A Little Pre-Rapture Rapture

Last night, the night before the Rapture officially hits the fan (at something like 6pm today, if I’m not mistaken), I had considered staying home and praying. But then I saw that Amendola vs. Blades were playing in the Mission and I thought, fuck that shit.

So, off I went to the Red Poppy Art House, a tiny little venue on the corner of 23rd and Folsom that has some of the best music concerts you’re likely to hear in this city. Amendola vs. Blades promised a night of “sonic deity conjuring” and the duo did not disappoint.

Amendola vs. Blades is jazz drummer Scott Amendola and Hammond B3 organ player Wil Blades. As composers and bandleaders, Amendola plays with the likes of Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, Larry Ochs, Ben Goldberg, and Devin Hoff, and Blades with New Orleans drummer Stanton Moore, Billy Martin from Medeski, Martin, & Wood, and legendary jazz drummer Idris Muhammad, amongst many others.

The two have been playing together for five years, though they first started collaborating musically back in 2003. In the Spring of 2006, Amendola undertook a project to adapt the 1966 Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn Far East Suite, making an arrangement for drums and organ. Naturally, he thought of rising star Wil Blades for the organ part and since then, the two have been creating a buzz around town as Amendola vs. Blades.

Many of tunes they started with in 2006, like “Blue Pepper” and “Tourist Point of View” from the Ellington/Strayhorn suite, are still on the repertoire these days, as well as some Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk interpretations, and a lot of original compositions by both Amendola and Blades.

The duo glides seamlessly between tracks that range from straight ahead jazz and grooving funk to more experimental pieces, some sounding closer to glitch or IDM than jazz, music that Amendola describes as “almost post-electronic.”

Despite being packed into the Red Poppy like sardines, it was obvious from watching how bodies were moving in their seats that everyone was loving the musical journey. Indeed, one friend (a fellow dancer) was having great difficulty sitting still beside me. “This is torture,” he groaned. “I want to dance!!”

God was obviously punishing us by making us sit in such cramped quarters while this amazing music was being played. We did attempt an inconspicuous chair dance together, but when a piece of art work was almost knocked off the wall, we returned to a more contained rhythmic head-nodding and resisted further temptation.

Whatever about the audience, the performers certainly have no problem playing in such an intimate venue.

“There’s just something about having everyone right on top of you,” says Blades. “We’ve played shows here where it’s even more packed than this. There was one particular show that was just crazy. People were literally right up against the organ and all around us and behind us against that piano.”

The Red Poppy Art House is definitely a favorite place for the duo to play. “It’s a really comfortable, friendly, fun environment,” says Amendola. “Easily, we’ve had some of our best shows here,” adds Blades.

“Playing small venues, for our music, gives us—gives the music—so much more room to breathe,”Amendola continues. “There’s so many more possibilities. . . This place is just really special.”

This night too was really special, and not merely because it was quite possibly our last. It’s hard to convey how rich and full a sound the two musicians are able to create together. At times Blades’ organ makes you think you’re listening to a bass and guitar with Amendola’s drums, at other times the two manage to conjure the impression that the whole Ellington orchestra is present. With lots of improvised tempo changes and playful exchanges between the two, their manifest joy playing this music together is easily transferred to the audience.

At one point in the evening, I felt myself possessed by the Holy Spirit and thought the ascension to Heaven had come a day early. But then I remembered I was probably amongst the damned. Good thing I had not wasted my last night at home praying.

The coming Rapture has not deterred the duo from making plans for the future, however. With an Amendola vs. Blades album in the works—they will be starting to work on that this Summer—and more gigs lined up, there are, in theory at least, more opportunities to see the two play together soon.

Blades, especially, seemed confident of his own post-Rapture chances. “I play organ,” he reminded us with a smile. “I actually play at a church every Sunday. . .  I’ve been playing hymns almost every Sunday that I’ve been in town for the last six years. I’m good.”

