Livemusic2020 reviews, week 4
20Jan20 Smoota’s The Perfect Man @ Union Pool
Last night we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the NYC Freaks, first with an excellent meal & hang @ Kings Imperial, then around the corner for music at Union Pool. It was Monday night, so Union Pool = Rev Vince! Except, no, Vince is on tour and filling in was his regular trombonist Dave “Smoota” Smith. I think I know Smoota best from seeing him play with Rev. Vince, but he’s the kind of guy you see, like, everywhere. If you’re at a show for like any band of any size or genre and a guy comes out to play trombone, there’s a pretty good chance it’s him. Most recently he kind of randomly appeared mid-show of the Lux Prima gig at Kings Theatre and then was in Stuart Bogie’s Bogie Band band, opening for Hooteroll last Sunday. He’s played with TV on the Radio and, well, like everyone. But last night was his band, The Perfect Man. I had never seen them before, but having read a description of the music, I had no doubt that I was going to enjoy it. The only question was how much?
And the answer is: a helluva whole lot. I really loved the set. We walked in from dinner probably in the middle of the first or second song a smidge before 10pm, the room was maybe a quarter full, very dark except for a store-bought laser projection thing set up in the balcony, shining green and red beams into the floor, which gave a sort of retro-future sci-fi feel to the room. The music matched that playful vibe well, very groovy shit going on when we walked in, like immediately you want to put down your coat and start dancing, which I did, conveniently on a hook under the bar. The band is Smith on trombone and also a little Casio-type keyboard which he sort of played across his knee, a full-on synth guy and then across the back: guitar, drums, bass. If you want to know how good the band was (not sure I’d seen any of them before, which was kind of surprising, to be honest), at the end of the set (fast forwarding as bit, if you’ll allow me that…), everyone in the group seemed to pick out a different person as their favored member of the band. I personally dug the bassist who played some really inventive, keep-it-funky shit the whole time, but there were proponents of the drummer who had a very laid-back groove style, the guitarist who played a few wonderfully spectral outer-space solos and the synth player who took things to that way out spot on several occasions.
The set was mostly originals with a couple covers thrown in and if I’ve led you to believe this is a funk band, that’s only half the story. They funk it up good, but it’s a very dark, twisted, quite psychedelic thing, weird, intergalactic kind of dance music that got freeform on multiple occasions. The song they played after we got there he introduced as a song “from the 70's” called “Collage,” which I didn’t recognize, but was a sort of old school fusion thing, very good. After that he called up “Moist” Paula, who also plays with Rev Vince and also plays around all the time (she showed up to Mama Tried for a jam session we walked into back in December) and she really brought an extra dynamic edge to the music, an extra soloist with a style that really fit the sound. They did this one song that started off very, very quiet, like I was impressed how quiet the crowd was, because the Monday night it’s-for-free scene at Union Pool can be a little hairy at times, but the crowd last night was totally awesome, not least because our gang was well over half the people in the room. So, anyway, this song is just a very quiet, slow-burner, dark, evil, but also kind of delicate thing. Paula led the way the entire length of the tune, from an almost silence to a build, build, build movement, Smoota kind of directing the band behind her, the drummer kind of masterfully keeping the thing from burning out too fast while keeping it kind of groovy and when they finally got to that peak, it was quite a climb behind them, behind all of us. That was a flat out great tune, I thought. Who knows how often this band actually plays, but they had the energy of a band that plays every week. (and if they do, please tell me where, because I’d like to go see ’em again). They closed the set with a “cover you’ll all recognize” and finished up with a rather killer version of The Beatles’ “I Want You” that started as a sort of awesome darkfunk version of the song, then sort of melted down into an unformed liquidy, down-low double-synth thing, then managed to reform into the theme, rather triumphantly, a fantastic ending to the set. I mean… wow! Super impressed.
I absolutely was ready to stick out the setbreak and stay for another round, but it was 11pm on a Monday and you know how things go. But I am all aboard the Smoota Express next time these guys are playing. Really loved it.
Temples @ Webster Hall
My first time seeing Temples last night. I don’t know why, but seems like these guys are really under the radar for some reason… well, as much as a band that’s playing Webster Hall can be under the radar. Thought the show was great, a perfect amalgam of psych-rock sounds, tight band, good lights, totally high energy, crowd was loving it. Really enjoyed them. Room was moderately full for a Tuesday night. Definitely would see ’em again. My Bowery Presents House List review is here if you’d like to read more about it!
Subtonics @ Letlove Inn
From there headed to Astoria. I am constantly beside myself when I realize that any Tuesday night I do not trek to Astoria is a wasted opportunity. Subtonics are that good. They are total shapeshifters, sometimes playing raging, funky party music, sometimes super jammy easy-to-listen to shit, sometimes quiet, weird, introspective shit, sometimes more jazzy, sometimes more rocking, sometimes more grooving, typically just combinations of all of these things. but always, always, always awesome. Always makes you think damn, this is happening in Queens? Always makes you wonder why are there only 10 people here? It’s the jams that are for people that think Thursdays @ 55 Bar are too mainstream, man!.
