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Live Review: Whartscape 2010 Days 2 & 3 (2010.07.23-24)

Photo credits: Josh Sisk

First and foremost, Whartscape 2010 was hot — weather reports read that temperatures fell steady at 100 degrees all weekend. In effect, the parking lot that harbored Whartscape’s outdoor performances became the modern urban desert. Shade grew more valuable every second, and patrons found themselves willing to pay most anything for a bottle of water. Feeling overzealous, a friend and I initially laughed about purchasing a 30-pack of Deer Park to share between the two of us; half of it had been killed off by the end of our first day. Even though its events transpired in these miserable conditions, Whartscape’s fifth and final year was abound with interesting and engaging live performances — some of which were even good enough to allow their audience‘s attention to stray away from the accumulating sweat on their brows.

Truthfully, I only attended half of the festival. Organizational difficulties left Thursday’s theatre night out of the question, whereas Sunday’s sudden monsoon had me driving back home before I was made aware of Whartscape’s relocation to Sonar. I was there all day Friday and Saturday though, and I’m here to tell you about it. Similarly to our coverage of Whartscape 2009, I’ll be writing future Sound Off! posts on standout artists from the festival. The following is more or less a highlights reel for the portions that I experienced.


-       Lightning Bolt

  • Do I even need to say it? For the strength with which he plays, Brian Chippendale should have the biceps of a boxer. And, let me tell you, the audience can definitely feel that about his live performance.

-       Get Em Mamis

  • Get Em Mamis were easily the most unexpectedly exciting live act Friday. Their brand of hip hop was equal parts club and street — their samples cracked like thunder, and their rhymes matched in wit. As an added bonus, the Baltimore-native duo knows how to work an audience better than most. For a brief 30 minutes, the Get Em Mamis shaped Whartscape like warm putty; tracks like “Cold Summer” couldn’t have been executed more flawlessly (and they’re good on the record too). If, by some stroke of misfortune, you missed out on 2009’s TerAwesome, I advise you to seek it out immediately.

-       Romantic States

  • I was initially attracted to nothing more than Romantic States’ name. “Romantic States” — it just looks like a perfect fit for a melancholy chillwave group. I was intrigued. As it happens, Romantic States are hardly chillwave at all; in fact, they’re just a straight-up downcast pop duo. They’re good too — half of Romantic States is Jim Triplett (of the Videohippos), and he’s carried over his characteristic aching bummer into this new project quite well. Romantic States’ sound is considerably more lo-fi than the Videhohippos, but no less affecting. I look forward to hearing more.

-       Dope Body

  • Unfortunately, Dope Body’s set and my aching hunger occurred simultaneously. I stayed for two songs — both blew me away — and then walked down Park Avenue for some Chinese food. The funny thing is, I could hear Dope Body’s set four blocks away as I ordered my food. These guys are hard, fast, and loud. I don’t think a true hardcore band should be asked for more.

-       Jared Paolini

  • I didn’t like Jared Paolini’s set at last year’s Whartscape, but I guess all things are subject to change. Jared’s 2010 set at the H&H was comprised of all-new material, the bulk of which was absolutely outstanding. Since I last saw him, it appears as if his ear for harmony has grown more delicate, and his tones have only become more ethereal. According to the man himself, he’s working on getting some of his new movements recorded. To my knowledge, there’s no other information present, so keep an eye out of Jared.


-       Needle Gun

  • If Needle gun are supposed to be funny, then the joke is lost on me. If they’re not, then I wish they’d take their work a little more seriously. Needle Gun’s live noise set on Friday found them smirking more often than not; which wouldn’t have posed any trouble had their occasional harshness been more captivating (or the joke been more obvious). As it turns out, Needle Gun weren’t prepared to fill either niche. And I’ve listened to their recordings too, many of which are actually superb. Perhaps the virtue of their work is simply compromised by the live performance.

-       Ponytail

  • I anticipated yet another energetic set from Ponytail this Whartscape — they’d never disappointed me before. But their show this year was somewhat less touching. This time around, Ponytail felt overly mechanical; the sounds were the same, but the soul just wasn’t there. It was almost as if the group no longer cared for their old material. I hear now that this may have been their last performance; I just hope they’ll have one more to redeem themselves.

-       Amil Byleckie Band

  • The way I take it, Amil Byleckie Band aren’t much more than a Flaming Lips tribute. They appeared onstage at the Current Space in future-space costume; they presented commonplace indie pop tunes in the tired old verse/chorus/verse fashion, and they never quite connected their garb to their art. Now, maybe I’m just being cynical here, but it seems to me that costumes scarcely improve the live performance — especially if you don’t have the sounds to match them.