Amendola vs. Blades are playing tomorrow, God willing, at Blades’s weekly residence at the Madrone Lounge in San Francisco, which each Sunday features Blades and a rotating cast of local musicians. You can also catch Amendola vs. Blades on July 7th at the Starry Plough in Berkeley.

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Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes)

Some of my fondest memories from Dublin in the mid-eighties involve me spending vast amounts of time in the kitchen pretending to do homework while listening to Capitol Radio, an alternative radio station broadcast from various shifting locations in the city.

My favorite show by far was Tony Gahan’s 20th Century Promised Land. It was through Tony that I was introduced to some of the best punk and new-wave music from the late seventies and eighties, bands such as Joy Division, The Only Ones, Magazine, The Chameleons, Ciccone Youth, This Mortal Coil, and Bauhaus.

It was devastating to those of us who religiously listened to Capitol, and particularly 20th Century Promised Land, when the government cracked down on all pirate radio stations in the country, shutting them down permanently on December 31, 1988. I distinctly remember how depressed we all were on New Year’s Eve at the Capitol Radio closing party. We solemnly counted down the seconds to 1989 and, just like that, on the stroke of midnight, a significant musical education ended for me and many others of my generation.

Fast forward more than twenty-two years later to the Mission District in San Francisco. A friend is telling me about an upcoming benefit show he’s doing. “We’re all doing covers of Cardiacs’ songs. You’ve probably never heard of Cardiacs. Hardly anybody over here has heard of them.”

Cardiacs? Yes. The name is definitely familiar. Cardiacs? How do I know that name? What did they sing again?

I go home, do a youtube seach, and discover the answer. “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire.”

Bingo! Mr. Gahan had been especially fond of this 1987 song, or maybe it’s just the Cardiacs’ song I remember best from his radio show. How exciting it was to rediscover a forgotten piece of my youth! And how exciting it was that a bunch of local musicians were going to be paying tribute to this unique, iconoclastic band all these years later.

Little did I know that since the eighties and until fairly recently, Cardiacs have been continuing to make incredible music that has evolved from the early punk music I would have heard back in the day to more of a progressive, though none the less idiosyncratic, sound.

Ironically, a few years ago, Cardiacs’ composer and lead singer, Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack, followed by a number of strokes that have left him physically incapacitated. He is currently undergoing the protracted process of neurological rehabilitation.

Two Bay Area experimental musicians, Moe Staiano and Dominique Leone, both big Cardiacs fans for some years, decided they wanted to help out Tim Smith by organizing a benefit concert featuring a bunch of different local bands covering Cardiacs’ songs. In addition to raising money for Smith, the aim was also to expose more people to the music they loved so much.

Performing on Sunday’s benefit at Cafe du Nord, were a whole host of local music innovaters: Amy X Neuburg, Wiener Kids, Grex, Inner Ear Brigade, Dominique Leone, and a Cardiacs’ tribute band, ReCardiacs Fly, which included organizer Moe Staiano on drums and members of Reconnaissance Fly.

Most of the musicians had never heard of Cardiacs before organizers Staiano and Leone introduced them to it. But in the process of doing this show, all of them have become huge fans.

So, what is it about the music that inspires people, once they finally discover the band, to become such “obsessive fans,” as Leone says?

Bill Wolter, who leads progressive rock band Inner Ear Brigade, sums up the music in a single word: “transcendent.”

“The structure is complex and beautiful,” says Amy X Neuburg, who opened the show with a solo performance of two Tim Smith songs. There are “beautiful chord patterns that take twists and turns that are unexpected. It’s like art music. . . The compositions are classical in nature.”

Echoing this view, guitarist Marc Laspina of ReCardiacs Fly says, “Musically it’s like opening God’s cookbook. . . The melodies, the time changes, the energy. It’s completely unique!”

