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I did something this week I'd been meaning to do since I was in college: Went to one of Andy Statman's regular residence gigs at the Charles Street shul in the Village. He's been in residence there since, like, the late 90s, and I spent four years in the mid '00s just a half mile east, and I knew he was playing shows, and I knew I loved Andy Statman's music like burning, but I never managed to do it. Because his weekly gig was on Thursday nights and Thursday nights were usually frisbee team practice in Union Square, I think.

Statman is a klezmer clarinetist and bluegrass mandolinist and sometimes a jewgrass mandolinist/clarinetist. He plays both instruments with prodigious speed and fluency, and more importantly, with tremendous soul and spirit. He was a student of the great klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras and became one of the great proponents of the '70s klezmer revival.

I came across one of his albums in the library last week and said "Hey, I wonder if he's still playing at Charles Street" and I checked and he was, so I went in to the City to see the show.

The concerts are in the tiny and cramped basement of the shul, with Hebrew school posters of the Alef Bes on the walls. There was a bottle of vodka and some pareve cookies on a table, apparently for anybody who wanted to take. They didn't take admission, but at intermission the shul president asked everyone who could afford it for a fifteen dollar donation. When a woman tried to give him a twenty, he forced her to take change. It was, in short, one of the most heimishe concerts I've ever been at.

And the music was splendid, an opening set of klezmer with Statman blowing beautiful strings of notes on his clarinet along with his trio of bassist Jim Whitney and drummer Larry Eagle (Highlighted by 'the Lobster song', supposed a song played by Romanian Jewish lobstermen in early 20th century Maine while they gathered their treif bounty), followed by an instrumental bluegrass set. They were later joined by visiting guitarist and bluegrass singer Gene Yellin for a handful of songs. They made up the setlist as they want along, sometimes just strumming a chord or a simple melody to get the rest of the band on the same page. Yellin wanted to play a couple of songs that Whitney and Eagle didn't know- Whitney told Yellin and Statman- "You two get started, we'll either figure it out and catch up or we won't." Spoiler alert: They figured it out.

The whole experience was a blast, getting to hear such great music in such a low key setting. I need to go back again when I get a chance.
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I saw Josh Ritter play on Sunday at the Union Transfer in Philadelphia. It's my fourth time seeing him play, after shows apparently in '09, '08, and '06... so I haven't seen him in half a decade, but I've been listening to his music for fifteen years and seeing him live for more than ten. I really enjoyed getting to see him again. I had a grin on my face all night. So, for that matter, did he. Ritter's concert affect has always been amazingly inclusive. He smiles with his whole face and jumps up and down and dances around and spontaneously announces how excited he is to be there, and it's an infectious sort of enthusiasm that pulls you into his joy.

The last snow from our snowpocalypse had melted literally the day before the show, turned away by a miraculous 60 degree day. Everyone at the show knew that "Snow is Gone" had to be part of the set, and it was, and everyone cheered loudly every time it came to the chorus. And the fact that everyone knew was another part of why I was so happy to be at this show. Ritter has released 8 albums over fifteen years, and "Snow is Gone" is the fourth or fifth best song on his third album (I put "Bright Smile", "Bone of Song", "Kathleen", and "Wings" ahead of it). A Josh Ritter concert is one of the few concerts I can go to where I have that deep a knowledge of an artist's full catalog, and it was really cheering how many others could say the same thing, cheering how everyone was singing along to the even older "Monster Ballads", and not just singing along, but getting anticipatorily excited when we knew a particularly good lyric was coming ("I was thinkin' 'bout what Katy done/ Thinkin' about what Katy did".) Ritter, too, seemed to get anticipatorily excited for the good lyrics on his old albums. The new songs he played with impressive power, but the older songs, the old friends, he kicked around just for kicks.