Lastly, I’d just like to take a moment to give props to Wham City for putting this on. Not only was the whole festival free of corporate sponsorship, but also the cuisine they offered was guilt-free and local. Megapasses may have costed upwards of $50, but that’s nothing for the quality of music and stubborn idealism Wham City presented.

Live Review: John Adams with the NSO; Leila Josefowicz Breaks Out Six String Electric Violin (2010.05.20)

Leila Josefowicz kicks arse. She broke out the “Violectra” for John Adams Dharma at Big Sur and you’re glad she’s Kerouac… rather than someone declaiming in best Beat tone Jack Kerouac’s words over the music. (That was Adams’ first idea for this orchestral work. Thank God Adams saw Tracy Silverman playing electric violin at an Oakland jazz club). It’s the sole reason that Leila’s Violectra came into being. It was born to play this concerto.

Dharma at Big Sur is a violin concerto about arrival. It’s about forsaking the East Coast for the West Coast. It’s not just about the cliffs, it’s the emotional shock, the visceral mental shift that hits with a salty, breathless slap at the edge of the Pacific coastline’s steep drops. That was Adams’ journey back in ’71. He shares it with us here.

Josefowicz’ violin is the perfect rhapsode in the midst of the National Symphony Orchestra’s instrumental chorus. The open: a dim orchestral hum, like a single ray of light expanding, mounts to roar – the sound of arrival. Leila’s tone is so clear and round it departs from the usual violin concerto role and becomes a sitar and throbs like an oud.  She captures the mystery of reflection that silences the soul who tries to talk about Big Sur’s upper reaches while still on the ledge. And then she bays like a wolf when the night is clear.

The principal violinist leads off the sighing cries of the other violins before surrendering to an echoing solitude as Leila plays on the bridge. The harp twangs, and the orchestra becomes a living wind. Triangle and almglocken lend a touch of gamelan to this pure, glistening sound. Leila enters again with piano enjambments and deep cello cuts.

Somewhere in all this we hear the suggestion of a Latin combo playing in the distance. Leila duels with brass. Trumpets start to bring up the horizon’s height. The piano and keyboard sampler relentlessly cast the rising crescendo, which builds such as to give you vertigo. Leila bays away on the bridge, starting to be subsumed, surrounded by the orchestra without weakening. That’s exactly what you get by going to Big Sur. Your whole little self cries silently in high-toned being: purer, more raw than your average B-more-bound existence. The wilds of Sur, its contrasts and colors, win over and you can’t help but feel reduced in size and nature into a spec of the great, the vast, the glorying pulse (even if it makes you, in paradox, feel larger than life).

This portamento riot for electric violin takes you on a great vacation. If you’re itching for a taste of the California road trip and the music, check this YouTube vid:
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Live Review: Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s Left Hand Sweeps D.C. Symphony Goers Onto Feet (2010.04.30)

Thibaudet is certainly the man for the job to enthrall and conductor Hans Graf contained the drama in excellent precision — without which we all might have drowned under the flood of French music: Debussy, contemporary composer Guillaume Connesson, and Ravel.

Guillaume Connesson peppers his work with influence from the more daring French greats that came after Debussy and Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux, blending them into an enveloping cinematic sweep of an orchestral whole. This work: The Shining One, draws inspiration from Abraham Merrit’s 1912 fantasy novel The Moon Pool.

If you read the novel, you’d know (like Connesson) that it begs to be music:

“Closer it drew and now there came to me sweet, insistent tinklings — like pizzicato on violins of glass, crystal clear; diamonds melting into sound.”

The tone color Connesson offers is 100% pure opaline glimmer. Was he successful? Yes, the audience got up to its feet.

But, did he describe accurately in music a creature of being without shape, who glides on the sea, up from the Earth’s core? Did he capture the essence of a created thing so evil it has become sweet, seductive and utterly elusive to those who try to study its mystery? Not quite. At no point did I get that thing I know Messrs. Messiaen and Dutilleux could have struck out for us: a kind of infernal joy or savoring horror.

A character observing “the Shining One” describes music “piercing the ears with a shower of tiny lances” that “made his heart beat jubilantly — and checked it dolorously.” In sum, he concludes: “So must Satan, newly fallen, still divine, have appeared.”

Thibaudet played it well, but he was no Satan in glory before me. I don’t think Connesson gave him or the orchestra quite enough. I hope I’m not out of line to suggest that he might have risked offense of ear to reap a greater reward from this material.

