Saturday, February 27, 2010

Julian Casablancas with Tanlines

9:30 Club
Washington, D.C.
January 12th, 2010

When I arrived at the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night, the music emanating from the place was loud enough to make me realize that opening act, Tanlines was already onstage. Upon entering the venue, I realized this “band” was actually a duo, with one guy playing guitar and the other doing something with a couple of laptops, an electric drum and what looked to be some sort of effects machine. The result was no different than what you might hear if you stepped into any run of the mill dance club with a DJ, the only exception being the guitar, which was nearly unnoticeable over the thump-thump of the beats. I guess the danceable music was fun, but watching it live wasn’t all that exciting. Tanlines (Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm) made sure we all knew who they were and where they were from as I’m pretty sure I heard “Tanlines…Brooklyn, New York” after almost every song. Still, why am I finding it so hard to remember anything distinguishing about them or their music? Pass.

Julian Casablancas
We all know Julian Casablancas from his day job as lead singer for seminal, garage rock titans The Strokes. The vocalist was going it alone tonight however, playing the 9:30 Club in support of his debut solo album, the recently released “Phrazes for the Young”. When the lights dimmed, Julian’s backing band took the stage and started right into “Tourist” off of the new album. After a few bars of the song had been played, Casablancas strutted onto the stage like the rock star that he is, casually grabbed his microphone and began singing in that laid back, monotone voice that just oozes cool.

If you haven’t heard the solo material, it is very much unlike the minimalist, scaled back garage rock of his other band, but is instead a grand production that incorporates everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. From the dance-pop lead single “11th Dimension” to “Ludlow St.”, which might sound at home in an old western saloon, to the tripped out synth-rock of “River of Breaklights”, you get the sense that Julian is experimenting with anything and everything that doesn’t fit within the confines of The Strokes template.

To that end, it takes a good amount of instrumentation to recreate this full sound in a live setting, which is why Casablancas was backed by two guitarists, two keyboardists, a drummer and a percussionist who occasionally became a third guitarist. Julian is not one to interact much with the audience, so it was interesting to hear a little humor from him as he was forced to ad lib when his drummer’s kick pedal broke during the first song in the set. Julian - “So Maryland is close by? Who’s from Maryland?”…cheers from a good portion of the crowd…Julian – “You guys have the coolest flag of all…it’s so cool I want to wear it…I have no affiliation though”.

Equipment malfunctions aside, Julian and company proceeded to play through nearly every song off of the solo record. The tunes translated perfectly to the live setting…the grand sound of all those guitars and keyboards filling the venue from wall to wall. A few surprises were thrown in here and there, including a b-side and one song that Julian and his band apparently “threw together before the show”. The crowd seemed to eat it all up, leaving no doubt that Julian Casablancas is still one of the reigning kings of rock n roll…Strokes or no Strokes.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

National Symphony Orchestra

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – Concert Hall
Washington D.C.
January 8th, 2010

The Music Binge was out to get cultured this week my friends. Having seen a multitude of different types and styles of music over the course of this project, I still hadn’t witnessed something quite like what I saw and heard on Friday night. As I took my seat and the lights in the massive Kennedy Center concert hall dimmed, I had no idea what I was about to experience.

Note: There will be no pictures accompanying this review due to the nature of the performance, i.e. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to sneak a few shots like I normally do…a rock show this was not.

Concerto in B minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61 composed by Edward Elgar
The performance began when the conductor, Leonard Slatkin entered and took his place on the riser directly in front of the orchestra members. Following this grand entrance came an even grander one, when concertmaster (which means she is subordinate only to the conductor) Nurit Bar-Josef, a violinist, entered the hall and found her place at the head of the string section. Finally, and possibly the most impressive, guest violinist and the star of the first act, Nikolaj Znaider entered and took his post, standing directly to the left of the conductor.

In addition to the massive string section (which included Znaider and Bar-Josef), the first composition of the evening featured two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon (basically a larger bassoon), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a tuba and a timpani (otherwise known as a kettle drum)…whew, that was a mouthful! The next thing that happened completely blew my mind. With a wave of his wand, Slatkin had the entire ensemble, which had heretofore been randomly warming up their instruments, playing one note in unison. The resulting sound was kind of like that THX sound you hear in a theater before the movie starts, when the 5.1 surround sound melds perfectly in your eardrums. Truly amazing!

Slatkin proceeded to lead the orchestra into their performance of "Concerto in B minor" as Znaider stood idly by his side, with eyes closed, his head bobbing at all the right places in the music. Finally, when his time came, the guest violinist situated his instrument beneath his chin, steadied his bow on the strings and then erupted into a flurry of motion and sound. Considered to be one of the premier violinists in the world, Znaider commanded the stage and led the entire orchestra through the first act of their performance. This guy made playing the violin look every bit as cool as any rock God with a guitar…he was impressive to say the least.

On a side note, and adding to Znaider’s coolness, the instrument he played during this performance has an unbelievable history behind it. The violin is called the "ex-Kreisler" and was made by Guarnerius del Gesu (one of the most revered violin makers in history) in 1741. It is on loan to Mr. Znaider by The Royal Danish Theater (Znaider is Danish). The violin is the same one that was played at the premiere of the "Concerto in B minor" in London on November 10th, 1910 (Fritz Kreisler was the soloist that night). How’s that for a history lesson?