And there was new pleasure in the new songs. I felt a little self-conscious dancing in my yarmulke along to "Jesus hates your high school dances." The faith Ritter is always debating rejecting in his music is a Christian faith, but what I love about "Getting Ready to Get Down" is how grounded it is in the Tanakh as a source of religious inspiration to oppose bad religion. By spending time at Bible college, the protagonist learns about "Infidels, Jezebels, Salomes and Delilahs." She learns that sex is part of the Bible, that good religion is not afraid of confronting it and asking tough questions about what it means and what its purpose is within God's plan. And that's an approach that is profoundly contained within my understanding of Jewish mesorah. In any case, it was a blast to dance along to.

Though I wonder... early Ritter has allusions to "monster ballads and the stations of the cross," and mid-era Ritter conceptualizes his faith as a thin blue flame because 'only a full house gonna have a prayer". "Sermon on the Rocks" sees Ritter channeling "Sympathy for the Devil", particularly on "Birds of the Meadow" ("Didn't come to roll no stones away, no./I've come to tell you that the end is nigh./ I've come to prophesize"). It's clear Ritter's been on a journey of faith, and judging from recent results it doesn't appear that faith has been winning lately.

The one thing Ritter's faith in still seems clear is the power of performance and music as transformative experiences. Even if it's not clear that he can still summon the tentative but glorious faith of his early songs, he still sings them with everything he's got, trusting that they have value for his audience. Seeing him perform again was an absolute pleasure.
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Terry Riley's "In C" is a really special piece of music. It consists of about fifty short snippets of music, all of course in the key of C, to be performed by any number of musicians, in order, but each of the snippets is to be played any number of times, at the discretion of each of the performers. The result is amazing, a tug of war between musicians that will never turn out the same way twice. The piece can be as short as twenty minutes, or over an hour in length.

I got minorly obsessed with it last year and collected about ten different recordings, all of which I've listened to multiple times. It astonishes me how the same piece of sheet music can yield so many different interpretations, and each of the interpretations astonishes me on its own as an expression of musical joy and creativity. What I have always loved most is the moments of overlap, where some musicians have moved on to the next snippet while others are still playing the last one.

A high school friend invited me to see the Darmstadt Ensemble play it live at le Poisson Rouge last night and I could not say yes fast enough.

And it was a blast, a performance that lasted over an hour, some thirty musicians playing and singing for the love of it for a rapt, packed crowd. And though what I have always loved most about "In C" is those moments of overlap, what caught me seeing it live was something else. The moments of overlap represent the negotiation. Riley has, of course, ceded some of the composer's power to each of the musicians. In order for music to emerge, they must negotiate with each other to decide how to perform. And I've always loved listening to that negotiation, the back and forth, the disagreements. But what was coolest about Darmstadt's performance was not the negotiation, but the eventual agreements that emerged, those times when the whole group found itself together again. Those were moments of the highest kind of musical communion, ecstatic celebrations of the power of music.
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Last night, I went to see Zion 80 at Joe's Pub. And ran into some friends, which is really not that surprising, because of course I have friends who are excited about Shlomo Carlebach/Fela Kuti fusion.

The last time I saw Zion 80 play, they weren't exactly a band yet. Jon Madof, the band's leader, was in the process of developing the concept, so the band didn't have a name, but the music was spellbinding and shocking and yet incredibly familiar. Since then, they've released two albums- one the aforementioned Afrobeat Carlebach fusion, the second an application of their developing style to the klez-jazz of John Zorn's Masada songbook. They appear, from the new songs we heard last night, to be working on a third album of Madof originals, which seem to have a heavier, darker spirituality than the earlier material. But the music, regardless of which set of songs it was from, was ecstatic and wonderful, not to mention just plain fun.

Frank London plays horn with the group, and though all the musicians in the band are amazing, he seemed on his solos to outclass the rest of them pretty handily. I was reflecting during the show on the impact London's music has had on me. I'm pretty sure it's not much of an exaggeration to say that I've been listening to Frank London since the crib, on my parents' Klezmatics cassettes. His musical output has been and continues to be broad enough to grow with my growing musical curiosity. But it's not his virtuosity or his eclecticism that most draws me to London, it's the deep sense of inner knowledge that informs his playing. His music feels like it exists on some sort of higher plane.

