Friday, September 27, 2013

Concert Review: RPO Opening Weekend (Mahler's First Symphony)

Posted by on Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 4:00 AM

Last night the fireworks of Mahler’s Titan Symphony exploded in the Eastman Theater, raining showers of brilliant sparks over the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and guest conductor Jun Märkl.

(OK, not literally. But it was surely an opening-night performance filled with enough drama to give me goosebumps and have me imagining fireworks.)

The RPO opened it’s 91st season last night with a thrilling performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major (“The Titan”), led by guest conductor Märkl. The hour-long, four movement symphony created by Mahler in 1889 is everything one could ask for in a symphony, from brilliant orchestration utilizing all of the instruments that filled the stage, to poignant melodies, to massive percussion from the largest drum to the smallest triangle.

Märkl knew what he wanted out of the work and the RPO responded. Märkl is a conductor who uses all four corners of that square called a “podium,” as he parried and lunged with every instrument on stage, shaping huge arcs of long lines and slicing each entrance and exit to make clean the many complex layers.

Having recently interviewed Märkl for City’s guide to the RPO 2013-14 guest conductors, the performance was not what I expected. From the interview, I had Märkl painted more as perhaps more of a philosopher than a conductor, perhaps even somewhat introspective in comparison to the other personalities in his class. But, Märkl’s humility masks his strength. In the final movement, in particular, where the sounds could be described as a battle between Poseidon and the seas, Märkl brought out the roar and the power of the music, while keeping it under his reins, even as he took the whole thing higher and higher into the Mahleresque protracted final chords. There was not a moment that Märkl lost control of the orchestra or let the tempo or dynamics sacrifice technical quality.

With that in mind, rewind into the first half of the program for the Mendelssohn Concerto in E-Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op.64 with guest soloist Jennifer Koh on violin. Several basic elements simply didn’t come together for this piece. Every violin is going to have a different sound quality, but Koh’s seemed particularly light for a 2,200-seat theater. Many passages were simply lost before reaching me, up in the far reaches of the balcony. This observation was magnified by Koh’s approach of playing to the conductor, as she simply took the lead for the work away from him. Given what Märkl demonstrated in the second half of the program with the Mahler, I would be interested to hear this work again with Märkl holding Koh to tempi that are about the delivery of the music to the audience, not simply speed for the sake of speed.

And a word, also, to the piece “New Era Dance” by Aaron Jay Kernis (b.1960). Only six minutes in length, it’s a dense piece. Lots of musicians. Percussion and brass galore, and even some punctuated voice tones tossed in. A bit like “The Rumble” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Listed as composed in 1992, it’s particularly interesting to think of in the context of the times in which it was written.

Two gold stars to the bass and to the trumpets. In both the Mahler and the Kernis, these sections optimized a chance to shine.

The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, September 28, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater. Tickets cost $15-$82. Check the orchestra’s website for details.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

CONCERT REVIEW: Barrence Whitfield, Charlie Mitchell Group, Anonymous Willpower, Dust & Bone

Posted by on Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 2:30 PM

You put a powerful black voice in front of a garage band you've got some unstoppable rock 'n' roll. Put Boston's bombastic blues belter Barrence Whitfield blasting in front of The Savages (including two of the original Savages) and it's like an operatic Howitzer. The band unleashed an incredible r&b-tinged garage barrage on the unsuspecting and the suspecting piled into Lovin' Cup Tuesday, September 10, as Whifield let fly with his gravel wail and primal scream.

Whitfield bounded around the place, dancing on tables, throwing tantrums on the floor and generally wreaking havoc with hits from his quiver like "Bloody Mary" and "Big Mamou," as well as songs off his new "Dig Thy Savage Soul." Original Savage, guitarist Peter Greenberg (ex-Lyres, ex-DMZ) added the comfortably loud rock 'n' roll treble to Whitfield's bluesy Tyrannosaurus trifle and trouble. One of the best all-out rock 'n' roll shows I've seen since, well, the last time Whitfield was in town. Unstoppable and unparalleled. EEEEEOWWW!!

Caught the Charlie Mitchell Group's happy hour set at Abilene Friday evening. The band is no doubt proficient chops-wise, but comes on with a casual hangback. More atmosphere than performance, which ain't always easy. I dug the group's casual elegance, especially its take on Monk's "Blue Monk." Tres cool.