Last night I walked in during what I assume was the first song of the late set. The part of the room where people were there to listen to music probably had about 5–10 folks scattered here or there, plenty of seats to be had within firing range, so I took one and took their best show. From the moment I walked into the bar to the first stoppage in music was at least 30 minutes. Over the course of that half hour, this cool, unassuming bar in Astoria saw some of the more mindbending jams you could imagine. I mean “entranced” means something in your day to day parlance, but last night was entranced like I was in a fucking trance, the later hour on a Tuesday combined with the music to truly mess with my mind. This was not your dance-music Subtonics, but more your ticking-pocketwatch hypnosis vessel, 3 or 4 guys (guitar, keys, drums with sax hopping in and out of the improv) just totally exploring, doing the opposite of listening to each other, all in their own little musical trances and man, was it some sweet shit. The latter half of the jam had Costas moving from straight late-night fusion to an almost Garcia-like phrase, sounding like he might guide the band into “Saint of Circumstance” at any moment. The second movement of the night was even better, a series of interlocking loops, I think Costas may have sat on a single chord on his guitar for about 10 minutes straight while the sax and keys mutated and bubbled up trippydrug style, so invasively laid back. Finally, that little vamp on the guitar started to change itself, cocoon > butterfly style, ecstatic, mindblowing, entrancing full-band jamming of the type you shouldn’t be able to see for free, that you shouldn’t have to drive to Astoria to see. How is it that this don’t-miss gig happens every week in that spot? Don’t question the lievmusicgods, just go.
GoGo Penguin @ Brookfield Place
I’m not sure where to begin with this one. Last night was my second time seeing GoGo Penguin do their original soundtrack to the film Koyaanisqatsi and, good lord, please!, I hope it’s not the last. What a stunning, absolutely mindblowing experience, the kind of performance that transcends the concept of “livemusic,” the kind of performance that can only be described as art at its most absolute. For a little background, GoGo Penguin is a trio from the UK, like a natural evolution of groups like the Bad Plus, it is a piano/drum/bass trio that starts from a foundation in “jazz,” but not just puts their own spin on the genre, but seems to reinvent it from within. They are heavily influenced by electronica, but that’s more of a stylistic infusion than a “let’s play piano trio music with electronica elements thrown in” kind of thing. They are perhaps one of the most interesting, accessible and, for lack of a better word, awesome, new jazz frontiers coming out of Britain these days. They fucking kick ass. Koyaanisqatsi is a documentary film from 1982 that hopefully you’ve seen, you can read more about it at its Wikipedia entry here, quoting from that: “The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music.” As it says, an important part of the film is the marriage of the (amazing, amazing) imagery and the music, which was originally scored by Philip Glass. GGP’s soundtrack is completely new and original and matched the film so well, from start to finish, just a perfect musical narration, it felt like the “real” one.
I feel like I could spend a lot of time delving into the film itself, a film that starts off focusing on cave paintings, the sort of original moment of man making our permanent mark upon this planet of ours and then moves from geological marvels to what was the current age back in the 80’s, cities, masses of humanity, microchips, etc. The visuals are almost all absolutely stunning, each “scene” a moving painting and a dynamic commentary on, well, just about whatever you want it to be. Some of the messaging is blatant, plenty more fun to try and unfold in your own personal way. It is a perfect visual setting for a soundtrack built to accentuate, to prod, poke and color what your eyes are seeing. In this way, compositionally, this show was a triumph. The music started off with slow moving, almost ambient, soaring melodies that matched the overhead flights over canyons and rivers, you could feel the geological time scales taken to carve out these geological structures in the unfolding music. It felt like the instruments each represented a different “element” when “element” meant fire, water, earth and air. You could feel the way these combined in different ways as the camera panned over landscapes or held steady on a violently churning waterfall. As the film switched over to more modern day elements, to man pushing things out of balance, to big earthmovers scraping the ground for minerals, to explosions, to planes and cars and people, people, people, the music followed. The tempo increased, the songwriting layered in complexity, it got groovier, but somehow, when listening while watching, a bit less stable. I don’t want to say it was anxious, but the sort of arrow-of-time entropy of the film, the move from beauty and grace to clamor and chaos was captured in the music perfectly. But even in the clamor and chaos, there was amazement and beauty and, yes, grace. There were sort of three themes my mind kept coming around to: the idea of size — the film captures bigness in unique ways, camera angles and overhead views; the idea of patterns, from winds across a desert creating almost perfectly spaced and sized ripples in a sand dune to the flow of traffic across midtown Manhattan to the logical layout of a microchip, for whatever craziness and chaotic nature the world aspires to, there are always patterns that emerge, whether real or perceived by our minds that thirst for patterns in places where there are maybe none; and finally, the concept of the passage of time, captured in the film quite powerfully with alternating use of slow motion and time lapse… there is a moment in the film where the point of view is above the city at night and below the cars are moving in that way they do in time lapse photography, streaks of colors constrained to the road creating a dynamic painting of light and then the camera starts to pan slowly across the skyline and I’m just marveling at how this shot is capturing two different time scales, the unnaturally fast blur of the autos and the slow pan from right to left… what an incredible shot! One of so, so, so many.