Music Post

Apr. 13th, 2015 10:16 pm
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I saw The Mountain Goats last night at City Winery. It was fantastic.

The Mountain Goats new album is a concept album about wrestling, which is intriguing. As I think I mentioned in a recent post where I mentioned this, I like the idea of wrestling, of storytelling made physical, more than I actually enjoy watching wrestling programming. The thing I thought was interesting about the songs from the new album that Darnielle played was that they committed to kayfabe a lot more than I thought they would. I figured Darnielle's angle would be behind-the-scenes, telling stories about the lives of the wrestlers, and to a degree he did, like "Southwest Territory", but he also had songs that were in-character, or at least mostly in-character, like "Werewolf Gimmick" ("a song about a wrestler who has a werewolf gimmick") and "Foreign Object".

In a way, it's a little perverse that I love the Mountain Goats. John Darnielle is one of the ultimate creative anarchists, and my aesthetic preoccupations are almost always obsessed with form. Darnielle doesn't subvert form- he flat out isn't interested in form. During both covers he played during the show- Ozzy Osbourne's "Shot in the Dark" and the Grateful Dead's "St. Stephen"- he stopped in the middle of the song to ramble about his interpretation of the lyrics. He claimed to have retooled the band's orchestrations in a stripped down form just that afternoon, and while I've heard other claims like that from bands at concerts that I put down just to showmanship, I'm pretty sure Darnielle wasn't lying- the band was too discombulated for it to have been a total lie. He told the crowd at another point that he'd put an audible into the show- a place he'd worked out with the sound people where he could choose to play one of two songs. And as he was explaining this, he was very clearly working out in his head which of the two songs he wanted to play.

The early Mountain Goats shows were famously anarchic venues for Darnielle's musical whims, but playing with a full band and touring a new album, this show was clearly about the internal struggle between Darnielle's raging inability to be consistent and the responsibilities of his fame. The result was entertaining, particularly because the Mountain Goats have so many good songs that whatever Darnielle chooses to play at any given moment, you're going to get something good.

He played "This Year", famous for the brutal chorus "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me." He played murder ballads and broken love songs and songs about the brutality of professional wrestling and a song about endangered species. He didn't sing "No Children" because he didn't have to. The band just played it and the entire crowd sang the song while Darnielle walked around the room, high fiving people and gesticulating wildly. It was just a lot of fun.

I know I promised a baseball playlist for opening day, but I'm sorry, Pesach was distracting. Here it is now.

1. Joltin Joe DiMaggio by Les Brown and his Band of Renown

Everything about this song is perfect, from the sound effects to the name "Band of Renown" to the fact that it's a song about how awesome Joe DiMaggio is at hitting the ball.

2. Van Lingle Mungo by Dave Frishberg

This song is just a catalog of old timey baseball names. Van Lingle Mungo actually was a pitcher. And I actually knew that before I knew this song existed, because I'm a baseball nerd. But this song is awesome because of how these almost nonsense sounds are invested with meaning by our shared baseball fandom.

3. Pastime by The Baseball Project

The non-famous guys from REM singing a song about the history and legacy of baseball. I think I particularly like it because its random sweep of baseball history means I don't need to include Terry Cashman's "Talkin' Baseball" on this playlist.

4. Tessie by the Dropkick Murphy's

Yes, yes, I know, I'm a Yankee fan. But look this song is catchy and fun, and then you add in the backstory and it's perfect: "Tessie" was a vaudeville hit adopted by Red Sox fans in the early 20th century as a theme song of a fan club called the Royal Rooters. After nearly a century without a championship, the so-called Curse of the Bambino was broken the very year that the Dropkick Murphy's did a punk cover of "Tessie" that featured several Red Sox players on the chorus. This song is literally magic.

5. Take Me Out to the Ballgame by St. Paul School

Because this version is adorable.

