Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Service of Carols, Communion and Candlelight

First Baptist Church
Shelby, NC
December 24th, 2009

With the holidays upon us, the Music Binge was on the road this week, visiting and celebrating with family. Given the nature of this blog, I was desperate for a show to write about to fulfill my weekly obligation, but had thus far come up empty. On Christmas Eve, I found myself wondering how, and more importantly where, I was going to manage to see anything remotely relevant to this project. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about it for long. As I sat with my family in a small church in a little town called Shelby, North Carolina, the sounds of an orchestra pierced the night and I realized I had found the source for my weekly write-up…

Many readers may find it strange to see a review of a Christmas Eve church service posted here alongside entries about various rock and metal acts that may or may not sit at the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum. If so, I’d ask that those people go back and read my initial post for this blog (So What's It All About?). In my mind, music is music and art is art. There are no boundaries. There are no styles, classifications or labels that will be omitted here. I encourage people to think outside of the box when it comes to music (or anything for that matter) and don’t be afraid to give anything a listen…you never know what may come of it.

Stepping down from my pulpit (no pun intended), I’ll now get back to the business at hand. The small orchestra, consisting of strings, horns and percussion, played through various Christmas carols as the crowd continued to file into the church. Given the daily rigors of life…work, traffic, relationships, work…I oftentimes find it difficult to get into the “Christmas spirit”, but more than any other time this holiday season, I felt it at that specific moment. It’s truly amazing, the effects that music can have on your mood and on your overall frame of mind.

The orchestra soon gave way to a hand bell choir that was incredibly fascinating to watch and of course to hear. A group of probably fifteen or so men and women, each with different sized bells, some small and high pitched, others larger and lower in sound, were led through another series of soothing Christmas carols. This was turning into quite the holiday event.

The Christmas Eve ceremony that followed was filled with some amazing musical endeavors. Listening to a duet of “Gesu Bambino” by Rachel and Mary Roby (mother and daughter), I felt like the church had been transformed into an Italian opera house. A solo performance of “O Holy Night” by Gina McWhirter was equally impressive. And of course the requisite church choir singing carols like “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” over the traditional duo of piano and pipe organ was simultaneously awe inspiring and comforting.

Sitting there with my family, the whole experience made me both nostalgic for the more innocent time of my childhood and thankful for all that I have now as an adult. By the time the entire congregation stood together (the place awash with the glow from the candles each person held in front of them) singing “Silent Night, Holy Night”, I knew that this Christmas Eve service had given me all the material and the inspiration I needed for my next entry into the Year Long Music Binge.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Album Review - La Fin du Monde: Monolith

Check out my latest review for the new La Fin du Monde album, Monolith. It's available over at Heavy Planet.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Margot MacDonald

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – Millennium Stage
Washington D.C.
December 18th, 2009

The Binge was back at the Kennedy Center on Friday night to witness local pop-rock sensation (she’s only 18 years old) Margot MacDonald ride the wave of momentum associated with being nominated for five 2009 Wammies (Washington Area Music Awards) onto the Millennium Stage. A quick glance at said stage informed me that this would be an atypical set for the young artist as I noticed a couple of acoustic guitars, an upright bass and what looked like a big wooden block surrounded by cymbals. My understanding is that Margot’s gigs are usually of the “plugged-in” variety, incorporating more traditional “rock band” instruments such as electric guitars, electric bass and a full drum set.

Tonight however, the singer/songwriter was accompanied by K.C. Hatton on acoustic guitar, Trevor Olexy on upright bass and Danny Schwartz on the aforementioned wooden block, which is actually an instrument called a cajon. If you haven’t heard of it, a cajon is basically a box drum that is slapped with the hands. Schwartz sat straddling the instrument so that the striking surface was between his legs. I, for one, have never seen anything like it and was quite honestly surprised at the volume and depth of the sounds it created.

Strange percussion instruments aside, when Margot took the stage, she introduced herself to the crowd and informed us that this wasn’t her first time performing at the Kennedy Center. Apparently she was here when she was 10, playing the part of a street urchin in the musical “Carmen”. Given the somewhat older crowd in attendance, undoubtedly not her usual audience, Margot mentioned that she was probably dressed quite a bit differently tonight than she was back then, a joking reference to the short skirt and cowboy boots which made up her current stage attire.