And before this turns into a film review, the thing is, the music captures all of this, the size, the patterns, the sense of time. I mean, that’s what music does. This music was larger than the three of them, part of that has to do with the fact that it’s being played in front of this large screen projecting these images, but the scale of GoGo Penguin is large, they have a big sound that transcends their genre and their instruments, a jazz band that creeps into dance and rock and roll while holding its structure. This piece they’ve conceived of captures that better than anything else they’ve done, the way they kind of “grow” over the course of 80 minutes, from this small, delicate sound to something so very big, tough to put your arms around. This piece of music — and it should be said, this is a singular piece, it is long and it works as one continuous entity, the story of the film, the story of the history of earth, played without stop from start to finish in impressive fashion. And it is filled with patterns, sonic patterns that become visual, drumstick hitting the drum in precise rhythm with sausages falling into place on a conveyor belt, bass riffs that trace the contour of a river in ess-fashion around a piece of rock that’s been carved out over aeons, piano melodies that somehow pick out the repeating patterns of automobiles in an infinitely-large parking lot. Of course, they captured the concept of time in their playing, It is the kind of piece that you could listen to regularly while watching the music and pick up on the repeating motifs and patterns within, how the visual beats of the film, from geology to technology, match the musical repeats. At times it felt like the film was responding to the music and not vice versa. How they were able to sync so tightly to the film, just three guys with no room for error, seemingly in perfect time with the movie that they didn’t seem to be watching, was seriously impressive.
There are so many reasons we listen to music, so many things to get out of it. It is rare to get to see a performance like this, where the music, matched so perfectly to the visuals, make you contemplate existence itself in such a deep way. There was also this strangely profound element to the night, seeing this music for free in Brookfield Place, basically a mall at its heart, a mall that, not for nothing, is a stone’s throw away from Ground Zero. The concert resonated with the place it was being held very strongly to me. Especially at the beginning, there was still regular-day commotion around the periphery of the space, people moving around, shopping, eating, passing through, whatever, and that all kind of became just din that competed for sonic space with the trio. That is, on one hand, annoying, but somehow it felt right, this combination of humanity and commodity, conflict and capitalism all focused on this spot, this spot where this amazing music was happening for anyone who wanted to stop and listen and watch. An incredibly deep experience.
Greensky Bluegrass @ Beacon Theatre
It felt a little strange to schlep uptown for another show after that, but also it was kind of early and what else but more livemusic? We walked into the Beacon a few minutes after the second set started and one heavy dose of Greensky Bluegrass felt like a perfect cap to the night. I’ve seen GSBG a couple times and while they’re great in my mind, they still seem to surprise me with how great they are. Whatever song it was when we walked in, they were in the middle of a rather psychedelic jam. So interesting to see them less than a week after seeing Umphrey’s in the same space. I think this might be my most jambandy week of music since maybe when I went to Lockn 4 years ago. While Umphrey’s and Greensky are about as different as you can get, it’s still interesting to think about the different ways they approach their basic philosophy of jamming and improvisation. I guess I’m just impressed with the way Greensky creates so much sonic texture with what you might perceive as a limited palette. They used effects at a couple spots, but not so much to feel intrusive to the spirit of their genre. The set mixed more traditional bluegrass — short, catchy originals with standard banjo and mandolin solos — with more “jammy” shit, songs that took “Type II” left turns for nice long, what-song-is-this? sections. For the latter, the lights were a nice complement, a serious light show, not quite McGeeian, but filled the theater nice and looked good (if not too bright at times) from our spot behind the soundboard. When the music steered more traditional bluegrass, I found the lights to be a bit too much, like there’s no reason to go overboard when they’re just kind of pickin’, but a minor concern.
I thought there were a couple lulls in the set, but the highlights way outweighed them. The jam out of Worried About the Weather went to some really interesting places and then transitioned quite smartly into the Allmans Ain’t Wasting Time No More. That was such a great cover, first because of the Allmans/Beacon connection which is kind of obvious, to the point I think all bands should cover the ABB when they play there, but also because the dobro playing on it was so very Allmans-esque and they sounded real good all around singing and playing it, a great cover for them. (do they play it normally?). One of the strengths of the band is that they write really good songs, songs that match their “bluegrass plus!” sound really well, a foot in the traditional sound, but progressive and modern without getting to cheesy. They closed with “Living Over” which was a clear favorite of mine from their last album, just a sweet little riff and good lyrics and a sing-along refrain. Not knowing these guys, I have no idea if they close every night with it or what, but they stretched it out wonderfully, great solos all around, some full-band jamming before bringing it back in for another go-around. A great closer. They capped it off covering the Police’s “Driven to Tears” nicely and finished exactly at 11pm. Good stuff, but, honestly, one set was plenty for me.