2008 Wrap-Up (Alex) – Live Performances

Luckily, my editor is on in-between semester break. Otherwise, I’m sure he would be in T.A. mode and grade my late post accordingly…

However, I dragged my feet somewhat deliberately. What’s the point of a 2008 summation if you don’t have at least a little critical distance between current time, and the past year? One doesn’t write a book report until the book is actually finished. A conclusion about a hypothesis can’t be reached until the experiment is actually completed. You don’t say, “Wow, baby…that was some good sex,” until the deal is sealed–unless you’re an ego-tripping moron with a teenager’s maturity level.

January 29, 2008 was my emergence from the world of sub-par print music journalism into the realm of much more serious online music writing. I don’t take credit for the upgrade; that goes solely to Greg Szeto, the music editor at my former publication, and the founder and managing editor of Aural States. I know good coat tails when I seem them, and I was really excited to jump into this venture with Greg. 

The results have been unthinkable, really. Much of the work I’ve felt the best about, and been the most proud of in the past several years has been for Aural States.
For me, 2008 has been a year of amazing music–recorded, live, and starting recently, making it again. To be accurate this journey’s proper beginnings are in the fall of 2007, but isn’t it weird how events usually arise from prior events in sequential order? Event chains, I think they are called.  I have been into music all my life, but 2008 is unique in the fact that I actually, in some small way, took a spot in a broader network of music, and culture-of-music people. I began blogging, and people were actually reading what I wrote.

This status of blogger doesn’t feel quite like it fits yet. Around Baltimore, indie/hipsters types (definitely loaded words, which are commonly mistaken for being synonymous with “music types”) don such close-fitting clothes. Perhaps, feeling as though this is a role I need to grow into is a healthier stance, than having skin-tight clothing restricting, and inhibiting movement (read: critical movement, and development).

Also, clothes being the signifiers that they are designate people into one group. I personally don’t fit into one single group musically, and probably not socially, either. From my understanding (and I think it’s an accurate understanding) the same goes for Aural States. To be clear, this does not mean AS has to be everything musically to fulfill our eclectic mission statement, but we simply need to be who we are, and only who we are.

And who are we? Music geeks: pure, unabashed, genuine music geeks.

My (Highly Subjective) Most Memorable Live Performances of 2008 (in no order, and it’s more than 10)

Caverns and Imperial China @ Lo-Fi Social Club

Yes, Aural States has championed these two bands from our start…but with good reason.

Greg previously heard Caverns in DC, and was immediately impressed. Jeff Mewbourn, the omnipresent taper, had his mics damaged by the decibel level from one of Caverns’ DC set.

However, stepping into Lo-Fi that night, Imperial China was an unknown, but their set demanded Aural States’ attention. It was a rare instance of a total aural gold discovery. No panning for nuggets in the river here, no ore needing smelting—just a thick, rich vein of pure gold. It’s an amazing feeling to walk into a show not expecting anything, and just being floored—totally, and utterly floored. The coda to that night: Imperial China, impossibly, has gotten even better.

Both Imperial China, and Caverns eschew the superficiality of so many other DC bands, and instead concentrate on rocking it—“man rock” as one DC blog (actually the main culprit behind this unapologetic emphasis of style over substance) derogatorily referred to Caverns.

The intensity of performance by Imperial China takes playing instruments into the realm of athletes. The level of concentration visible on the trio’s collective faces makes one think they are martial artists about to smash through cinder blocks.

Caverns just makes me lose it—well, lose it in my own idiosyncratic, extremely self-controlled way (Oh, Hell yea…Mudge is slightly jerking his head in time to Kevin’s chugging build-up riff!)

My first impression of Caverns: a heckler doing his hatin’ on the band, only to have Kevin leap from the stage, and land just in front (nearly on top) of the jerk. To be blunt, and to be honest and accurate—Kevin lost his shit, and went nuts through his guitar. The heckler, being a rational person, ran away and didn’t come back. That’s some Viking berserker shit right there.

