I go to more shows than this site would indicate, but I usually procrastinate in writing about them — not good for something so timely.
But in 2012, I moved from Austin to Seattle, and the latter’s concert scene is much more aligned to my tastes, particularly where classical music is concerned. I ended up going to many more shows, which are at least worth mentioning in a year-end review.
Kronos Quartet, Neptune Theatre, June 23 The last time I saw Kronos Quartet was in Austin with a program that resurrected a number of pieces from the 1993 album, Short Stories, perhaps the weakest album in Kronos’ oeuvre. I’ve seen the quartet numerous times, and this program was certainly not my favorite. The show at the Neptune was far better, showcasing a number of works from such young composers as Missy Mazzoli and Bryce Dessner from the National. The evening ended with WTC 9/11 by Steve Reich. The show was recorded for a potential live album, which I’ll snap up the moment if/when it becomes available.
Jeff Mangum, Moore Theatre, April 17 I heard rumblings about the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel figurehead playing shows, but when I went to buy tickets for the Kronos show, I saw tickets were also available for Jeff Mangum. I didn’t hesitate, even if the seats were in the nosebleed section. The show was pretty much Mangum with a guitar, at times supplemented by old bandmate Scott Spillane and members of Elf Power. As much as I wanted to hear “Holland 1945” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”, it was “The Fool” that really clinched the show for me.
Matt Alber, Maury Grange Hall, May 12 This show was something of an adventure. I had to ride a ferry to Vashon Island, and the venue itself was just a community hall. But it was nicely transformed to an intimate performance space, and Matt even chatted me up before the show. (Really nice guy.) The weather was perfect, and the show flawless.
Natalie Merchant, Benaroya Hall, June 22 Natalie Merchant comes across as a Serious Artist in the press, but on stage, she’s way more playful than her reputation would indicate. Read the full review.
1962, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Oct. 19 For its first concert in the [untitled] series, musicians from the Seattle Symphony set up shop in the main lobby of Benaroya Hall, where the seating was general admission. The program consisted of works written in 1962, the year Seattle hosted the World’s Fair, and pretty much demanded a setting more relaxed than symphony audiences are accustomed to. John Cage’s centenary set the tone for the evening, his influence threading through works by Earle Brown and Morton Feldman. I’m hoping [untitled] becomes a regular staple in the symphony season.
So let’s get to the bottom line: Was it worth redeeming airline miles, reserving a hotel, buying a right tier ticket and traveling from Seattle, Wash. to Berkeley, Calif. to watch a 4 1/2-hour opera by Philip Glass?
The short answer is yes. Yes, it was worth it.
Did Einstein on the Beach turn me from a passing Philip Glass fan to a Glassian acolyte? No, it did not. I like Glass as much now than I did before.
If anything, my fear was traveling 673 miles (according to available statistics on Grindr) only to end up at a non-offensive, non-denominational school play. So many navels have been subjected to deep staring when discussing the cultural impact of Einstein on the Beach that it’s almost ripe for disappointment.
Like that time I rented Pulp Fiction from the video store.
My perception of Natalie Merchant is locked in the early ’90s. As one of the early stars of so-called alternative rock, Merchant gave off something of a precious vibe in the music press, and the press was all too willing to play up Merchant’s heavy hand in the creative direction of her former band, 10,000 Maniacs.
The younger Merchant had a propensity for dourness that pushed against with her bandmates’ eagerness to rock. Fans ended up with songs such as “What’s the Matter Here?”, a bouncy tune about child abuse.
I didn’t follow Merchant’s solo career because I was a big fan of that tension. I also liked the chemistry among the Maniacs, something Mary Ramsey nicely keyed into when she assumed singing duties after Merchant’s departure.
In 2010, Merchant emerged from a 7-year hiatus with an ambitious double album setting poems to music titled Leave Your Sleep. Guests on the album included the Klezmatics and Wynton Marsalis, and the songs ranged in style from orchestral to folk.