The quartet played through a very entertaining, hour long set of songs from Margot’s solo albums, with some interesting and exciting covers sprinkled throughout. In addition to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, the band managed an improbable acoustic cover of Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” with vocals so impressive that I’m not sure even Robert Plant himself could match them (at this point in his career that is). The highlight however, was the finale…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In addition to Margot’s powerful vocals and notable guitar playing, her band was equally impressive. Hatton seemed to play his acoustic guitar with a sort of Latin flair that reminded me of Santana. This was especially evident during two particular numbers when Margot and K.C. performed sans rhythm section, resulting in a fantastic duet of guitar playing overlaid only by Margot’s striking vocals, which oftentimes reminded me of Evanescence’s Amy Lee. When onstage, Olexy was proficient on the upright bass and I’ve already mentioned the impressive percussion by Schwartz on the cajon.

The band even tried to get into the holiday spirit when Danny mentioned that there were Margot MacDonald cds for sale in the lobby. Due to the nature of the free Millennium Stage concerts and unbeknownst to Mr. Schwartz, apparently hocking your wares is against Kennedy Center rules. When Margot politely leaned over and mentioned to him that “you can’t do that”, Schwartz got an uncomfortable looking smile on his face and quickly recovered, saying “well in that case…happy holidays everybody”. The resulting laughter seemed to endear the band to their audience all the more.

As with any great performance, the time flew by and the show was over all too soon. Before leaving for good though, Margot mentioned that she wanted to try something special for us as a sort of finale/encore. As the three members of her band left the stage, the singer explained that she’d been given a “loop pedal” as an early Christmas present and wanted to try it out for us tonight. Using only this device, her voice and a rhythm created by clapping her hands, Margot performed an astonishing, multi-layered cover of Imogen Heap’s “Just for Now”. By far the highlight of the evening, this amazing solo performance has to be seen to be believed (see it for yourself here: Margot MacDonald at Kennedy Center). Margot MacDonald proved herself to be quite a talent on the Millennium Stage tonight, despite her relative youth. If you get the opportunity, I recommend you check her out.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Contributing Writer – Heavy Planet

FYI, in addition to the Music Binge, I will occasionally be contributing album/concert reviews to Heavy Planet. I encourage you to check out this blog as it is an excellent resource for anything and everything stoner/doom metal related. My first album review was for a new EP by the band Blood of the Tyrant, which can be found here. Take care!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Santaland Diaries performed by Joe Brack

The Warehouse Theater
Washington D.C.
December 10th, 2009

The following review is going to be a bit of a departure from the norm for the Music Binge, given the fact that its However, it is a performance and it is art, so I feel that it still fits the bill for what this whole project is all about. And it’s my blog, so if you don't like it, don't read it. As always...enjoy!

Before I get into talking about the actual show that I witnessed tonight, let me first fill you in on the tucked away little gem that is the Warehouse Theater. Given that I am no theater buff, I have very little knowledge about the venues in this city that host such events. Since the metro stop for this place was Gallery Place/Chinatown, a hub for DC tourists and suburbanites looking to have some fun in the "big city", I figured I was heading to a well known and oft-frequented venue. What I didn't realize is that after walking 4 or 5 blocks from the metro and leaving the lights and glitz of the Chinatown area behind me, I was actually heading to a dark, back-alley theater-dive. To enter the Warehouse Theater, I literally had to walk through a barren parking lot towards a building that looked guessed abandoned warehouse. The only thing that gave me the remote hope that I was heading in the right direction was the huge blow-up Frosty the Snowman waving at me from the door. There were no signs, no cars in the parking lot, not even other theater-goers to lead the way, since I was nearly an hour early...this was going to be interesting.

Once inside, I found the place to be a small, cozy escape from the freezing cold. Christmas lights adorned the walls, a small, makeshift bar was set up in the corner and three rows of tiered chairs were set out on either side of the place, creating a stage right in the center of the room. The theater was probably big enough to seat about 100 people, tops.

After the crowd filled in, there were a few brief announcements about the theater company and the usual guidelines were laid out for photography, no exiting the venue during the performance and no cell which time of course, someone's cell phone began to ring. The unfortunate person sitting in the front row scrambled to answer his phone and when he couldn't get it out of his pocket, he was forced to stand up and take the call while all eyes rested solely on him. What a perfect way to get the attention of your audience! It didn't take long to figure out that the owner of the misbehaving cell phone was in fact Mr. Joe Brack himself...and alas, The Santaland Diaries was underway.