But perhaps he was only trying to be literary, and not literal. I will credit Connesson for not giving us a simple whitecap thrill of borrowings from Debussy and the watery stews of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is an exceptional work, especially for a pianist like Thibaudet. His mastery of three pedals was fine, keeping notes ringing for doubling effects that made you swear he cheated with the right hand. His opening cadenza, after the call of an impressive contrabassoon, was daring, almost damning, with a tremendous thundering edge. His secret sauce is modulation. After a percussive snap and a lurch, he flowed along in rich, soft convulsions then back into rocket rhythms. There was some debate on who played it better Thibaudet this year or Chris O’Riley last year. If you heard ‘em, cast your vote below.

Now for the sweet stuff… The NSO delivered a Daphnis and Chloé suite that was as good as licking icing straight from the bowl. Graf’s lead was light. He conducted close to the body, made no extraneous movements, he’d just take a wider stance. The result? A gracious sunrise vaunted by piccolo. In short, we drank deep of a treat with no fat.

[Author’s Note: Next National Symphony must hear concerts: composer John Adams conducts. John Adams: Perspectives happens May 20-22. This week, he invites Leila Josefowicz to join him onstage for his Dharma at Big Sur. We won’t miss her!]

Live Review: Colin Currie, Hannu Lintu Take Finns To Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2010. 04.09)

Conductor Hannu Lintu, borrowed by the BSO for the night from Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, earned rave roars from the audience for his execution of Beethoven’s Seventh. But don’t let that fool you… this man makes the case for modern music.

It’s no accident then that he shared the night with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie. I saw Colin Currie play a tour de force solo show back in December ’06 – thanks to the Shriver Hall Concerts.  His arsenal of percussive equipment took up the entire breadth of stage at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s auditorium, and he raced up and down the full spectrum without tiring. And two encores!

This time, Currie indulged us with Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Incantations. This was another BSO co-commission. The opening movement strikes with intense immediacy, as if we’re in a play that’s started at the middle… after the king’s already been dethroned and before a new one takes over. The strings lend a chorale-like backdrop to Currie’s handiwork on the xylophone. At the work’s height — the Expressivo — Currie’s vibes created a crisp, almost geometric force laid over the messy, teeming world.

Racing back and forth from vibes to xylophone and back again backed, as in the open, by violins made one question who was the “skin” — the fluid melodic being — in this music and who the “skeleton” — an impression, which stands the whole idea of percussion in a piece on its head. After all, what is percussion in most symphonic works but underpinning and punctuation? The main punctuations here came with Currie’s quick, almost comedic strikes of the chimes.

Rautavaara certainly underutilized Currie’s skills here, despite composing at Currie’s request. The overall impression of the work, while engaging, never coalesced into something truly stratospheric — which I maintain is the necessary condition of calling something an “incantation.” I mean, it is about a shaman after all.

Back in the day, Jean Sibelius awarded Rautavaara a music scholarship, calling him: “the most promising Finn” on the scene. Now, Mr. Rautavaara is an advanced 81 years old and very much beloved by his countrymen. So it was perfectly just to compare the two Finns by an opener of Jean Sibelius’ famous Finlandia.

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Live Review: Arctic Monkeys, Sleepy Sun @ Rams Head Live (2010.04.07)

Looking back, Arctic Monkey‘s rise to prominence with their 2006 fastest-selling debut makes a lot more sense than Susan Boyle’s similar honors. People had just gotten used to finding out about music from the Internet. The Arctic Monkeys were young, irreverent, and most importantly, British. What’s more, the band was enjoyable to people you wouldn’t normally see together at a concert: pop-punkers and indie kids, aging hipsters and tweens, mods and rockers. All in all, 2006 was a pretty great year for them.

The boys from Sheffield have maintained their swagger for the ensuing three, churning out consistently high-quality albums and a slew of exciting EPs in between. Last year’s Humbug was supposedly a bottom-heavy, Americana influenced deviation from the course, although the most apparent difference was in Alex Turner’s longer hair than in any shift in songwriting. They’ve rocked tighter and better than most of their indie-major contemporaries, and although Wednesday was the first time I’d seen them live before, I had heard that their style translated into a fantastic stage show. Read the rest…

Photos / Live Review: Shearwater, Wye Oak, Hospital Ships @ Johnny Brenda’s (2010.03.28)

Flickrshow will appear here!

Despite a horrendously rainy evening, I made the trek up to Philadelphia to see two of my absolute favorite extant artists (Wye Oak and Shearwater) play impressive sets at Johnny Brenda’s. Though a bit oddly shaped, and accordingly awkward for sound, the venue is an absolute charmer. It feels like a back-room, private cabaret with some insane lighting rigs and luxuriously appointed design elements such as buttoned red velvet cushions on the walls. The venue shoots upwards two stories, but is shallow and intimate, making sure you are never more than 10 rows from the stage (which is well-elevated for a venue this size, giving everyone good sightlines).