I’m so looking forward to 2009, and specifically the not-in-the-too-distant-future Aural States Fest. Greg packed the AS Fest so tight with talent, but to be honest I’m looking forward to the Imperial China, and Caverns sets the most out of the January 30 line-up.

Amit Peled and Alan Goldberg performing the complete Beethoven cello sonatas @ Peabody

Beethoven is known for his symphonies, but his genius also covers the smaller ensemble: the quartets, trios, and let’s not forget all the sonatas. Beethoven was a master of the sonata form (though not necessarily a master of writing pieces for the cello, at least not in the beginning). What was so amazing about this experience was the fact that the audience was taken through all the Beethoven Cello Sonatas in order. We got the chance to experience Beethoven’s development in this form.

Amit Peled relied on his friend and accompanist Alan Goldberg for the first two sonatas, as Beethoven featured the piano more prominently than the cello. Peled really came into his own by the third sonata (this is more a factor of Beethoven’s writing for the cello becoming more solid by this point). The conclusion of the Scherzo movement of the third sonata brought the audience to their feet, and it was some time before Peled and Goldberg could move on to the final movement of the third sonata. I should mention that etiquette dictates people aren’t supposed to clap before the entire piece is concluded!

I thought this performance would be draining, but instead I left much more invigorated than when I had arrive.


Matmos @ Theater 1 of The Charles Movie Theater (Thursday night of Whartscape)

I could really include so many performances from Whartscape 2008 here, but the-best-of-the-best would have to be Matmos’s performance (and for that matter, the worst-of-the-worst Whartscape 2008 moments would be Denny from Double Dagger throwing pieces of his drum kit into the audience). I could also include just about any Matmos performance I saw from 2008 on this list, but I chose the Whartscape performance. (Also, let’s not forget my moment in the spotlight in 2008 when I accidentally became part of a Matmos improvisational piece in New York while I was calling from Baltimore).

Matmos was at full strength, with honorary third member J Lesser on hand that night.

Matmos delved into an Americana theme that night, offering up something lateral to the expected, or my expectations at least.

One of the most sublime moments of live music from 2008 came for me when Drew Daniels carried wireless speakers off stage at the conclusion of the performance. The way the sound moved through space (something that doesn’t happen that much during a show since speakers are usually fixed). Drew did pseudo-pirouettes, with the speakers spinning around him as he walked down the isle on his way toward the back exit. Even when the doors had shut behind him, one could still hear the final tabla-like sounds of “Supreme Balloon” fading away in the sonic spatial plane. Wow. As a friend phrased that event, it was “trippy as fuck.” Indeed.

Marin Alsop and BSO perform Bernstein’s Mass

This was it–THE performance of 2008, and I think one of the most concentrated works of art I have ever experienced in my life. I will tell my children about this one; I will tell my grandchildren about this one. In my life-long (and I mean from a really, really young age) active experience in music, there are shows, performances, recitals, parties, raves, etc. And then there was Bernstein’s Mass.

The subject matter of this piece is so ambitious and almost overwhelming that any performance flaw was a mere trifling. The piece hasn’t ageD perfectly, either. However, I have never seen a musical, theatrical, cinematic, etc. (read: any) performance so compelling; one that was so universal, and so absolutely staggering in it’s feat to distill emotions so grand. This is a life-altering piece. If you haven’t seen it (and I mean in person), then my seemingly hyperbolic bombast will not win you over. If you missed it, shame on you. If this piece comes up again in your lifetime: GO!

On a side note: I will forever miss getting the chance to see Bernstein conduct, as he is dead. But, on my death I would wish to see Lenny at the podium of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, in a swift aural raigo, with full orchestra stretched out infinitely (truly Mahler’s wish, especially for his Symphony No. 8). In great sweeping motions he cues the brass and percussion for the tuba mirum, and have that great crescendo rend my body from existence.

Ulrich Schnauss @ Metro Gallery

I put this on the list partially because it was a performance that delivered something much different than expected. I was planning on being put to sleep by Schnauss’s Slowdive (and just general shoegaze) influences. What I got out off the set instead can best be described as invigorating. I walked away from the Metro Gallery that night beaming, whereas I had walked in, just having gotten off work, tired and feeling “obligated” to show-up.