Anonymous Willpower let go with a huge set (breaks are for pussies) later that night at the Dinosaur BBQ with a heart full of soul. The band rode the rollercoaster between Irma and Etta with an amazingly tight back beat. So tight, in fact, that it would've made Ike Turner slap himself. They wore the crowd out, up, and down. I dug Don Anonymous' parade-float head gear, I dug Suzie Willpower's vocal trips to church and the moon. Hell, I dug it all.

I'm getting a wee bit tired of copping to "Americana" and "roots-rock." Yet when I caught Dust & Bone's set at Lovin' Cup Saturday night, the band's casual lope and saunter called to mind The Band and even Dylan, and it doesn't get more Americana or roots-rock than that, does it? The three-guitar front end was surprisingly clear and cooperative. You could pick out the picking on all three. I liked it a lot. Dust & Bone warmed the boards for 5Head, which delivered a tight and fun, horns-a-plenty set of smart-assed ska. Bassist Steve Pizzuto sounds better with his pants on. Trust me.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Concert Review: Vinyl Orange Ottoman, Heatseeker, Ice Nine Kills

Posted by on Tue, Sep 3, 2013 at 9:53 AM

You know, with the exception of a few bands like Deep Purple or The Apes (I'm sure there are more, but those two popped into my head first), I'm used to seeing and hearing keyboards and organs -- oh wait, I forgot Journey; you can't forget Journey -- played as a support instrument, or as a principal instrument that gets steamrolled by the guitars. Admittedly, a lot of my perspective is rooted in my past as a guitar player. Perhaps I've been remiss, maybe I've been missing out.

Friday night I saw Vinyl Orange Ottoman and I saw the light -- I heard it, too. It all started with the band's stage plot. The Monty's Krown Stage is abbreviated and a little springy, like a boxing ring. The palookas in VOO solved this problem by taking up space next to the stage, as well as on it. Keymeister JJ Stashiw's entire rig took up the whole floor directly stage left, and directly where I had parked my ass to dig the impending show. Consequently, as the band whirled and pumped and ground through its mid-tempo, nouveau blues, I got a double-dish helping of the keys mere feet away. It was incredible, and an incredible eye-opener. The band raged with an unstoppable fortitude that leaned on classic strains without relying solely upon them. It was familiar yet new -- and beautiful. Praise the lord, I have heard the light.

Following my Vinyl Orange epiphany, Heatseeker got up and cleared out the cobwebs and dancing girls in my head. It was a twin-Gibson, twin-stack attack all the way. The band has a positively brilliant tone: thick, thonic, and thunderous, yet agile. Float like a bearded butterfly sting like an SG turned up to 10.

I try really hard to keep an open mind, but I've been doing this critic thing for a while now and can kind of tell when I'm not going to enjoy a particular band. I've seen Ice Nine Kills before and was privy to the band's standard chugga-chugga-squeal guitars and the dramatic vocals, instructing the audience how to behave (i.e. make some noise, give it up for whoever, or make a circle pit). It all had struck me as predictable and uninspired.

So imagine my surprise when the band knocked me out Saturday night at Water Street Music Hall. The intro was full-on rock-star cool. The energy was genuine. Perhaps more emotion played into it, as it was the bass player's last gig (and yes, we were told to give it up for him), and the guitarist dragged his girlfriend up on stage, dropped down on one knee, and popped the question. She said yes. The crowd went nuts. And that time, nobody even had to tell them to do so.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

CONCERT REVIEW: C.J. Chenier, Chris Duarte at Abilene

Posted by on Mon, Aug 26, 2013 at 10:34 AM

C.J. Chenier certainly laissez les bon temps rouler at Abilene Wednesday, August 21. The joint was one big percolatin' dance floor as Chenier and his able crew rocked up the zydeco. The show went well past most bedtimes, and into those hours known as wee.

I don't believe I've seen Houston, Texas, blues rocker Chris Duarte perform since the Milestones days -- the first Milestones, that is, back in the 1900's -- and I remember him as more of a blueser than the progressive bruiser I saw play at Abilene Sunday night. The show, a stop on his "My Soul Alone Tour 2013," was initially slated for the patio. But given the fear that Duarte's Stratocaster would stratocast and bust clouds, causing it to rain, management horsed the whole affair indoors.

Duarte rocked the crowd as if it was one big bag of Shake 'n' Bake ("And we helped"). Working within the flexible confines of his three-piece band, Duarte took songs based on a riff -- often a blue one -- and explored and enjoyed and extrapolated it, frequently giving a toggle-switch tour along with all his stomp boxes and their myriad purr, growls, and screams.

