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May 23, 2009

Two Good Nights

 

It’s nice to have two good nights of unpredictable music in a row. Thursday night at the Ogden, Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts) performed as an acoustic duo with violin player/frequent collaborator Jean Cook. The acoustic set dipped heavily into his Skull Orchard album, and he played an aboriginal country song that I’ve got to know more about (artist and song name to follow). The moment that took me aback was his cover of the Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town” – a song I can never listen to just once. For as long as I’ve known the song, I still find it chilling when in the middle of a lovely pop song, Grant McLennan sings, “but this town is full of battered wives.” In the midst of Langford’s class-conscious set, the working class nature of McLennan’s town became clearer.

Last night’s “Musicians Bringing Musicians Home” benefit at Tipitina’s might have been the most successful yet, at least in terms of the show. In the past, the musicians involved have often performed essentially solo with a few collaborating. Last night, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer was onstage for much of the night, as was Martin Perna from Antibalas. The two most stripped-down moments of the show were Jolie Holland’s opening set (which only added Jean Cook, Laura Viers and Erin McKeown) and Kramer’s spoken word tribute to Charles Bukowski. He was accompanied by Bonerama’s Mark Mullins, but it’s hard to think of their duet as small considering the size of Kramer’s guitar and Mullins’ blowing.

The consistent upsizing of the bands meant the artists’ music was going to sound like it hadn’t before and likely wouldn’t again. The greatest beneficiary of that was McKeown, who was accompanied by Bonerama on a jaw-dropping R&B rave-up version of her own “BlackBirds.” Despite all the power around her, she was the unquestionable focal point of the song, and it was clear she was driving the band as much as it was driving her. Other high points included Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 leading at least three guitars and Bonerama through a good natured “A Certain Girl” dedicated to Antoinette K-Doe that remained light on its feet, and Langford, whose “Sentimental Marching Song” seems to be almost infinitely plastic. He’s done it with a band, he did it acoustic at the Ogden, Sally Timms has performed it backed by Langford alone and with a band, and the army of horns onstage including Shamarr Allen only added soul and pathos to the cry, “He needs a little love at closing time.”

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May 4, 2009

Jazz Fest, Day Seven

 

Last day, and Jonathan Batiste starts it with admirable nerve with a melodian solo. The air-powered instrument only has a two-octave, making the piece a rather tight meditation on a simple phrase. In a white blazer, white dress shirt and black high-water slacks, he’s a striking presence onstage and offers up an audience-friendly notion of jazz – playful, melodic and broadly referential. During “Kindergarten,” he followed a piano solo with a melodian solo that morphed into the melody of a Mardi Gras Indian chant. Appropriately, he turned it into a call-and-response segment, first with the audience and then with the horn players. From there, he switched put down the melodian and played an electric keyboard for some not-found-in-nature sounds. If that all sounds busy and/or gimmicky, there was an element of that, but Batiste held it together. The set sounded more like evidence of a restless imagination than someone pandering to the audience with the musical equivalent of quick cuts in movies.

The difference between Brother Tyrone and Sharon Jones is that the Dap-Kings work to create a moment that never actually existed, where Memphis horns and Motown drums played behind James Brown. Brother Tyrone seems to have emerged from a melted iceberg, ready to make the southern soul of 30-plus years ago without a hint of retro-ness. One isn’t necessarily preferable to the other, but those who loved Jones’ first weekend set need a dose of Tyrone as well.

In the Jazz Tent, Shamarr Allen showed why his star is on the rise. His charisma, voice and trumpet tone are such that he had the crowd out of its seats and cheering along for ideas that were, frankly, three-quarters there. When he rapped, they were with him. When he segued from a Bob James-like moment into an instrumental “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he had people up and singing along almost immediately. For the funky, vocal “Can You Feel It,” people were up and dancing, and each moment was fine in isolation. But the Bad Plus remade “Teen Spirit” in 2003, and “Can You Feel It” is only a note or two removed from Sly’s “If You Want Me to Stay.”

Allen’s ambition is clearly to develop a jazz-funk-rock hybrid, and it’s a good one. New Orleans’ funk bands have gnawed on the bones of the Meters for so long that there’s little left to discover. At this point, the shortcomings are the shortcomings of youth, and time and broader listening will help him get where he’s going. It took Trombone Shorty a while for Orleans Ave. to find its synthesis; fortunately, Allen’s charm and talent mean he’s going to get the time and audience necessary to work his ambitions to a more satisfying conclusion.

It was pretty funny watching the Congo Square stage crew trying to erect a wind baffle in front of DJ Soul Sister’s table. Finally, it took two tattooed women to hold it up, and once she started spinning, they began dancing, giving the moment more spectacle. Soul Sister had people up dancing immediately and ramped up the energy before Chuck Brown, making me think that assigning a DJ to spin between sets every day at Congo Square would be a cool idea. It would further give the stage a unique identity, keep the energy up there, and it would draw attention to a DJ community that’s deeper than just Soul Sister and DJ Captain Charles.

It’s hard to say a lot about the Neil Young show without doing a full recap. It’s more or less what you’d expect, though I was impressed by the relatively seamless way he powered down from the distortion-enriched electric guitar songs to the delicate beauty of  ”Needle and the Damage Done” and “Heart of Gold,” then revved things back up again. The show was also beautifully uncompromising, meandering a bit during “Change Your Mind” and testing the audience’s patience went he launched into the second solo for “Down by the River.” In the Acura VIP compound, that was enough to shake off the half-milers, but they walked off just as the song got hot. Young found an idea that compelled him and the band followed into a very intense, raging place.

The stage set itself suggested an idiosyncratic show, complete with a pipe organ, an open-fronted barroom piano and a folk art-like pile of amplifiers that might explain his sound. He finished the set in front of that stack mimicking the sustained final piano chord for his cover of “A Day in the Life” with feedback. He eventually shredded his strings and banged them on the pickups for additional racket, then leaned the guitar against the stack, walked to the xylophone at the back of the stage and in a nice touch of wit, plinked out the chord one more time and that was it. Then the rain came and I went home. That was enough.

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January 8, 2009

Rumor Confirmed

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , — Alex Rawls @ 1:13 pm

 

We’d heard rumor that trumpeter Shamarr Allen would be going on tour with Willie Nelson. Allen confirmed it. In early February, he’ll go into rehearsal with Nelson and his band, then he’ll tour with him for two weeks as part of a “Willie and the Wheel” tour – a pairing of Nelson with Austin Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

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