Schnauss began with some dramatic keyboard work then switched to his Ableton set-up. Dance beats were actually introduced to the normally dreamy soundscapes of Schnauss, and the visuals augmented, rather than detracted, from the aural fare.

I once pulled a quote for a review of a show from one of the performers after the set. He lamented that it was, “the right band, but the wrong venue,” or something to that affect. Whether he was right, or wrong isn’t up for debate right now; I merely wanted to contrast that quote to this particular combination of performer and venue. I would call that night the exact right performer (Ulrich Schnauss) in the perfect venue (The Metro Gallery) for what he does. Plus, Ulrich gave a shout-out to Thrushes when I talked to him after the show, but that would be getting into Best of 2007 List (looking forward to Best of 2009 List!) territory.

Kemialliset Ystavat @ Floristree

The sound was off that night, and I wasn’t digging every opening act (though if Axolotl comes back to Baltimore, I’m definitely going to the show). But for whatever reason, something just clicked with me for their performance. Perhaps it was the impressive tightness with which the group played, even when they were making “noise.”

But mostly, I think it was this little amateur-built synth that one member “played” (it simply had an on/off toggle switch, which would trigger a tabla-like sound to be generated). Man, that sound has really stuck with me.

Wye Oak and Deer Tick @ The G Spot

Wye Oak—Andy Stack, and Jenn Wasner—two amazingly talented musicians, but even better (and almost beyond belief) are their song writing skills. But I won’t go on about those in this context; 2007 would have been the time for that. I expect 2009 will bring a release so perfect I won’t even have an articulate critical stance to express in response to their work.

Wye Oak live is a lyrical ballad being sung, not just by Jenn and Andy harmonizing, but also by any musician, playing any instrument, that joins in with them. 2008 saw a great many Andy and Jenn collaborations with other acts (Caleb Stine, Noble Lake, Small Sur, etc.). Every time, Andy and Jenn (Jenn and Andy? Or Wye Oak?) balanced the need of the ensemble, with the depth of their musical talent, and matched it perfectly.

How can you pick a perfect home run—something that is just the right combination of so many factors, and by definition nearly perfect to begin with? I mean, you’d be hard pressed to find a Wye Oak performance that doesn’t touch you deeply (no, not that way!), and this is taking into account how often these two perform.

I really liked Deer Tick. The bass player was a beast, and despite what Greg may say, the frontman’s voice wasn’t distracting. The medley at the end (which included a “La Bamba” cover) was an aural moment I remember vividly.

Wye Oak @ Creative Alliance

I meant what I said about Wye Oak being a truly superlative band. Perhaps in one year’s time, I’ll devote an entire Best of 2009 List to Wye Oak related events?

Daniel Johnston @ Ottobar

Daniel Johnston—what is there to be said that addresses him as a performer and not a mental heath oddity? Probably the fact that, unlike mislead folk wisdom, bipolar disorder (any mood or psychiatric disorder, for that matter) doesn’t make an individual any more creative or insightful than a “normal” person. Daniel’s genius is entirely his own, not his disorder’s.

The simple fact is this: mental illness truly sucks for the individual, and for those around him.

What was spellbinding about Daniel Johnston’s performance was that it was so evident that despite all his personal hurdles, he still felt the need to be on the stage. No fame, no ascension to the height of a scene, no glory—just performance. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such purity in a performance before.

The audience was so into it, and Daniel’s slight smirk betrayed his knowledge of this fact. His cover of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” took on new meaning when Daniel sang it—I don’t really know why. When Daniel announced that the next song would be “about a motorcycle,” a drunk, but mostly benign, audience member to my right (stage left) flung his upper body to his left while his feet remained planted. The resulting extreme contortion, and his exclamation of “Oh, shit!” echoed the exuberance I felt, too. However, I’m not a drunken clown, so it’s hard to tell when the mind behind this poker face is excited.