I liked Leave Your Sleep enough to catch Merchant with the Seattle Symphony.
Austin may bill itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, but it seems Seattle is more aligned with my particular tastes. Since arriving here in January, I’ve gone to more concerts than I did in my final year in Austin.
Classical music certainly has more of a presence here. Austin’s live music scene dwarfed the local arts scene, and I never once felt compelled to go to an Austin Symphony concert. By comparison, I’ve subscribed to the Seattle Symphony.
New music also seems to have an audience in Seattle. Kronos Quartet recorded its Neptune Theatre performance for a live album, and Alarm Will Sound stopped by Town Hall. Seattle Symphony also schedules a number of premieres, such as a new work by Nico Muhly back in February.
I haven’t delved into the local scene that much, which is where Austin trumps Seattle. Austinites really get behind their local talent, whereas I don’t get that same sense in Seattle.
But there are touring shows a-plenty here. Most of the ones I’ve seen were held at the big theatres — Paramount, Moore and Neptune.
I’ve scaled back the number of shows I’m attending now that I have a better handle on how broke I am from paycheck to paycheck. But as the following list shows, I think Seattle’s music scene and I will get along.
When news hit that Renée Fleming was recording an indie rock album, my first reaction was:
But then I told myself to keep an open mind. It’s not often that an idea as unlikely as this one gets green-lighted, and if Fleming faltered, the album would join a large pile of failed classical crossovers. She didn’t falter, and the album, Dark Hope, became one of my favorite of the year.
When I saw Fleming would perform three tracks from Dark Hope with the Seattle Symphony, I bought tickets, despite some initial reluctance over the price. I wasn’t disappointed.
Of course, I don’t listen to much classical vocal music, let alone opera. So I can’t comment how well she interpreted Maurice Ravel’s Sheherezade, or various arias from Franz Lehár, Charles Gounod or Erich Korngold.
Fleming, however, is a modern music advocate, probably not as fiercely as Dawn Upshaw, but the program she sang at Benaroya Hall on March 16 included works as recent as 2007. On that, I can comment.
"The End of the World" referred to in Murakami Haruki’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is not an apocalypse. Rather, it’s a point where "the world can go no further."
MO’SOME TONEBENDER was the end of SXSW 2011 for me. I snipped my wristband on Saturday afternoon, skipping out on the final night of the festival. Part of it was exhaustion, but mostly, I didn’t think anything else could top MO’SOME TONEBENDER. And I didn’t really want anything else to try.
I’ve known about MO’SOME TONEBENDER for a long time, but I was too enamored of NUMBER GIRL to pay much attention to them. I wish I had because they fill a void that NUMBER GIRL’s dissolution left. Not content just to hammer at their riffs with single-minded precision, MO’SOME TONEBENDER throws in sampled strings, garage rock riffs and sometimes even a dance beat into their music — sometimes all in one song.
A lot of bands on the Japan Nite bill had impressive sets, but MO’SOME TONEBENDER topped them all. Diving from one song to the next, the band didn’t give the audience a single moment to catch its breath, and by the end of it, the only thing that could be said was, "Holy fuck!"
MO’SOME TONEBENDER sold a custom-made compilation for the show, containing that night’s set list. Some live bands don’t translate well in the studio, but that’s not the case here. MO’SOME TONEBENDER has recorded 13 albums and is about to release a career retrospective. That’s a lot of music to explore.
SXSW runs a tight ship — your set had better be finished in time to set up the stage for the next act. But when you’re country royalty like Emmylou Harris, exceptions are made.
Harris was given free reign over her allotted time, and she used it to perform her forthcoming new album Hard Bargain in its entirety. Album producer/guitarist Jay Joyce and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reeves, who did triple duty on drums and keyboards/bass, joined Harris, who informed the audience the trio on stage is the same on the album. Reeves in particular did an impressive job juggling two instruments, keeping time on a minimal drum kit while providing bass lines and pads on the keys.