The Planets, Op. 32 composed by Gustav Holst
For act two, the National Symphony Orchestra re-tooled, this time taking the stage with four flutes, three oboes, an English horn, three clarinets, a bass clarinet, three bassoons, a contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, two trombones, one bass trombone, a tenor tuba, a bass tuba, two timpanis, a bass drum, cymbals and percussion that included a glockenspiel (a smaller, higher pitched version of a xylophone), a gong, bells, a side drum, a suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, a tambourine, a triangle, a xylophone and a celesta (similar to a xylophone, but played via a keyboard instead of by striking with a mallet). Oh yeah, there was also an organ, two harps, a full string section and a women’s chorus…impressed yet? The whole ensemble was again led by conductor Leonard Slatkin and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef.

Unlike the performance during act one, "The Planets" had no soloist and was therefore a true sum of all the various parts that made up the orchestra. This piece of music is divided into seven movements, all of which are based on…you guessed it…planets. It opened with the strikingly dark, almost sinister sounds of "Mars, the Bringer of War", which melded into the more soothing, calming sounds of "Venus, the Bringer of Peace". The music then evolved into the more upbeat sounding "Mercury, the Winged Messenger", which eventually gave way to the centerpiece of "The Planets", "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity".

In my mind, that’s what was so amazing about listening to the second act of the orchestra’s performance tonight, the fact that each of the seven planetary movements was easily discernable from one another, whether you were familiar with the piece or not. The jovial sounds of Jupiter devolved into the dreary, depressing sounds of "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age". And right on the heels of that segment was the appropriately mesmerizing "Uranus, the Magician" and then the finale, "Neptune, the Mystic". "The Planets" came to a close with the vocals from the women’s choir, set offstage and out of sight of the audience, echoing gently and growing quieter and softer until there was nothing left but silence. The effect was incredible, as if you’ve reached the end of the universe as we know it and all that is left is the nothingness of space. An overwhelmingly, amazing performance…the National Symphony Orchestra introduced me to an entirely new side of music, as classical is a genre I hadn’t previously given much attention. Like that aforementioned great expanse we call the universe, the Music Binge too continues to expand.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Clutch with Doomriders, Lionize and Never Got Caught

9:30 Club
Washington DC
December 28th, 2009

Let it be known that I have probably seen Clutch no less than a dozen times dating back to 1996 when I first saw them headline an incredible bill that included Fu Manchu, Orange 9MM and Core. While they are truly an amazing live act in their own right, one of the most exciting things about a Clutch show is finding out who they’ve pegged as openers. Throughout the years, I’ve been introduced to an eclectic bunch of opening bands like Stinking Lizaveta, The BellRays, Dixie Witch and Clutch’s own side project The Bakerton Group, just to name a few. Tonight however, the Maryland boys one-upped even themselves by assembling one of the strongest lineups I’ve seen in quite some time.

Never Got Caught
Prior to this show, I was unfamiliar with this Beantown power-trio which includes Bryan Hinkley on vocals and guitar, Bill Hinkley on drums and Paul Dallaire on bass. I had no idea what to expect, particularly when the fellas took the stage in spiffy suits and nice hats looking more like a bunch of 1930’s era gangstas ready for a bank robbery than a rock band. Once they started playing however, it was all about that heavy, heavy groove.

It was easy to see (or hear rather) how Never Got Caught got on this tour as their musical style gives a rather obvious nod to Clutch (and it just so happens that Clutch vocalist Neil Fallon lends guest vocals to one of the songs on their latest album, “Creepshow”). What sets these guys apart from their peers however is the healthy dose of classic rock that permeates their sound…listening to Never Got Caught is like listening to the bastard child of Clutch and AC/DC. This correlation is due in no small part to Bryan Hinkley’s raspy vocal style which often evokes Bon Scott and that classic rock guitar sound that owes an awful lot to fellow Bostonians, Aerosmith.

Never Got Caught proved to be an excellent opening act for the evening and got the proceedings off on the right foot. When the band finished playing one particular song, Hinkley immediately leaned into his mic with arms stretched out, palms up and simply said (with a heavy Boston accent) “Eh?...Eh?”…translation: “pretty damn good, right?” The answer was a resounding yes, and by the sound of the crowd, most everyone in attendance agreed with me.

Local (Silver Spring, MD) stoner/reggae fusion act Lionize was next on tonight’s bill. The band consists of Chris Brooks on keys, Henry Upton on bass, Mel Randolph on drums and the duo of Nate Bergman and, to my surprise, Clutch’s Tim Sult on guitars (Tim isn’t listed on the band’s website as a member, but he was up there onstage tonight). The tunes sounded like Sixty Watt Shaman meets Bob Marley, or in other words, a heavy dose of stoner jam-rock mixed with reggae. Lionize managed to blend the two styles so seamlessly, I had to wonder why it hadn’t been attempted before now. Throw in the Doors-like organ, which was prominent throughout the band’s set, and you have a perfectly original musical concoction. Yet again, a very impressive performance and a perfect opening act for the legendary Clutch.