6. Rincon by Dan Bern

Entering the extended Dan Bern part of this playlist. This is my new favorite song about baseball, though I'm not sure I can explicate why. It's a narrative about stalking a past-his-prime, cheating Barry Bonds to a medical clinic where he may have gone to seek a 'magic cure' to the old age that is finally dragging his skills down to Earth. It's a song about the lies we tell ourselves about baseball and life, it's a song about compulsions and desires and our failure to live moral and rational lives. It is a bleak, terrible song, and yet I don't read it bleakly. The magic cure doesn't exist, and Montezuma won't find his gold, and Columbus won't find the new world, and in seeking desire without any limits, we only leave destruction in our wakes. But that's life, and the rain will wash it away to give us another chance tomorrow.

7. The Year By Year Home Run Totals of Barry Bonds

Precisely what it says on the tin. The numbers themselves are marvelous, without any adornment. One suspects that Bern's "Doubleheader" was supposed to be a Barry Bonds concept album that he couldn't quite flesh out, but the Bonds songs that Bern has are uniformly magnificent. The other song, the one I'm not including, is a dirge about Bonds's World Series appearance, in 2002.

8. Merkle by Dan Bern

Fred Merkle was a New York Giant who famously made a baserunning error that cost the Giants the pennant. This is a song about dwelling on failure to an almost obsessive extent, that marvelously droning chorus "Merkel shoulda touched second base." repeating and repeating until it has no meaning left.

9. The Game by the Damn Yankees cast

Because baseball is a game that worms its way deep inside you until you have feelings that you can't control.

Download baseball songs

And on another line, I want to recommend Courtney Barnett's new album "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit". On "Pedestrian at Best", the album's best song, she sounds like a really, really good Nirvana rip off. At other places, her discursive storytelling, precise phrasing, and wicked vocabulary remind me of Dan Bern, Craig Finn, Joanna Newsom, and other favorite musicians. It's a really awesome set of songs.
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There are two concerts I didn't attend that are on my list of regrets. There are many other concerts I would have liked to have gone to, but these two took place when I was a student in NYC. I knew about them ahead of time. I wanted to go, could have afforded to go, had the time to go. And then... busy with school, forgetful, whatever, I didn't actually go. Those two concerts were Sonic Youth's last show at CBGB's before CB's closed, and Sleater-Kinney's Brooklyn show on their final tour.

I've still never seen Sonic Youth play, but I've seen Thurston Moore solo, which I figure counts for something. I'd always assumed I'd missed my chance to see Sleater-Kinney, but they got back together this past year to record a new album, and they're touring it right now, and I bought tickets for their NYC show the day I learned this.

The show was amazing. Carrie Brownstein pranced around the stage like the rock star she is. SHE FUCKING WINDMILLED ON ONE OF THE ENCORES. Janet Weiss anchored everything with her wonderful, driving, off-kilter drumming. And Corin Tucker... well, I can't remember the last time I saw a performer so amazingly present in her performance. Her intensity was what fueled most of the show's most memorable moments. It was like she had something inside her that she needed to let out and she just released it, to share it with us.

They played a mix of new and old songs. I only have extensive knowledge of four of their albums including the new one, so I didn't recognize everything, but they hit everything I wanted to hear- "Jumpers", "One Beat", "What's Mine is Yours", "No City to Love", "Surface Envy", "No Anthems", and so on. I'd worried we wouldn't get "Modern Girl", since it's not what I would call concert friendly, but we got it as part of the encore, as a joyously ironic singalong with the whole entire crowd. Which was the best way to get "Modern Girl" I could have asked for.

Terminal 5, which I'd never been to before, is a massive warehouse-feeling club in Hell's Kitchen. And the show was sold out and it was packed so tightly that dancing was mostly limited to vertical movements. There was an enormous crowd of people who were all passionate about the music and the band and also what S-K means culturally, and I'm just so glad I got a chance to sort of right my regret about that concert a decade ago.
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Last night I saw Roomful of Teeth sing in a half-empty auditorium. The half-empty auditorium part was a bit disappointing, because Roomful of Teeth is amazing and deserved the place being packed to the rafters, but I really can't complain about getting front row seats to see the Pulitzer and Grammy winning ensemble for ten bucks.