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Live Review: Philly Serves Tan Dun’s Tea, Curtis Recitals Shine

Intrepid music lovers should head North on 95, cut over onto 76 and head into Center City Philly for action. First gem: Opera Company of Philadelphia. This is the only East Coast company, so far as I know, with the balls and the budget to invite Chinese composer Tan Dun to conduct his own opera, Tea: A Mirror of Soul.

I was lucky enough to be gifted a front row seat for the Feb. 21 performance by a very awesome sister. Dun does not so much conduct as conjure from a well within; I couldn’t stop watching him the entire performance. What makes an operatic success? Not the story, but the spectacle; not the characters, but the voices. Tea’s vocal lines are almost at home in Italian opera, although the words are disappointingly English. Haijing Fu’s unwavering baritone grounded the proceedings well, but Dun’s instrumental abandon is what makes the opera glisten and resound.

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Live Review: The Finns Take Philadelphia – Vänskä Conducts Sibelius and Aho’s Minea (2010.03.13)

Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center (home to the Philadelphia Orchestra) puts the Kennedy Center to shame. This 2001 building gives off an intergalactic glass air from the outside. But once you cross the orchestra doors into Verizon Hall, sweeping elliptical balconies in warm wood welcome you and provide an intimate surprise once the orchestra strikes up.

Such a hall was very kind to the East Coast premiere of Kalevi Aho’s Minea. This concertante for orchestra gets its feminine nickname from the commissioning orchestra (Minnesota) where Vänskä conducts. Ever the champion of his fellow Finn, Vänskä gave Aho’s overture a powerful push. He was jumping, bending deep in the knees, twisting from the hips before delivering an openhanded punch or swipe to call up a section to glory.

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Photos / Live Review: English Beat, Fishbone @ Rams Head Live (2010.02.24)

Flickrshow will appear here!

Photo credit: Shantel Mitchell

I knew about this show for awhile and I had every intention on going, but the day of the show I was exhausted.  All I wanted to do was curl up on my sofa in my pajamas and watch a movie or something.  However, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown despite my reluctance.  I arrived just shortly before Fishbone was scheduled to go on and was surprised to see an empty Rams Head!  I was shocked for I had heard that the DC show this past Monday was packed!  I grabbed a seat and had a drink at the bar and reflected on the first time I saw Fishbone.  I was in college and remember getting to the 9:30 Club a bit late.  Fishbone was already playing and the place was packed, but even from the back of the club trying to see over heads and arms, I had an awesome time.  English Beat play frequently in the area, but surprisingly I have never seen them perform live, so knowing my Fishbone experience and the fact that English Beat are classic I was anticipating a great evening.

Fishbone took the stage and played for an hour – at least!  I really lost track of time because their performance was dynamic.  Watching these guys play and perform after so many years is just exciting!  I had so much fun during their set that I forgot I was tired and even hesitated going to the show in the first place.  Their set included a great list of classics including “Ma and Pa,” “Cholly,” and “Party at Ground Zero.” We were even treated to a special guest appearance by HR from Bad Brains!  After their set, most of them made their way out to socialize with the fans which was completely awesome.

English Beat was headlining for the evening and took the stage just after 11 PM.  Fishbone had a very relaxed photo policy (I basically shot the whole show from the front), but English Beat had first two and last two songs.  After such an energetic Fishbone set, I must admit I was a bit bored with English Beat.  I really love their music and enjoy listening to them from time to time, but their live performance fell a bit flat and I rolled after about the 4th song.  I did get to hear “Tears of a Clown,” though!  So, whether you are a Fishbone fan, an English Beat fan, or love them both – enjoy the pictures from the show!

Live Review: Brubecks’ Ansel Adams: America – Baltimore Symphony Paints Pictures in Music (2010.12.02)

First off, apologies for being quiet on the classical front. While you may be inclined to trek out to any show at all hours, the majority of the symphony and chamber audience express trepidation on ice. The biggest casualties of the snow: BSO’s Porgy And Bess, and the Candlelight Concert Society’s All-Beethoven program with the Leipzig Quartet, which could have gone down as my “concert of the decade” — had it only happened. (Chin up, readers, the elusive and exemplary Leipzig players may still return in late 2010-2011).

When the BSO struck up the opening of Dave and Chris Brubeck’s Ansel Adams: America concertgoers settled into their seats once again after a forced absence. Composer Chris Brubeck appeared on-stage as a complete surprise. Maestra Marin Alsop invited him to say a few words, “Since you’re alive.” And he told us of hanging clouds and suspended chords (before proceeding to sit down just in front of me). Those clouds came, of course, from Ansel Adams’ photographs.

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