As I watched the next band set up their equipment, I was extremely skeptical as to whether or not they could meet the high expectations associated with having a name as utterly cool as Doomriders. Lucky for me, this Boston (what’s in the water up there?) based act met my expectations and then some. Sounding like a slightly less heavy version of High on Fire, the band proved to be the highlight of the night in my mind.

Doomriders consists of Nate Newton (who also plays bass in hardcore band Converge) on guitar and vocals, Jebb Riley on bass, Chris Pupecki on guitar and John-Robert Conners on drums. The band’s abrasive style, which was much more “metal” than anything else on tonight’s bill, seemed to catch a large percentage of the crowd off guard. Fifteen years ago that may not have been the case at a Clutch show, but the headliners’ audience has changed over the years to fit their stylistic shift towards a more bluesy, jam-band type of rock…a metal crowd, this was not. That fact wasn’t lost on Newton, as was evidenced after finishing one song when he smirked and said to the crowd, with a hint of sarcasm, “kind of crazy, huh?”

It was obvious that the band was having a blast onstage, tearing through songs off their latest album “Darkness Come Alive” (a masterpiece if I do say so myself…I picked it up at the show after witnessing their set). Newton’s sense of humor was obvious throughout the set, for example after asking the crowd to “give it up for Never Got Caught”, to which he got a very mild response, he screamed “oh c’mon, give it up for Never Got Caught!”, at which point the crowd erupted and the singer said simply…“proper”, before launching into the band’s next song. On a night chock full of amazing bands, Doomriders were the cream of the crop (and like it or not, I’m including Clutch in that assessment)…proper indeed!

One of the best things about going to a Clutch show is that you never know exactly what you’ll hear. They’re liable to play anything off of their nine studio albums (and three EPs/compilations) on any given night. That’s why when I heard that this tour would feature a full performance of their 1995 self-titled masterpiece, I was actually somewhat disappointed. Now don’t get me wrong, I tend to agree with the majority of Clutch fans, that the self-titled release is in fact their high water mark. But, they have so much great music in their repertoire, that it seems a shame to focus two-thirds of a set list on one album. But the whole “play an older album in its entirety” strategy seems to be the flavor of the moment for a lot of bands recently (see The Cult, Megadeth, et al), so I guess I’m not all that surprised.

Having said all of that, the stoner rock godfathers, hailing from Germantown, Maryland, took the stage and launched right into “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” off of their incredible new album, “Strange Cousins from the West”. Realizing these guys need no introduction, I’ll do it anyway. The band is made up of Neil Fallon on vocals (and occasional guitar) and Tim Sult on guitar, both of whom I’ve already mentioned previously in this review. In addition, Clutch consists of Dan Maines on bass and of course, the best rock drummer since John Bonham…Jean-Paul Gaster.

After rolling through over half of their latest album, the band settled into the “in its entirety” performance of their self-titled opus. Again, having heard all of these songs multiple times live, I have to admit that I wasn’t astonished to have the experience of listening to them in the order that they appear on the album. However, given that I had consumed my fair share of frothy beverages by this point in the evening and the band was playing what amounts to my favorite album (of theirs), I found myself shouting right along with Fallon (and the rest of the crowd) by the time he sang “we got Greedo…Solo to the rear” off of “Big News II”.

If you’re at all familiar with Clutch, then you know what ensued over the next hour or so as they worked their way through the album. From the powerful swagger of “Rock n Roll Outlaw” to the requisite crowd sing-along during “Spacegrass” (”Dodge Swinger, 1973, top down, chassis free…Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong, or maybe just me…Don’t worry, its coming…Don’t worry its coming…Jesus on the dashboard!”) to the intense, yet zany hardcore of “Animal Farm”, Clutch was on top of their game tonight, as always.

By the time they reached the chilled out, laid back album closer, the instrumental “Tim Sult vs The Greys”, it’s a wonder the band, or their audience, had anything left in the tank. But after a short break, the boys returned to the stage for an encore that included two more tracks from the new album in addition to an energetic version of “Regulator” and then the finale…“Gravel Road” off of my second favorite Clutch record, “Robot Hive/Exodus”. By this point, the 9:30 Club crowd had been sufficiently rocked.

If you’ve never seen a Clutch show (and you’re at all interested in rock music), then you owe it to yourself to do so. They are truly one of the most talented acts you’re likely to see, undoubtedly due to their incredible work ethic…these guys tour like no other band around. To use their own words, Clutch are “veterans of the trade” and they continue to prove it every single time I see them…tonight was no different.

Set List
50,000 Unstoppable Watts
Struck Down
Let a Poor Man Be
Algo Ha Cambiado
Abraham Lincoln
Big News I
Big News II
Rock n Roll Outlaw
Texan Book of the Dead
Escape From the Prison Planet
I Have the Body of John Wilkes Booth
Tight Like That
Animal Farm
The House that Peterbilt
7 Jam
Tim Sult vs The Greys

Motherless Child
Gravel Road