The Ex and Getachew Mekuria @ Ottobar

I admit I had reservations about including this show. Not due to lack of talent, showmanship or the amazing synergy between audience and performers. I’m reluctant to include it because it was almost a forgone conclusion that this show would end up on everyone’s top ten lists. Who wants to root for the Yankees, so to speak?

That being said, though, the show was solid enough to make me overcome even my most dogged contrarian tendency. Regardless if City Paper and Ottobar/Monozine seemed to be oddly in sync in drooling over this one, I had to drool along with them at the sound of The Ex and Getachew Mekuria’s figurative bell.

Plus, Double Dagger opened up—a band that I’m always, and forever in the mood for. I can’t remember if it was this particular Double Dagger show at the Ottobar where Nolan called out that tall, lanky, curly-haired show kid, but damn…he deserved it, whatever time it may have been.

This show is unique among all the others I saw this year—I listen to it almost every week, without fail. Thanks to the equally unique Baltimore live show archival institution known as Jeff Mewbourn, this show was taped (in quite high quality) for posterity. I usually listen to Jeff’s tapings as a resource for doing reviews. Not that I totally zone out, and wait for Jeff to pick-up the slack, but I double-check that I heard things correctly. This recording though—it’s just too damn good to not be repeatedly enjoy.

img_6194Michna @ The Hexagon Space

I read the press release for this show, so I knew Adrian Michna was an electronic music producer that played with a backing band–“live,” so to speak (but what makes a laptop performance or a deejay, for example, any less live?) What I didn’t know was how utterly tight that band would be; how ridiculous, and well honed their musical chops were.

Michna had that swing, indeed. Coolness, and just a plain element of effortless smooth were so infused into his music. Even the VJ opted out of cliché pratfalls, and instead messed around in old-school MS Paint on his laptop–which was routed to multiple flat-screen LCDs, and old-school tube TVs. Oh, yea…and the industrial strength fog machine.

Ghostly International is a really solid label and despite the shotgun blast of genres represented on their roster, they know talent when they see it. Michna has this talent in abundance.

This also goes down as the best show I’ve seen at the Hexagon, a space that when they aren’t struggling for mere survival, curates such sublime moments it’s as if the venue’s constant hurdles don’t even exist.

Electronic Dance Music, Anywhere in Baltimore…

…Is so hard to come by! But that makes it all the sweeter when it happens. I’m not really going to go into detail, because these events were more “parties” than “shows.” More or Less at The Depot/Talking Head/Hexagon/people’s houses, Deep Sugar at Paradox, Senari’s summer Unruly event at Paradox (K Swift’s last performance), andanything with a beat on Paradox’s sound system–these parties made my 2008, more so than a lot of “shows” did, anyway.

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5 Responses to “2008 Wrap-Up (Alex) – Live Performances”

  1. Greg Szeto says:

    Agreed on Michna, Wye Oak (& Lo Moda) @ Creative Alliance, Daniel Johnston, the Ex.

    Gotta give it up for:
    Caverns @ 930 Club
    Imperial China @ Velvet Lounge
    the Cure @ Patriot Center
    Beach House @ G-Spot
    Sigur Ros, Bluegrass All-stars, Abigail Washburn, MMJ @ Bonnaroo
    Ted Leo @ G-Spot
    Nick Cave @ 930 Club
    White Rabbits @ Ottobar

    I’m sure there’s a few others that I missed.

  2. matt says:

    Well worth the wait, Alex. I love your writing. It makes me sad Ive never seen Matmos.

  3. [...] Plus MOL was mentioned in the “Dance Parties” section at the end. Read the review here. « Holidaze Mix via Maxmillion [...]

  4. love/hate says:

    I really need to get out more.

    I didn’t notice how well the Michna show was because i was too busy making sure nothing went awry, like having the upstairs neighbor think the place was on fire because of the industrial grade smoke machine.

    Good times regardless.

  5. Grid Corruptor says:

    Great job Alex!!! every concert listed here sounds like the perfect show.

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