Roomful of Teeth is an eight member chorus dedicated to pushing the envelope of the use of unusual vocal technique in contemporary classical music. Their music involves throat singing, yodelling, overtone singing, blends of spoken word and choral singing, unusual rhythmic structures, choral warmup techniques, unusual harmonies. It all works because of clever composing and telepathic precision among the members of the ensemble.

Their debut CD has been at the top of my rotation for most of the past year- probably my three most listened to albums of 2013 were Roomful of Teeth's eponymous debut, Josh Ritter's "The Beast in its Tracks", and Stephane Ginsburg's "42 Vexations of Erik Satie".

So it was amazing to see them live, to see the energy they brought to the music. It also called my attention to aspects of the music I hadn't quite noticed before, like the way many of their pieces involve interplay between the female vocal parts and the male vocal parts as separate units in dialogue. I also liked the way several of the pieces involve moments where a motif is passed conversationally down the line from singer to singer. It's really cool how Roomful of Teeth juggles very informal folk singing practices like that with precisely coordinated, classical timing and technique. And it's particularly striking that they do it with self-conduction and more or less asynchronous antihierarchical coordination. At different moments it was the responsibility of different members of the group to deliver cues, and they passed that responsibility seamlessly.
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In a brilliant example of the **UNLESS I REALLY WANT TO** clause in my Omer observance rule, last night the New York City Opera did a tribute to the music of Stephen Schwartz, with Raul Esparza, Mary Anne Calloway, Victor Garber, Lauren Flanagan, Todd Wilander, and KRISTIN CHENOWETH. I took my sister, since her birthday is this coming week, and since she loves musical theater much more than I do.

It was actually really poorly put together. Whoever directed the recital did a very bad job of thinking out simple things, it looked barely rehearsed, there was no intermission and the night ended fast. They repeatedly tried to transition from song to song without giving the audience time to applaud and let me tell you, this audience was there to applaud. The most egregious example was when the conductor started the music before Kristin Chenoweth had taken the stage for her first song, so that he had to stop the song to allow her the round of applause that they had to know was coming. And a lot of the songs from the early Schwartz shows, written for a tiny pit in an off-broadway setting, didn't translate that well to the full orchestra treatment.

But I didn't care too much about any of that. It was a fun night with pretty music. Kristin Chenoweth was amazing, singing "Lion Tamer" and "Popular" and duetting with Esparza on "Defying Gravity". Wilander was fabulous singing Schwartz's Gepetto faux-aria "Bravo Stromboli", and Flanagan was lovely if a little ungrounded in singing an aria from Schwartz's new opera, which I'm seeing next week. Garber's voice was a little rough but he brought energy like you wouldn't believe and Calloway did an excellent job with "Meadowlark", a song I always like when I hear it and then promptly push out of my head. And Esparza, a little iffy in the Godspell numbers, did fine on "Corner of the Sky" and rocked "Defying Gravity".

And the banter was entertaining, especially the obvious friendship Chenoweth and Esparza showed through their vicious teasing of each other- Esparza talked of coming to New York and not being able to find work and Chenoweth asked "What's that like?". (And then she said she couldn't wait to have the bloggers post about it in the morning, so here you go!)

And oh man, have I mentioned Chenoweth enough in this post? She only sang a few songs, but her starpower is incredible. She owned that stage, and I was thrilled to see her live for the first time. Wait, how have I never seen her live before? I should work on that.
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Last night was pub trivia. Our team, newly renamed Innuendon't after a brief and unfortunate flirtation with The Pocket Rocket Surgeons (one pun too many... Pocket Rocket Scientists is puerile but mildly funny; The Rocket Surgeons is unexpected and a little goofy. The Pocket Rocket Surgeons goes a little too far), pulled off a surprisingly easy victory. We got butchered in Music IDs like the last time, but unlike last time, our chief competition didn't have their top music person this time. We swept the TV category and the wordplay category (devoted this week to 'misnomers' like French Horn and Chinese Checkers) and kept sharp in the other categories. Man, I like trivia. I like winning trivia even more.