Duarte doesn't shy away from the mic either, and I imagine he needs to give his fingers a reprieve. So songs like "I Bucked It Up" were sing-along crowd pleasers for the mostly male, cargo-shorts-wearing crowd, which also needed a break, what with all the air-guitaring, fist-pumping, and head-banging going on. A blend of Stevie Ray and Jimi, Duarte proved song after song (including his expert stab at "Manic Depression") why he is up there and out there on the upper deck when it comes to the classic American guitar hero.

Earlier the same day I was gnawing on a lamb shank at the Greek Festival on South Avenue as two cats on stage played some beautiful bouzouki. Mixed in the traditional flutters and trills of the Greek selections were some surf flutter and trills. As they played Dick Dale's "Misirlou" I found myself wondering if all the things Dale captured in his sound included not only lava, but baklava?

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Concert Review: Kenny Chesney at CMAC

It was good. But was it country?

Posted by on Thu, Aug 22, 2013 at 3:40 PM

Dammit, someone lied to me and told me I was going to a country concert!

Wednesday night, me and nearly 15,000 music fans piled into CMAC to dig on country superstar Kenny Chesney's "No Shoes Nation" tour. The smattering of cowboy hats throughout the crowd looked as if a giant can of Pringles had been dumped over the people and furthered the country ruse.

Kenny Chesney
  • PHOTO BY FRANK DE BLASE
  • Kenny Chesney performed Wednesday, August 21, at CMAC.

Now, I'm not waxing purist here. Yes, I'm a fan of traditional twang-and-heartache country and its godfathers, like Hank and Lefty and Willie and Johnny (Paycheck, Cash, and Horton). But I'm also a rock fan. And this was a rock concert. Chesney's Tennessee twang, hat, and boots, and songs that salute a rural state of mind like "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," only added to the country charade, and the crowd eagerly lapped it up.

But just as Chesney sings in a beautiful Dixie-drawled baritone, he's also singing songs like last night's opener "Feel Like Rockstar" over a loud band that was essentially a rock band looking for any opportunity to put the hammer down. The jumbo-tronic set was classic big-arena rock, too.

For close to two hours, Chesney bounded across the stage, working the crowd and bro-ing down with the guys in his band. Everyone was singing along and there was an ever-present rush of starry-eyed, starstruck cell-phone camera photogs crushing against the barricade.

Chesney's songs adhere to simple pop/rock hooks and immediate accessibility. But as far as I'm concerned, it was more rock 'n' roll than country -- and that ain't a bad thing...unless you wanted to hear some country.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

OBIT: Remembering jazz legend Marian McPartland

Posted by on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 3:12 PM

Marian McPartland, a beloved figure in the jazz world locally, nationally and internationally, died Tuesday, August 20, at the age of 95. She died of natural causes at her Long Island home. McPartland was best known as the host of the National Public Radio show "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz," which ran for more than 30 years. But long before she started the radio show, she was a fixture on the New York jazz scene with her trio and in other settings at a time when women were rare in jazz. Since her first album in 1951, McPartland released more than 100 albums.

McPartland had a long association with Rochester, playing often at the Eastman School of Music. She was also a featured performer at the Rochester International Jazz Festival. Her extensive archives, consisting of memorabilia, photographs, recordings, etc., will go to the Eastman School's Sibley Library according to her executor, Rochester jazz radio host and attorney Tom Hampson.

"We're going to have the damnedest memorial concert in New York City that you've ever seen," said Hampson, who served as McPartland's lawyer for three decades. "As an artist she was remarkable for her open mind and her willingness to grow and play new things. She evolved, as did jazz. On a personal level she was interesting and fun, and much more complicated than you might think. We all know the very proper English lady, which she certainly was. But she could also mix it up and swear. She was very human."

McPartland loved the Eastman School and set up a scholarship for piano players there. She also played a concert to endow the Rayburn Wright Fund at Eastman.

"She was a very generous person," says Eastman professor Harold Danko. "I met her at the Manhattan School of Music when I was hired to teach there in the mid-1980's. She was also on the piano faculty and had a big name. But when she was asked to play a concert she said, 'Why don't I do a concert with Harold?' She extended that kind of generosity. She would give you her blessing."

Danko also recalled McPartland's adventurousness. "Nobody could believe that she could play free jazz or Irish tunes; her range was remarkable. Her playing was not cliché in any way. When I did 'Piano Jazz' I thought there would be rehearsals, but it was totally spontaneous. I'd name a standard and she'd say, 'What key do you want to do that in?'"