If you aren't familiar with the play, it is a comedy based on an essay by David Sedaris about his experiences working as a Christmas elf at Macy's in New York City. As far as I know, it is a true story. The stage adaptation is a one-man show, which in my opinion, makes it all the more interesting. Like musicians who take the stage solo, any actor who can get in front of an audience and carry an entire performance on their shoulders alone has, without a doubt, earned my respect.

Joe Brack did a superb job of handling this pressure and showing all in attendance what it might be like to work as "Crumpet the elf". The humiliation of such a job was described early on in the performance when Brack, adorned in a pointy hat and stockings pulled to his knees, quietly recited about his attire: "I wear green, velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform."

The humor of The Santaland Diaries is in the self-deprecating, raw and uncut variety, not unlike the movie Bad Santa starring Billy Bob Thornton. The performance uses the experiences of Crumpet the elf to point out the uglier side of the holiday season...everything from spoiled, greedy kids and their catering parents to racism (when one parent requests not to be sent to a black Santa). It is a no-holds barred look into the over-commercialization of the holidays and it is unfortunately all too real. Countless times during the performance, I thought to myself "sad, but true". Take this sample exchange between Crumpet, the mother of a spoiled child and said spoiled child...all acted out perfectly by Brack:

"This morning I worked as an exit elf, telling people in a loud voice: this way out of Santaland. A woman was standing at one of the cash registers paying for her pictures while her son lie beneath her, kicking and heaving, having a tantrum.

The woman said, Riley, if you don't start behaving yourself, Santa's not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for. The child said: he is too going to bring me toys, liar. He already told me.

The woman grabbed my arm and said: you there, elf, tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately, then Santa's going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas. I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things.

I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. All of your appliances Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You're going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.

The woman got a worried look on her face and said: all right, that's enough. I said: he's going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing. The mother said: no, that's enough really."

It's that kind of scathing humor that permeates The Santaland Diaries and Brack's performance. The slow, transformation from a humiliated Macy's employee forced to wear a stupid looking elf costume, to a vindictive and spiteful person, tired of witnessing the ill-effects of society's overindulgence during the holidays. And haven't we all felt that same transformation during the holiday season? As the excitement of finding that perfect gift for a special someone gives way to the angst and ire of dealing with the waves of humanity at the local shopping mall.

The highlight of Brack's performance as Crumpet the elf had to be the segment where Santa is asking each child to sing his/her favorite Christmas carol. When one particularly shy child refuses to sing, Santa turns to his trusty elf (Crumpet of course) and asks him to sing instead. The carol to be sung is "Away in a Manger" and Brack/Crumpet, angry at the mere thought of having to sing for this kid, decides to do his best Billie Holiday rendition. Brack's mock-sexy performance as he sang in a sultry voice "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head" was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

I don't want to give the impression that the whole point of The Santaland Diaries is to merely be cynical about the holidays. Towards the end of the play, when Brack/Crumpet witnesses a mother yelling at her child for crying on Santa's lap and thus ruining the perfect photo-op, the true message is revealed. The point of Sedaris's essay, which Brack's performance made perfectly clear, is that Christmas has become a time when many (most?) people attempt to create the ideal, perfect world for themselves, even when that world isn't representative of real life. It is a humorous way of saying that we've lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas and the holiday season. Watching Brack in the Santaland Diaries was a great reminder that we all need to slow down to enjoy the season…and life for that matter.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sloan with Magneta Lane

Jammin’ Java
Vienna, VA
December 1st, 2009

Due to what I’m going to call "technical difficulties", there will be no pictures to accompany the following review.

Magneta Lane
Toronto garage-rock cum pop-punk act Magneta Lane was first on the bill tonight at Jammin’ Java. The all-female three-piece consists of Lexi Valentine on guitar and vocals, Nadia King on drums and, for this tour anyway, Kat Theodorelos on bass. Apparently the band’s permanent bass player is attending "university" back in Canada, so Kat, who regularly plays in fellow Toronto band, Lipstick Machine, is filling her shoes for the time being.

Valentine’s vocals reminded me of Karen-O from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, only without the screaming. She had that "I’m so bored, I’m cool" kind of sound that really provided a perfect contrast to the loud, feedback-laden music. The vocalist stayed in self-deprecating character even when addressing the crowd, as she mumbled an almost incoherent explanation for why she kept studying the back of her guitar between songs…apparently she forgot to wear her glasses and as such couldn’t see the band’s set list on the stage, so she taped it to the back of her instrument.