This past weekend I saw Ivri Lider with Lee and Talia, thanks to [personal profile] roga's heads-up that he was in New York this week for CMJ. Perhaps more interesting to the majority of my readers, the opening act was Gordon Gano and the Ryans, Gano being interesting to the CTYers in my readership as the former frontman of the Violent Femmes. The band in fact did play "Blister in the Sun", a strange arrangement with Gano playing electric violin, so I can now say I've heard three Canon songs by their original artist.

Lider was awesome, too. It was an all-English set, which was kind of strange given that the audience was about a third Israeli, but it seems he's been trying to launch himself as an English-language star the way Shakira did, so... it didn't make a difference, the music was alternately slow and gorgeous or bouncy and danceable and Lider's voice anchored everything. It was a great time.

He finished by performing his cover of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl", which is great, of course. He's totally saved that song for me.

But the real thing I guess I wanted to spend time on in this post is Stargate Atlantis, because I just finished the first season and hmm... I HAVE THOUGHTS.

1. McKay's still my favorite, to no one's surprise. Just saying. I like the other scientists a lot, too. My brother told me I'd love Zelenka and he was dead on. Zelenka's the man. The Asian lab assistant who finally got to express herself in Letters from Pegasus needs more screen time. Grodin... Oh, poor Grodin. Even Cavanaugh occasionally makes me giggle, and I HATE scientists like Cavanaugh. Basically, I heart all the SGA scientists. And I heart that unlike in SG-1, scientists on Atlantis get a chance to be characters instead of punchlines, get chances for heroism and opportunities for narrative growth.

2. Sheppard is, well, he's Sheppard. He's not Colonel MacGyver and I think the writers are slowly figuring that out, that Sheppard can't wisecrack in the middle of a battle the way O'Neill did. I'm fascinated by the way they seem to write him as warrior-savant, this skinny, awkward young guy who can fight with any weapon, fly any ship, outmaneuver any tactician. It's silly, but Flanigan actually sometimes sells it. Sheppard is the weirdest badass character ever.

3. Teyla's awesome, if kind of underused. Weir is horrible. The writers of the show seem to have no idea how to use her, how to integrate the diplomatic elements of her character into the military SF tone of the show. She basically appears to be the worst diplomat in the history of the world, and I can't count the number of times where her decision-making has made me say "How did this woman get made head of the mission?" She is the reason I occasionally sympathize with Cavanaugh. I don't know. I hear Carter's going to head Atlantis in later seasons and I'm looking forward to that the way I was looking forward to them getting rid of Sinclair in Babylon 5. I think I have longer to wait, though.

4. The show has seemed at times oddly fixated on suicide. I think death is a lot cheaper on Atlantis than it ever was on SG-1, and I think that's strange given the isolation from the plentiful manpower reserves of Earth. The exchange that I just watched between Sheppard and the colonel who was friends with Sumner, where the colonel tells Sheppard he understands why Sheppard shot Sumner, is so bizarre. That's supposed to be your redemptive moment where Sheppard and the asshole Colonel come to an understanding? Why would the understanding be "Death can be a welcome release?" And that's in the same series of episodes in which Sheppard nearly detonates a nuclear bomb with himself next door, and where one of the scientists kills himself rather than deal with the aftermath of a Wraith feeding, and where Grodin... oh, I don't want to think about how heartbreaking Grodin's end was.

I appreciated Weir's string of letters of parents, thought it was probably her best moment in Season 1, but it doesn't feel like enough given just how much death is part of life on Atlantis. I want to see these questions explored more deeply than the SGA writers are capable of doing.


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