in the flesh


Last week I ventured over to Bowery Ballroom for one of those rare shows where I’m excited about not just one, not only two, but three bands on a bill. I timed things just right to miss openers Twin Sisters–sorry guys, I’m getting too old to stand around for three bands as it is, so four is out of the question–and made it in time to catch the beginning of Zola Jesus’s set. I’ve been digging the lo-fi gothy chill of their album The Spoils and their (somewhat cleaner) new EP, Stridulum. I was curious to see whether singer Nika Roza Danilova’s voice, haunting and drenched in reverb on record, would come across live. It did–and then some. The band could stand to loosen up a bit on stage and to vary the pace of their set, which could fairly be described as plodding at some points. But hey, they’re still fairly new, and Nika turned all of 21 the night of the show. So they have plenty of time to perfect their already impressive sound.

But this night was really all about the next band, tUnE-yArDs. tUne-yArDs is basically Merrill Garbus, who’s joined on stage by bassist Nate Brenner. Her full-length and EP are both great, so I figured I was in for a good show, but, even so, I was totally, totally blown away by her set. She plays a deconstructed drum kit (just a floor tom and snare) and a ukelele and makes ample use of a loop pedal to form a surprisingly big sound for a two-person band. The tunes are super-catchy, often incorporating crypto-hiphop or -reggae rhythms and really unusual hooks, with Garbus’s looped vocals swirling in and out to create all kinds of unusual harmonic backdrops.

And speaking of her voice…the lady has serious–like truly fucking powerful–pipes. She alternates between low, raspy calm and practically unbalanced shouting, and generously spreads odd vocalizations throughout the songs–kind of like Nina Simone if the High Priestess of Soul had had more of a penchant for yodeling. And as if the stunning musical and singing talent weren’t enough, well, Garbus, like her music, is just so frickin’ infectiously likable! She explained, in a way that didn’t seem the slightest bit contrived, that she always gets nervous when she plays in New York–and then, of course, she proceeded to bring the house down. In fact, when she announced her last song, the audience protested loudly, and when she left the stage the applause was so overwhelming and sustained that it seemed to take a couple of minutes for the house to remember that she wasn’t the last act and that there was no time for an encore. Alas!

And then there was Xiu Xiu, who were, well, very Xiu Xiu. I’ve seen them live twice and at both shows there was at least one moment where someone in the audience broke out into uncomfortable laughter during one of the more precious, hushed portions of the performance. Clearly these folks were grappling with the question anyone familiar with Xiu Xiu’s over-the-top artiness faces early on–is this dude sincere, fucking with me, or somewhere in between? In general, I can handle this schtick, and there are plenty of moments in both their shows and their records that I like quite a lot. But at this particular show, their overwrought, angst-ridden affect fell flat, coming as it did on the heels of Garbus’s genuine affability.

And on that note, here are a couple of tUnE-yArDs clips, one from this show and one of Garbus alone at the Natural History Museum in LA:


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I recently went to the record release show for Glenn Branca’s The Ascension: The Sequel at Le Poisson Rouge. First, the show. It was loud. And it was kind of awesome. 4 guitars, bass, and drums with Branca conducting. The man himself was in full curmudgeonly form–for one past example, see his op-ed for the Times on “The End of Music“–but it was clear he was in fact enjoying himself. As was the packed house. Some kind soul–who, incidentally, must have been standing more or less directly behind me–put some clips on youtube, including this one. It’s pretty far away and the first 1:30 or so is spoken introduction and chatter (including Branca’s above-quoted suggestion regarding earplugs, which thankfully I ignored) but the sound is good:


And last week I was back at LPR for a great mixed bill: first, Sam Amidon made me remember that I do like some folk/americana-type music after all, then Daniel Bjarnason hit the stage with a 16-piece orchestra for a too-short set, and finally, the Danish band Efterklang played a set that kind of blew me away. Partly that’s because I had only heard a handful of their songs in relatively low fidelity versions online–a sure way to miss the richness and fullness of their sound. And partly it’s because they are a phenomenal live band–musicians periodically jump over to a mic to add unexpected vocal harmonies, drummers pick up trumpets mid-song to blow dramatic lead lines, gurgling electronic loops and squawks weave seamlessly in and out of lush acoustic arrangements, and everyone just generally dances and roams around the stage with tons of energy. There are some pics up at Brooklyn Vegan, and there are a couple of vids of the LPR show on youtube but I’d say this one, from Swedish TV, is pretty representative:


So why the frequent visits to Poisson Rouge? I’m glad you asked. It turns out that one can purchase a membership for a year or two at a time and, among various other perks, can attend certain shows–Branca and Efterklang, for example–for free. With a guest no less. Just another way the folks at this venue are thinking outside the box. And I dig it.

I wrote my last post, about my rediscovery of Henry Threadgill, on Friday. Later that afternoon I sat down to look up some music listings for the weekend and, lo and behold, who was playing just two days later? Henry Threadgill and his current group, Zooid. That sort of thing never gets old to me.

So Sunday, after a day of apartment hunting and a tasty dinner at No.7 in Fort Greene, the lady and I headed to Roulette in Soho. Roulette is a pretty awesome, if surprisingly tiny (and, at least the other night, hot!), art and performance space that has been around for about thirty years putting on shows of, as they put it, “Experimental and Adventurous Music.” For the first set, the group played what I assume were largely songs from their new CD, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1. The second set was a longer-form piece commissioned specifically by Roulette, where Zooid, normally a drums-bass-guitar-tuba-reeds combo, was supplemented by a cellist.

The music is “free” in the sense that it’s hard to discern many static harmonic patterns in any give tune, and there’s a good amount of collective improvisation going on. But for the most part the feel is more hypnotic and angular than it is intense or chaotic. There’s a common rhythmic theme that runs throughout the tunes. Basically, the songs often have a strong groove, almost even a funk feel, to them, but the beats are disjointed and jerky–it’s as if one musician is playing a 4/4 groove, the next is playing the same beat but his 1 is on the other guy’s 2, another is playing a similar groove but in 5/4, etc. Everything matches up to create a loopy, head-bobbing feel, but trying to count out the rhythm is essentially a futile exercise. You could probably dance to it, but anyone watching might question your neurological well-being.

The show was recorded for Roulette TV, which already has probably a few dozen performances from Roulette’s archives available for viewing online. Check ’em out.

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