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Author Archives: Eli

[show review] Newport Folk Festival

The Newport Folk Festival is a music festival built for music lovers. Steeped in history, it could almost get by on name alone. Almost. It tried that and failed somewhat when it found itself in debt and struggling to survive just a handful of years ago. But in the past few years it has been reinvigorated to the point that it is practically bursting open at the seams. The revival has coincided with and/or helped nurture a renaissance in young folk music around the country, and even across the globe, which has only helped to increase the buzz. It’s a true chicken and egg situation where everyone is a winner. Bands, promoters, and of course in turn, we the fans.

So much music, so little time, and such a small space. The promoters have stuffed the small grounds at Fort Adams State Park with as much music as it can handle. As you walked from the main stage at the Fort overlooking the bay and the beautiful Pell Bridge, around to the Quad Stage on the interior of the Fort, you could hear the uninterrupted sound of music the entire way. The music from the main stage slowly faded out and gave way to sounds wafting out of the open windows of the newly minted Museum Stage, which then blended into the Harbor Stage. As you ascended the ramp into the center of the Fort the Quad Stage sounds took over. All that and they still managed to squeeze unscheduled music into every nook, whether it be the Paste Ruins nestled in a room inside the Fort, where a small audience could listen in on wireless Sennheiser headphones, or the Kids Tent outside the Fort Stage where musicians gathered for impromptu sets hosted in part by children’s singer Elizabeth Mitchell. Not to mention the random busking appearances from the likes of Jonathan Tolchin, the Graverobbers and others. So much to say, if you wanted to just find a quiet corner to be alone with your thoughts, tough luck. There was nary an inch of the festival grounds not completely consumed in music.

In my twitter feed during the festival, I saw many tweets stating, ‘if you miss such and such a set you’ll truly be missing out.’ ‘If you’re not at this stage I’m at right now you’re at the wrong stage.’ Etc, etc. Those sentiments were lost on me. At the Newport Folk Festival this year, and for the past few years in fact, there truly wasn’t a wrong turn. If you were missing one band it was only because you were seeing a different band. Chances are, they were pretty damn great too, because the secret is, there aren’t any bad bands invited. The festival is carefully curated to the point that every single musician there is there for a reason.

What exactly defines folk music is a much debated topic. Traditionalists would like you to believe it must involve acoustic instruments and a strong voice toward a worthy cause. But, like in most facets of the world, traditionalists are unhinged from reality. Folk music, like most genres, is an ever evolving format without a hard definition. In my estimation folk music is more about the spirit than any one particular sound. The spirit of collaboration, respect, family, and perhaps most importantly, honesty. This spirit was ever present not only in the music and musicians at the festival, but also in the entirety of the festival itself. The way the festival is run from the moment tickets go on sale until the last note is played is like an extension of the music. It all seems to come from the same place and to serve the same purpose.

Ben Sollee, cellist extraordinaire and member of my coveted top ten albums from 2011, was one of the folk heroes in 2012. Ben made a comment during his set at the Museum Stage that musicians at Newport don’t just roll out the carpet during their set and then roll it back up and call it a day. He said that collaboration is an important and integral part of the festival and the musicians enjoy interacting with each other. True to his word, he embodied the spirit of collaboration more than any other musician at the festival. He sat in with anyone and everyone during their sets and invited numerous musicians on stage during his, including all of The Apache Relay for a beautiful rendition of Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child.” Collaboration was a constant theme throughout the weekend. During a fantastic set being put on by Alabama Shakes, I commented, “I would love to see her sing one with My Morning Jacket tonight!” Where else but at the Newport Folk Fest would such a statement become fulfilled? True enough, Brittany Howard climbed on stage later that evening to belt out an amazing rendition of “Makes No Difference” with My Morning Jacket.

Which brings us to the second part of my definition for folk music: respect. And it was out in spades. The musicians’ influences came out strongly in favor of folk traditions through the covers they played. Whether it be the aforementioned Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, or Joan Baez, some good old classic folk music had it’s time to be heard. Unless we’re talking about the more traditional sounding Punch Brothers, who went in the opposite direction and took on bluegrassy versions of modern classics like Beck’s “Sexx Laws” and Radiohead’s “Kid A.”

A larger theme emerged in the respect category to pay homage to two folk legends: the recently departed Levon Helm, and the legend of legends Woody Guthrie, who has been celebrating his posthumous 100th birthday all year. The love for both started on the “extra” Friday night show with Megafaun covering the Band’s “Look Out Cleveland” and Wilco playing a bevy of Guthrie tunes from their Mermaid Avenue albums throughout their set. In more planned tributes, a set by New Multitudes gave more life to Guthrie’s lyrics with new music, and Guthrie’s descendants, including son Arlo and granddaughter Sarah Lee played a loving set of music in his honor dubbed the Guthrie Family Reunion.