Laspina’s bandmate Polly Moller, who was introduced to Cardiacs by Staiano about a year ago, wonders, “How did I live this long and not know this band?”

Staiano himself says, “It’s like nothing else, and it’s very intense and energetic, and very well written and really thought out. There’s not very much music I’ve heard like that.”

But none of these descriptions can truly capture the music. You can talk about the incredible energy, the theatricality of the band’s performances, the weird time signatures, the sometimes spastic phrasing, the unique chord progressions, the distinctness of Tim Smith’s voice.

“But,” as Leone says, “it doesn’t even begin to sum up what they sound like, which is why so many people are surprised when they first hear them.”

Although all the musicians who performed at Sunday’s show have obvious technical chops, they still found it a challenge to recreate Smith’s music. Because Cardiacs are not especially well known, you can’t find tablatures for their songs on the web or, indeed, reliable lyrics sheets, so it was up to each band to piece together and notate the songs by themselves. In addition to the sheer complexity of the music, there were also other challenges.

Bassist Tim Walters of ReCardiacs Fly said that on some of the songs he couldn’t always hear the bass, so there was a lot of guessing and filling in the gaps involved.

On a similar note, interrupting her own performance, Neuburg issued a wry disclaimer about the accuracy of her lyrics. When you figure out what words Smith is singing, the lyrics are often pretty bizarre, so it’s hard to tell if you’ve really gotten them right.

None of this detracted from anybody’s fun. On the contrary, it was an evening of stellar performances that, by all accounts, left everybody wanting more, more, more.

My own personal favorite performance of the night was ReCardiacs Fly’s. With the longest set—doing four songs, all from the mid-eighties—there was really time to settle in with the music. Three songs were from Cardiacs’ 1984 album, The Seaside, and the other, which I was especially excited about, was (you guessed it) their 1987 single, “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire,” the one song I actually knew some lyrics to.

ReCardiacs gave a spirited, high energy performance in full Cardiacs costume and face paint (white faces with red lipstick smeared willy nilly in the general vicinity of the mouth!). Lead singer Polly Moller played Tim Smith next to saxophonist Chris Broderick’s Sarah Smith, Smith’s then wife. Broderick with his golden curls bounced around onstage in a black dress and tiara, while Moller, in a mod suit complete with vintage eighties tie, twitched and grimaced, and smiled maniacally.

What a blast! All that was missing was a good ol’ eighties mosh pit, which probably would not have been that difficult to instigate.

The night ended with Leone and his band performing his favorite, “Dirty Boy” from the 1995 double album, Sing to God, a song, according to Leone, “so epic in every possible respect, pushing every kind of button that Cardiacs push for me, and doing it to the nth degree.” It certainly was an epic ending to an epic evening.

All the of musicians who performed on Sunday are excited to incorporate Cardiacs’ music into future performances with their respective bands. All of them, it seems, have become diehard fans. Leone was very encouraged to hear that audience and performers alike came away wanting more. Maybe another such benefit for Smith will happen again soon.

In the meantime, Leone’s message to those thirsty to hear Cardiacs’ music, and especially those who would like to help Tim Smith on the road to recovery?

“Go to iTunes and buy Cardiacs’ music.” It’s that simple.

All Aboard the MS Connah

I always feel frustrated whenever I see Graham Connah and his big band perform. Why? Because I look around and wonder, “Where the hell are all the people?” Seriously. Where are all the people? It’s a mystery.

Last Sunday, I was amongst the privileged few at Berkeley’s Jazzschool to enjoy a concert with the one and only Connah and his ensemble, which goes by several names, including Ted Brinkley (the ensemble’s full title being Admiral Ted Brinkley’s Hornblower Cruise!) and Neptune’s Rogue Apothecary. On Sunday, it was Graham Connah’s NoPorkestra (and chorus).