Danko confirmed that McPartland had what he called her "jazz mouth." "To hear her curse in that proper accent was one of the finest things in life."

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Concert Review: Scion's Bonzai 2013 at Main Street Armory

Pepper, Reel Big Fish, Dropkick Murphys, and more

Posted by on Mon, Aug 19, 2013 at 11:42 AM

As the summer comes to a close, the time for music festivals is winding down as well. On Saturday, radio station The Zone 94.1 squeezed in its annual Scion's Bonzai, a music festival celebrating radio-friendly modern rock.

"Keep in mind that we only came here to have a good fucking time with you!" yelled Kaleo Wassman, vocalist for the band Pepper, as I entered the Main Street Armory. The room felt like a frat house, complete with plastic cups littering the floor, shirtless guys in backwards baseball caps roaming about with done-up girls on their arms, and the stench of cheap beer lingering in the stale, sweat-infused air. It seemed as though everyone in attendance shared Wassman's sentiments: they were only there to have a good time. And with eight hours of acts such as Sick Puppies, Panic! At the Disco, and Crash Kings, that mission was sure to be accomplished.

Following Pepper was Reel Big Fish, a true highlight of the night. The much-celebrated ska band put on an impressive display of musicianship, featuring a solid brass section and an energetic, magnetic frontman. At first listen, the band may appear to be silly or inane. But the lyrical childishness is saved by a clear understanding of the way music works, with structures and melodies that feel as classic as any Phil Spector song and frequent, jazz-influenced trumpet solos from the supremely talented John Christianson.

The main event of the night was Celtic-rock band Dropkick Murphys. The band opened with the relatively new "The Boys Are Back," and I found it impossible not to tap my feet to the beat of the drums, or to move my body in some way. It seemed that my fellow concert-goers felt the same exact way. As I stood in the back of the Armory, a young girl standing next to me pumped her fist in the air, head-banged, and marched in place to the music. Set apart from the rowdy pit, she celebrated her love for the band in her own way. It's easy to peg Murphys as being a Boston-bred tough-guy favorite, but Saturday it was apparent that the music can reach that niche as well as it can reach that dancing teenaged girl or the young kid in the Green Day t-shirt who watched the band, flanked by his parents.

In the end, regardless of age or niche, by the end of the night it seemed that everyone was having a good fucking time. Mission accomplished, Bonzai.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Concert Review: The Branch Davidians, Joywave, Fowls, People Can Be More Awesome, and Tugboat at the Bug Jar

Posted by on Tue, Aug 13, 2013 at 9:50 AM

Saturday night at the Bug Jar was a local music showcase, with five solid Rochester-based acts on the bill. The underground hip-hop outfit Tugboat was first up, and entertained with an — at times comical — yet impressive display of smooth rhymes, provocative samples, and engaging beats.

Rochester-based Joywave performed in Austin as part of this year’s SXSW festival. - WILLIE CLARK
  • Willie Clark
  • Rochester-based Joywave performed in Austin as part of this year’s SXSW festival.

People Can Be More Awesome followed with what was apparently the group’s second-ever live performance. While the band was still tuning, the lead singer announced “We only have 17 minutes worth of material, so if we get jam-bandy, bear with us.” On the contrary, the six piece powered through a short set of synth-laden, ride-heavy rock that would probably fall somewhere between emo and post-hardcore. Despite PCBMA’s lack of stage experience, it acquitted itself pretty damn well.

Fowls produced about a half hour of reverb-soaked, calypso-esque indie rock, which at times sounded very akin to Vampire Weekend. The two vocalist/guitarists traded math-rock riffs and control of the microphone, but when it clicked on the distortion, and dropped into heavier chord progressions, the songs seemed to have a little more meat.

Headliners Joywave had heads nodding from note one, and it was easy to see why these guys have a nice little following. The group’s extremely danceable electronica roots were on display, as was its knack for throwing down some seriously catchy hooks. Daniel Armbruster’s breezy falsetto was the perfect accoutrement, as he willfully whispered some beautiful melodies on top of the sample-driven beats and reserved, but responsible, guitars. All in all, a very alluring performance.