Meanwhile, King, whose face could rarely be seen through the bushy, brunette mop on her head, seemed utterly determined to destroy her drum kit as she laid down the foundation of the band’s attack. Adorned in various combinations of skirts, heels and cowboy boots, Magneta Lane had a sassy look to match their equally sassy sound…kind of like a more respectable, Hole-era Courtney Love. The "beauty meets brawn" dichotomy of the band’s image and sound easily won over the half-full crowd in attendance tonight at Jammin’ Java.

My first experience with Canadian alt-pop band Sloan, which was all the way back in the early 90’s (I’m dating myself), wasn’t one I look back on fondly. This was during the height of the major record label frenzy to swallow up anything labeled "alternative" due to the popularity of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al. At that time, Sloan had a minor radio hit with the song "Underwhelmed", which somehow propelled them to a headlining gig at a club called the Mad Monk (R.I.P.) in Wilmington, NC. My buddy and I, who were a couple of knuckleheads always looking for a good mosh pit to get mixed up in back in those days, made the hour long trek from our hometown to Wilmington in search of some action. Little did we know, we were heading to see a power-pop act that has more in common with the Fab Four than with Gang of Four, so needless to say, the scene was set for disappointment. As the show droned on (at least in our minds), my buddy finally decided to yell out the one and only song he knew, the aforementioned "Underwhelmed", to which vocalist/bassist (and sometimes drummer) Chris Murphy shot back a sarcastic retort for everyone in attendance to hear. The ensuing laughter from the crowd was embarrassing to say the least and Sloan would be forever cemented in our minds as a bunch of frat-boy, college rockers that could, for lack of a better term, kiss our collective asses.

Fast forward to present day…I’d like to think that my musical palate has expanded quite a bit over the course of the past 15 or so years. As such, I was back to make amends to a band that has stood the test of time and proven themselves as a mainstay in the alternative rock scene. I was ready for Sloan, take two. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Murphy hasn’t lost his witty, sarcastic sense of humor. Early on during the band’s set, he asked the audience "is this anyone’s first Sloan experience?"…when a few hands were raised he responded in his cocky, yet joking tone: "just finding out, huh?"…"yeah?"…"well, that’s okay".

Sloan is a band that doesn't rely on one particular member to handle lead vocals and a couple of the guys actually swap instruments during certain songs. I've already mentioned Murphy who primarily handled vocals and bass, but took a turn on the drums for a few songs. In addition, the band consists of Patrick Pentland, who played lead guitar and did his share of the vocal work, Jay Ferguson who played rhythm guitar, sang and played bass on a few tracks and Andrew Scott, who acted primarily as the band's drummer, but also took up the rhythm guitar and sang. Sloan was also accompanied by a keyboard player who, as you may have already guessed, provided vocals. Being proficient at multiple instruments and having one of four different voices out front at any given time gave the band a very diverse and interesting dynamic to their sound. You literally never knew what to expect from song to song.

Sloan is a band chock full of hooks and harmony and those in the audience who were familiar with their songs (I for one am not) seemed to eat it up. One fan in particular, who stood at the front and center of the stage, was a ball of energy, jumping up and down throughout the set, yelling song requests and singing word for word with whatever band member happened to be singing at the time. When Sloan did the aforementioned instrument swap, Murphy handed this guy a maraca and allowed him to keep the rhythm of the next song as the singer made his way back to the drum kit.

The rapport with the crowd continued throughout the band's set as they asked for requests...and when one fan yelled "Pen haven't played that in three tours!", Murphy quickly retorted..."that's a fucking lie"...then turned to a young fan whom he had pointed out earlier in the show because she was celebrating her birthday and jokingly said "happy 13th birthday" obvious, semi-apology for his choice in language. This guy is funny I tell you.

For their encore, Sloan brought the enthusiastic front and center fan (the one with the maraca) onstage with them and gave the guy full reign over the microphone. Honest to God, I was completely blown away. The guy nailed every note of the song (again, I apologize as I have no idea what song was being played) and if you weren't looking, you never would have known it wasn't a member of the band doing the singing.

At the end of the day, I was glad I gave this band a second chance all these years later. Their Kiss meets the Beatles pop-rock sound combined with Murphy's wacky jokes and sarcasm are actually a breath of fresh air in the often stuffy "alt-rock" world. Amazing how age puts a new perspective on things.