This also covers the third part of my folk definition, family. Though in that case being a literal example, it also shone through in the general spirit of collaboration. Seeing musicians as fans of their fellow musicians, and being a part of an audience that truly felt connected to each other through a common purpose made this evident. Saturday night’s My Morning Jacket set was curtailed due to a massive storm that came through the area. Being stuck under a small shade tent with a group of total strangers for a couple of hours as the clouds opened up with torrential rains only added to this sense of community.

The overlying definition of folk music to me is honesty. What each and every musician had in common on the Newport Folk Fest stages was a sense of truth and honesty to their music. Whether it be just a voice and a guitar, a brass band, or a full on electric rock outfit, these musicians were making the music the way they wanted to, when they wanted to. Not beholden to a set of rules to fit in, or a trend to latch on to in order to succeed, the music is true. Folk is almost punk in that way, or vice versa I suppose. Folk was the original punk. A band like Tune-yards, for example, is almost without category, what genre is it? Folk is as good a fit as any. In fact, when she sang “My country, ’tis of thee / Sweet land of liberty / How come I cannot see my future within your arms?” it may have been the folksiest statement, not written by Guthrie, made all weekend.

Stream sets from the 2012 Newport Folk Festival at NPR

[mp3] Roadside Graves // Sega Remixes

Earlier this year, Roadside Graves’ keyboard player Johnny Piatkowski recorded some remixes of songs off their 2011 release We Can Take Care of Ourselves that had me feeling a bit nostalgic.

Nostalgic in the near term because it recalled what I had listed on Tympanogram as one of the best albums of 2011. At the time of publication I was hesitant to put my picks in order, but with more time and more listens, I’m fairly comfortable listing this one as my favorite.

The remixes also had me feeling nostalgic for a time much further in my past. Piatkowski re-imagined two tracks, both “Ruby” and “We Occupy Each Other,” using only sounds from the classic gaming world of Sega Genesis. They are essentially how the Roadside Graves would be played by the organist in the Sega NHL Hockey game. As I listen, not only do I remember the great original versions, but also afternoons spent playing the NHL game over at my friends house. The Sabres front line with Mogilny and LaFontaine was unstoppable. At least that’s how I remember it.

As kitschy as these tracks are, the quality of the songwriting shines through brightly. Enjoy these for what they are, but if you have yet to hear the originals, definitely seek them out first. Truly great.

Connect with Roadside Graves // web | Twitter | Bandcamp

Roadside Graves // Ruby (Sega Remix) [mp3]

Roadside Graves // We Occupy Each Other (Sega Remix) [mp3]

[show review] Colin Stetson // Rochester International Jazz Festival

Photo credit: DM Stith

A lonely bass sax the size of a small adult sat still on the Kilbourn Hall stage. The festival crowd quietly waited in curious anticipation. A woman in the aisle was having a conversation with the man sitting next to me. It eventually got a little louder and more heated. My ears perked up and I started picking up what they were talking about. It was political in nature and let’s just say the woman’s views didn’t align with mine nor her friend’s. He was wisely only offering up slight disapproval, but her arguments were so invalid I couldn’t keep it in. Completely out of character, I rudely interjected into their conversation. Luckily the lights died down and she shuffled off to her seat. But my pre-show calm had turned into discombobulation.

Colin Stetson entered with a soprano sax that he placed down on the stage. It looked like the bass’ little saxophone baby. He picked up the Papa sax and proceeded to blow a note so low that the entire theater reverberated. It wasn’t a note you could hear, it was a sonic wash you felt throughout your entire body. It surprisingly wasn’t even all that loud, you could still hear every shift in every seat… and there were many. The note reset my mind from frazzled to back at ease. Like watching a hard disk defrag, I could feel the proverbial colored blocks in my brain come back in order as the music penetrated my body.

With masterful playing and many cleverly attached microphones, it was amazing the amount of sound he could coax from his instrument. There was rhythm, bass and melody simultaneously being emitted without the use of any electronic devices. He even occasionally sang through the sax to very cool effect.

When the bass heavy first song was through, a man in the front row asked, “How long can you do that for?,” referring to the circular breathing that allows him to play entire pieces without taking a breath. Unsure how to answer at first, Stetson finally arrived at: “I’ve never tried for distance.” It was the perfect response. A lot is made about his technique, but I found that the quicker you forgot about the how and concentrated more on the what, it became a lot easier to enjoy and appreciate his music.

Switching between the soprano and bass regularly, Stetson continued for a set of intense, oddly calming, and thrilling playing that made an hour pass like it was nothing at all.

His music wasn’t for everyone, but groundbreaking unique new sounds rarely are. Jazz music always needs new artists to push boundaries, create new avenues for exploring, and expand the knowledge-base of the entire musical community. Stetson’s unique and refreshing take on the saxophone, and music in general, does just that.

My social gaffe was all but forgotten. Though I had to wonder if that woman at least agreed with me on the music we had just heard.