Connah describes his own music thus: “Stylistically, rock and jazz strategies predominate, with superficial nods towards glee clubs, musical theater, traipsichore, and gratuitous indulgent abstract cacophony.”  Hell, I like it already! I have no idea what “traipsichore” is, but that’s okay. I don’t need to understand everything. Anyone who uses a phrase like “gratuitous indulgent abstract cacophony” to describe his own music is cool in my book.

Connah’s tongue-in-cheek cleverness, the dry, self-deprecating wit apparent in his writing, is just as evident in his music. Have you ever been to a performance where the music itself (not the lyrics, not funny asides between songs) makes you laugh out loud? And you take a quick glance at your neighbors and find them grinning impossibly, ear to ear?

Connah’s music is that good. Complex compositions, full of unexpected twists and turns, and improvisations that show off the immense talent of his band are par for the course. The ensemble is a veritable Who’s Who in the Bay Area jazz scene, with most of the members being composers and bandleaders in their own right. Ben Goldberg, Beth Custer, Aaron Novik, Lisa Mezzacappa, Vijay Anderson, Darren Johnston, Sheldon Brown, Dina Maccabee, and Sylvain Carton, to name just a few, are included in the all-star line-up.

Connah sits at the piano and every now and then during a piece he gets up, removes his spectacles, shuffles over to a band member and whispers in her ear. This is usually the cue for a solo improvisation, though sometimes he gives other directions that get spread from musician to musician in a line of whispers.

So much of what happens seems impromptu, yet the tightness of the large ensemble speaks against that. After the performance, my neighbor wondered how they were able to coordinate rehearsals with such a large group of in-demand musicians. My guess was that there were few, if any, rehearsals, but not because it sounded like they hadn’t rehearsed.

All these musicians play with multiple other projects, so the chances of finding times to rehearse together seemed slim. Also, the kinds of directions Connah intoned to the musicians before playing a piece suggested that this might be the first time they had played it together as a group. It turned out this guess was correct and that these performances are something akin to a public rehearsal. Knowing this just makes the musicians seem all the more remarkable.

This is clearly difficult music to play. As Connah promises (or warns?), there are moments of “abstract cacophany” where many sounds compete for attention. So much is happening at once, there’s so much to follow, and you have a choice—to try and chase the waves, or to let them just lap against your cheek. Either way is its own trip.

Speaking of trips, we are on a cruise ship. It’s 1959. There’s a strange and wonderful orchestra aboard, led by a roguish semi-retired admiral in reading glasses. When they play each evening in the ballroom, something happens. It is as if the music has enticed everyone, put them under a spell, and made them behave in ways they might never have imagined. Nobody ever remembers disembarking the MS Connah…

Where were we? Abstract cacophony. Yes.

There is one piece of abstraction in particular that stands out in my memory, toward the end of the concert. The musicians break up into pairs, with each group playing a different part together. While the cacophony is scripted, there is a wildness, an unruliness to the composition. The overall effect is rhythmic, albeit in an irregular, unpredictable way. Here and there, members of the audience laugh out loud in delight. All aboard!

I can’t help but notice the significant number of women who regularly play in Connah’s varied ensembles. This is not noteworthy in and of itself, but only because it is still rare to see women playing this kind of music. While I doubt Connah chooses his musicians for any other reason than that they kick ass, it is still appreciated that he is not blind (or deaf) to the many talented female musicians in the Bay Area.

Connah’s NoPorkestra (and chorus) will be playing again at the Jazzschool in Berkeley on July 3rd.

Electric Chamber

“Reinventing the wheel” may not be as useless an undertaking as it first sounds. The wheel has been around an awfully long time, so perhaps a new take on it is exactly what it needs to stay fresh and exciting. Let’s jazz it up a bit! Find new uses, new interpretations that make it relevant to contemporary life in the post-industrial era.

Okay, maybe the wheel is a bad example. It is still, after all, one of the most widely used inventions ever. Its future is not, let us say, under imminent threat. Most likely, the wheel will continue to enjoy its ubiquitous popularity without the need for any special “reinterpretation.”