Hard Bargain puts the focus once again on Harris’ songwriting. As she told the audience, she’s fond of a sad song, and the quiet set she performed is chock full of songs she loves. It’s the kind of aching beauty that permeated Red Dirt Girl, an album that I thought was heavy-handed with the aching and the beauty.
A question for select members of the audience — why go to a quiet acoustic show if all you’re going to do is yak yak yak all through it? I probably could have paid more attention to the music if youth and extroversion didn’t combine in such idiotic fashion. Not all of us love to hear you fuckers talk.
I’ve seen Duran Duran live a number of times in various line-ups — with Warren Cuccurullo, without John Taylor, with the original line-up, without Andy Taylor. Their set list hasn’t deviated much since 1999, and even the inclusion of "Friends of Mine" dates as far back as 2000.
So no, I can’t say I was much surprised to hear straight-forward interpretations of "Hungry Like the Wolf", "Wild Boys", "A View to a Kill" or "Notorious", crowd-pleasers all and songs that got the audience at Stubb’s BBQ jumping. Duran Duran is at a point where even they are respectful of their own canon. There’s no messing with what works, and they dash of their classics with an effortlessness that comes with three decades of experience.
Sometimes, I wish they would shake things up, similar to the way they drastically remodeled their oeuvre in the mid-90s. Track down the Gemini bootleg to understand what I’m saying.
The new songs didn’t exert a strong presence, not the way "Come Undone" or "Ordinary World" did back in 1993. If anything, they camouflaged themselves too well, sounding like the missing Rio b-sides that never accompanied "Like an Angel"
But I’m just a picky long-time lapsed fan. Duran Duran on a bad day could school the thousands of young bands at SXSW on their best day. Roger Taylor flubbed early in the set, and Simon Le Bon asked for a do-over on a new song. Neither incident impeded the live juggernaut that is Duran Duran.
At last year’s Japan Nite, I unwittingly created a test to see how much I would like a band. It’s called the Smoke Break Test. The premise is simple — would I rather go outside to smoke a cigarette than watch the rest of a band’s set?
Of the five bands I caught at the Japan Preview show at Creekside Lounge, two did not pass the test. I arrived late to the show because I wanted to catch Department of Eagles at Waterloo Records. The only new band I missed was HONEY SAC — I had already seen Peelander-Z, Natccu and Rinka Maki.
BO-PEEP started just as I arrived. The trio pretty much played garage rock, nothing terribly earth-shattering for anyone familiar with the roster of Benten Records. Actually, past alumni such as Tsu*Shi*Ma*Mi*Re and Kokeshi Doll were more interesting. One song at the end of the set dissolved into nothing more than a four-on-the-floor beat by the drummer. I surprised myself by lasting that long before I took my smoke break. Test result: No pass.
Unlike the impeccable schedule of a SXSW showcase, the Japan Preview got each band off and on the stage in a matter of minutes. The lag time between sets was pretty brisk.
Daniel Rossen must have had a rough Wednesday night. His band Department of Eagles had a 10 p.m. showcase at Central Presbyterian Church, and during the Waterloo in-store performance the next day, Rossen stopped at a few points.
First, his microphone went out during "Phantom Other", and a few measures into "No One Does It Like You", he had to recollect himself, then start again.
But his repartee with guitarist Fred Nicolaus — and with the audience — made those glitches feel intimate. Of course, the set itself stripped away most of the technical wizardry on the band’s second album, In Ear Park. The pared arrangements still suited the songs incredibly well.
Nicolaus copped to standing around looking cool for most of the performance, which he did for a number of songs. Despite whatever kind of night Rossen had, his voice came through crystal clear.
The highlight of the in-store was the final song, a new one in which Rossen overdubbed his vocals live into loops. It was cool to witness an ethereal chorus of Rossens emerge out of nowhere.
I would have loved to see Grizzly Bear’s showcase, but I’m glad I caught Department of Eagles.