful. Steadfast drummer, Sheridan Riley (at right), has ridden the wave all this way with Avi, with the advantage that Avi Buffalo has one of the best young drummers around and who also has found a voice to blend with Avi bringing back the curious and strikingly original harmonies that were so instrumental to their early success.

I was glad I ran in to Avi near the back of the theatre before they went on, so I could tell him how much I enjoy the new album, and we got to chat a little while. Now a band of four musicians, with a keyboardist, Anthony Vezirian (below on right) and a bassist, Doug Brown (below below), he was glad I was there to hear the new music and confessed that it's only the tip of the iceberg. He has at least 30 more songs written and ready to record, so there may be another release in the not too distant future. Wouldn't that be great?

Once on the stage, Avi Buffalo launched into "So What" that kicks off the new album and it is a wonderful upbeat, ingratiating song with that familiar curlicue melody structure that keeps you guessing, even after repeated listenings, followed by the next album cut, "Can't Be Too Responsible", which I think we can all relate to.
Dipping back into their catalog they performed "What's In It For?" in newly refreshed edition that came off as striking as the original, with the keyboard part restored and particularly assured vocals by Avi. The band left the stage as Avi soloed on "Summer Cum" which was sung expressively enough to break your heart. Both songs sounded fresh and re-invigorated.

I felt like I was seeing a band reach a peak as a performing ensemble and felt completely vindicated in my devotion to them for so long. Rounding out the 40 minute set were more selections from the new album, so I was super glad I'd purchased it and listened to it so many times that the songs sounded like familiar tunes performed to perfection. I'd say that Avi Buffalo has finally hit it's stride.

The second Owen Pallett stepped on stage alone with only his violin and started playing and looping and playing back the multi-part confection he was sculpting, my jaw dropped open and I don't think I drew breath for an hour. His mastery of the instrument is astonishing enough, but when he open his mouth to sing and this mellifluous, subtle and strong voice comes out I was transfixed. Having only heard the album, In Conflict, a couple of times, the songs were new to me but eerily familiar, which added to the already haunting quality of his music and lyrics.

I think he played mostly from the new album, but every song was its own special movement in what added up to a symphony of strings and piano (yes, he even plays the piano), with a running confessional dialog in the tumble of words. Reminds me of Will Sheff in that regard. The entire set seemed over in ten minutes and I was walking twenty feet in the air as I left the theatre. I may not have known about Owen Pallett before, but I will never miss him again. I swear, I heard hints of Ravel, Debussy, Sondheim, maybe a bit of Beethoven String Quartet AND Andrew Bird. This was art, unadulterated and unpretentious.

By the way the other three albums were: The New Pornographers new album, the brilliant and  completely addictive Brill Bruisers (can't wait to see them at The Wiltern on October 17th), Kan Wakan's amazing debut album Moving On, and Andrew Bird's Bands Of Glory, which highlights his single-microphone ensemble who are set to play at Hollywood Bowl this upcoming Sunday.

text and photos: whrabbit