Can we say the same for chamber music?

From the private chambers of the aristocracy to the concert halls of the bourgeoisie, for a long time this particular style of music has been associated with the rich and cultured, with those occupying the “higher” strata of society. We don’t often think of the young and hip, of subversiveness, of revolution when we think of chamber music.

But perhaps that is exactly the kind of reinvention chamber music needs.

San Francisco’s own Classical Revolution certainly thinks so. More of a socio-cultural phenomenon than a musical group with static membership, Classical Revolution has been transforming how chamber music is being enjoyed all over the globe.

It all started at my favorite Mission haunt, the Revolution Cafe, where violist Charith Premawardha and some friends from the SF Conservatory of Music decided to revolutionize how and where chamber music was being heard. Their aim was to bring classical music out of the stuffy concert halls and into bars and cafes where younger (and less well off) people would be exposed to it. Their slogan? “Chamber music for the people!”

A few years later, Classical Revolution has grown from a weekly event in a tiny bar to a movement of epic proportions with chapters all over the country and in several large cities throughout the world, such as Amsterdam and Berlin. In addition to the goal of crushing the bourgeois state by bringing chamber music to the people, Classical Revolution also fosters music that is experimental and innovative, classical music that pushes traditional boundaries.

In that spirit, this past Monday at the Rev, Classical Revolution introduced composer Sebastian Plano and his cello quartet playing the entirity of Plano’s debut CD, The Arrhythmical Part of Hearts. Live. Or so I thought.

One thing that had intrigued me about the description of the music I read beforehand was that it combined live strings with electronic music.

Classical Revolution’s own Ensemble in Residence, Musical Art Quintet, which plays original compositions by bassist Sascha Jacobsen as well as some sweet interpretations of Astor Piazzolla, have a couple of “electo-tangos” in their repertoire. An electronically produced pre-recorded track is played in the background and the quintet play over it, creating a fresh and exciting sound that makes Gotan Project seem thoroughly dated. The live strings always take center stage and the electronic tracks, on the few occasions they are used, are never heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for Sebastian Plano’s quartet.

For a start, the prerecorded tracks were too much the main focus, often carrying the melody, which does not work well in a live performance. The four cellos seemed like an afterthought in the arrangements, the background accompaniment to the electronic music, which often went on and on for what seemed like ages before the four cellists even picked up their bows.

Secondly, the tracks themselves were often cheesy ambient or progressive trance with cloying vocals over Yanni-like piano and thumping beats. Fans of Enya might like it.

Thirdly, both the pre-recorded music and the cello accompaniment quickly started to sound repetitive. It seemed like there was some formula used for the construction of the music, so by the third or fourth iteration I had lost interest.

Having said that, the musicians, when they played, played well and there were some very pretty moments. If I had only heard one or two tracks, I might have really liked it. But sitting through the entire album was a bit painful, especially when Mr. Plano felt the need to stand up and speak before each and every track. I understand that a young composer wants to promote his music, but there are times when it’s just good to shut up and play.

For a live musical performance, the audience’s attention should be focused on the live music. Otherwise, why bother? A few times I thought it could have worked better if it had have been a dance performance with the cellos accompanying in the background. Plano did mention that one track was indeed written for a dance collaboration, but in the absence of actual dancers, we were left to imagine the central focus.

Lessons to be learned from this? Over-reliance on pre-recorded tracks for a “live” performance is bad idea. I am always impressed by multi-instrumentalist composers who can create a rich sound all by themselves in a studio, but when playing out for an audience, they need to get other musicians to play those parts, or figure out how adapt the music in some way.

Plano and his cello quartet certainly have potential, but they have a long way to go before they are at the standard of an ensemble like Musical Art Quintet, whose seamless integration of electric and chamber consistently delights and charms.

Another revolution of the wheel? Sure, why not.