But the highlight of the night was definitely the 20-minute explosion authored by The Branch Davidians. The four-piece took the stage rather unadorned: keyboard, no-frills drum kit, some digital toys, guitar, one loud amp, and a plan. The set raged with the sludgy gorgeousness reminiscent of early British shoegaze, but the driving, minimalist rhythms anchored some of the more “out-there” moments. “Right Time” was a great example of the quartet’s ability to drown the room in dense, textural sound. Although the vocal mix was a bit low, it worked, adding to the vulnerable-yet-affecting aesthetic. The pretty, muffled melodies of “Bridges of Madison County” had a psychedelic pop feel that was shattered with a wall of feedback that always seemed to land on its feet. Set closer “Blessed Water” was an exercise in how transcendent noise can be when there’s a concept behind it. Not sure what that concept was, but, well, the meditative waves of dissonance washed over me, and I was clean.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Concert Review: Wavves, Skirts, Dumb Angel at Water Street

Posted by on Sat, Aug 3, 2013 at 5:26 PM

It's an interesting thing to review a show like the Wavves concert that took place at Water Street last Friday night.There are some shows that feel passive enough that being a quiet observer, lingering on the outskirts of the crowd, feels barely outside the norm. At these shows, the focus tends to be the music versus the crowd, placing the spotlight entirely on the shoulders of whomever it is that takes to the stage that night.

Then there are shows where the energy of the crowd is equally as important as the musicians who hit the stage. It’s a special thing when a band inspires their listeners to get up and get rowdy. And Friday night at Water Street, I was fortunate enough to witness such an event.

The venue was packed with excited fans from the very first act, which was Rochester’s own Dumb Angel. The band set the stage for the two follow-up acts, laying down a tight, psychedelic vibe, while combining sweet, poppy vocals with distorted, fuzzy guitars and a heavy drum beat.

Following Dumb Angel was another local act. Skirts, previously known as Meanagers, had a much different vibe than the other two bands in the lineup. Surprisingly melodic and irresistibly catchy, Skirts takes an old-school rock-and-roll vibe and somehow makes it even cooler. Frontman Hayden Ford looks, moves, and sounds like Buddy Holly (and, quite naturally, Rivers Cuomo), borrowing but not stealing from that iconic attitude and style.

The crowd was already revved up from the two fantastic opening acts when Wavves took to the stage. From the beginning of Wavves’ set, the energy of the crowd was palpable. The floor shook under the weight of a legion of devoted fans, jumping up and down, fists in the air, screaming the words to favorites like “Green Eyes” and “King of The Beach.” The majority of the band’s set consisted of old material, playing just a few songs from the recently released “Afraid of Heights.” Wavves presented a wall-of-sound quality, its separate parts barely distinguishable, even launching into noisey, jarring interludes at several points during the set. Wavves has mastered the ability to combine light, pop-punk vocals and melodies with lo-fi, heavy instrumentation.

Mid-set, a man emerged from the crowd to take a break from the action and happened upon me writing. “Are you writing an article?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“It’s getting real slimey up there! Everyone’s slimey! Putthatin your article!” he said.

I think that really says it all.

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Friday, August 2, 2013

Concert Review: Party in the Park w/Lucius, The Head and the Heart

Posted by on Fri, Aug 2, 2013 at 11:29 AM

I have often rejoiced as technology has brought music back to the musicians and out of the grabby paws of the too-long-established charlatans and racketeers. Bands are embracing and forging a new honesty, even a new sound.

You've got, for instance, Brooklyn's Lucius, a band so full of unpretentious joy that I smiled until my skull almost popped out of my mouth. The band wowed the crowd, and my skull, Thursday at yet another swell edition of Party in the Park. The instrumentation was minimal, with everyone in the band resorting to percussion, sometimes all at once.

The five-piece band was fronted by two identical ladies in half-black, half-white dresses, kind of like the black & white cookies we used to get at Sibley's bakery when we were kids. When the two played it was as if one of them was playing into a mirror. The quirk and Talking Heads-esque slant was overshadowed only by the women's constant and stunning harmonies. The guitarist played a complete Sears Silvertone set up, which was all kinds of cool.

Straight outta Seattle, headliners The Head and the Heart pounced the stage to the delight of the extremely enthusiastic mob. In much the same bare-bones vein, THTH had instruments laying about the stage, with each member picking one up as if on a whim. The melodies were gorgeous. Everyone was singing and jumping up and down. I left smiling in a cloud of Gray Ghost exhaust, my skull still inside its wrapper.

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Noble Vibes @ Carlson Auditorium, RIT Campus

Classical Blue Jeans Concert @ Finger Lakes Community College

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Lap Giraffe @ Bistro 135

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