Connect with Colin Stetson // web | Bandcamp

[live review] Get The Blessing // Rochester International Jazz Fest

Get The Blessing is a 4-piece out of Bristol, England that could just as easily be categorized “instrumental rock” as “jazz.” Being that they were playing at a jazz festival, let’s call it jazz. Their name is Get The Blessing, they were playing in a church, and there was some congregational clapping, but this music wasn’t religious. In fact, bassist Jim Barr (nicknamed Captain Havoc by his bandmates), formerly of Portishead, explained after the first number, “Low Earth Orbit,” that the music they would play could be placed into two categories, science or sentimental rubbish.

Normally Barr would be joined on drums by Clive Deamer, his former bandmate in Portishead. Though since he is currently on tour with Radiohead, he was replaced by Dylan Howe, son of Yes guitarist Steve Howe. He literally didn’t miss a beat. Rounding out the band are Jack McMurchie on saxophones and Peter Judge on trumpet. Both horn players made use of pedal effects and loops, though subtly without overpowering or distracting.

The music centered on Barr’s bass lines, even on the occasion he switched to a guitar. Intricate, intense and moving, it’d make for interesting music all on its own. The horns added more melodic and atmospheric sounds swirling in and around the bass, all pushed along by Howe’s driving beats. While they leave plenty of space to improvise and explore the themes, the bulk of their writing is very catchy. I was resisting the urge to hum along to many of the tunes, most of which I knew from their brilliant album OCDC, released earlier this year. It’s one of the best albums I have heard so far in 2012.

Part of the appeal of the evening was the hilarious British wit that would introduce each song. “Pentopia” (video above) was introduced as a song for starfish to dance to since they didn’t have one. “They like it,” Barr said. Another song was about shaving your beard to find that you had no chin underneath. “Speed of Dark” was introduced thusly, “Everyone knows what the speed of light is, but what about the speed of dark?” They closed the set with “Einstein Action Figure,” funny in and of itself. Question is, was it a scientific song or sentimental rubbish?

Connect with Get The Blessing // web | twitter | facebook (Gotta love a band that quotes The Simpsons in the Twitter bio)

[appreciation] The Bug Jar

In light of the recent turmoil the Bug Jar finds itself in, I thought it might be an appropriate time for an appreciation. This will not deal with or pass judgement on the current events associated with it’s situation, and only stands to document my experiences and admiration for the venue.

The Bug Jar’s tagline is “Your bar on earth.” It might seem a little bit of a pompous statement, especially for a tiny dive on a dingy corner in the, some might say, dwindling city of Rochester. But to the people that go there, it is theirs. And it is, of course, on earth. The Bug Jar is for whoever goes there.

I’ll never forget the first time I went to the Bug Jar. Near the turn of the Century (it feels pretty cool to write that), I drove in from Syracuse to catch a band called Drums and Tuba. It was before the days of GPS so I did a few circles before finding my way. It was late, I was flying solo, and it didn’t appear to be the best of neighborhoods. But when I finally walked in the door, the Bug Jar was an oasis of awesomeness. A ceiling fan with huge insect sculptures flying in circles above the bar? Cool! Weird, but cool. An entire 60s studio apartment hanging upside down from the ceiling? Really freaking weird, but really freaking cool, especially once I realized the lamps in the apartment actually worked. A rock club that serves its beer in actual pint glasses? Also really freaking cool. The band played an awesome set, and I was elated to see them. But I was equally “buzzed” about the unique new venue I had found.

Drums and Tuba // Eli [mp3] from Vinyl Killer

But the Bug Jar is much more than just it’s structure. It is a nurturing institution to both nationally touring acts and – more importantly – to local musicians. It is amazing to me that a venue in a city the size of Rochester has no problem filling its stage with quality music every night of every week. It speaks volumes that they are able to bring back the same bands again and again. Bands from around the country, from around the world even, come to town for one night and most of what they know of Rochester is contained within the tiny confines of the Bug Jar and the people who inhabit it on that given evening. I cannot count the number of times these bands have exclaimed, “This is our first time to Rochester, we love it here!” or some such. And true to their word, if they haven’t outgrown it, they’ll be back soon enough. I once saw a band from LA play a set for less than 50 people, and they came back twice more in less than a year to ever increasing crowds.

The Bug Jar is also a modern day music curator. The shows are booked carefully and with thought, so that you can head down on a random night not knowing any of the bands playing, and be assured you will be introduced to some worthwhile tunes. The place has introduced me to as much great music as anyone (except Tympanogram of course!). Known most for its loud rock shows, there is no genre left unheard on its stage. Folk, Jazz, Punk, Metal, Hip Hop, R&B, Electronic. All are welcome at the Bug Jar.

And with that I raise a nice cold pint of Whore-net Ale. Here’s to you Bug Jar! A one-of-a-kind, a neighborhood bar, a music venue, and an ambassador for the city of Rochester.