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Posts Tagged ‘Jammin’ Java’

Regular readers of my blog will by now be familiar with my frequent references to the plight of US bands and their struggles to find an audience for their live shows. The 1000-odd people who, only two weeks ago, filled a state-of-the-art venue such as the Zoellner Arts Center for the final edition of NEARfest are very much the exception in a country where non-mainstream bands and artists (especially of the progressive rock persuasion) see their efforts to perform live increasingly frustrated by their potential audience’s apathy. When playing before 50 people is already considered a successful outcome, you know that there is a problem – which may soon force an increasing number of artists to turn their efforts to studio-only projects, no matter how much they love being on stage.

For this reason – even if, generally speaking, any band tagged as “neo-prog” would not exactly set my musical pulse racing – my husband and I decided to attend one of Baltimore-based quintet Ilúvatar’s rare live performances after a hiatus that kept them away from the scenes for over a decade. In spite of the suffocating blanket of 100-degree heat (around 40º C for non-Americans) and the threat of thunderstorms later in the evening, we headed towards the ever-reliable Jammin’ Java, and found that a few of our fellow attendees had driven considerable distances for the occasion. Considering the circumstances (including the rather awkward 7 p.m. scheduling), the 50 people or so who attended the DC-SOAR-sponsored gig at the dimly-lit, comfortably air-conditioned venue may be seen as a reasonably successful turnout.

Named after the supreme being (“father of all”) in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, and with beginnings that can be traced back to 1983, Ilúvatar  are nowhere as pretentious as their handle might lead one to believe, and definitely not about the dreaded “pixies and unicorns” all too often associated with prog. In the Nineties, they enjoyed a moderate amount of success as one of the leading US prog bands, which landed them a number of high-profile appearances (such as ProgDay 1996, Baja Prog 1998 and NEARfest 2000) before they went on hiatus. Over the years Ilúvatar have built a loyal following in the Baltimore/Washington metro area, and are clearly one of those outfits for whom the studio will never be enough.

Due to my limited affinity with neo-prog, I was not familiar with Ilúvatar’s output, but – in spite of the ready availability of music samples in the age of the Internet – I had decided to go in cold to avoid any bias, having learned that many acts are best experienced in a live setting. The almost two-hour set left me positively surprised, unlike some much-touted names whose shows I have witnessed in the past few years. With four-fifths of the line-up featured on their last album to date, 1999’s A Story Two Days Wide, on board (original vocalist Glenn McLaughlin left in 2011, and was replaced by Jeff Sirody earlier this year), the members all looked quite personable (it was hard to believe that they have been around for 25 years!), and genuinely happy to be back on stage. Most importantly, though, their performance was focused on delivering tightly composed songs rather than showing off their chops. As seasoned performers, the band members handled the rather cramped stage with aplomb, eliciting the enthusiasm of their loyal fans.

As a whole, the music was deceptively straightforward, declining to punch the listener in the face with its complexity. Solo spots were kept to a bare minimum, lending cohesiveness to the overall sound. Jim Rezek (who was the lead keyboard tech at NEARfest) chiefly employed his impressive bank of keyboards to add texture and melody to the sound, effectively supported by Dennis Mullin’s fluid, often fiery guitar; while Dean Morekas powerful bass lines and Chris Mack’s energetic drumming provided a solid backbone with a bit of a heavy edge. My only gripe was the occasional whistling tone of the synthesizers, which is one of the trademarks of the neo-prog subgenre – though it was never overdone. New vocalist Jeff Sirody brought to bear his extensive experience as a frontman in a number of local classic rock and glam metal bands to inject a stronger rock vibe into the band’s sound, and also dispel any criticism about their resemblance to Genesis. His strong, confident tenor managed to be heard in spite of the rather loud volume, and, though long-time Ilúvatar followers may have noticed the difference in style and delivery when Sirody tackled the older material, they were clearly happy with the results.

All in all, even if I generally prefer edgier, more challenging music, I found the band’s performance very enjoyable. If US prog fans did not cultivate a stubborn “the grass is greener” attitude to the detriment of homegrown acts, Ilúvatar would have been a much better fit for some of the festivals I have recently attended than some bigger-name foreign bands. The fact that Saturday’s gig was only their second in our area – a mere 30 miles south of their home town of Baltimore – bears witness to the sad fact that US-based bands are still children of a lesser God in the eyes of their prospective audiences. The growing divide within the prog scene is not helping either, with people refusing to try a band or artist from the opposite camp even when the ticket to a gig amounts to a whopping $ 10. Ironically, while modern technology has made it possible for anyone to record and release an album – and consequently brought about the saturation of an already niche market – lack of support is in danger of killing the live scene for good. However, no matter how great an album may be, nothing beats live music, especially when accompanied by the right combination of enthusiasm and skill. Progressive rock fans should support live music whenever and wherever they can – do not let the scene die out, or retreat within the four walls of a studio.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Iluvatar/117765760211

http://www.myspace.com/iluvatar2006

http://www.dc-soar.org

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SETLIST:
Vroom Vroom
Smudge
Relentless
Slowglide
Cusp
Breathless
Open Pt. 3
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II
Firebird Suite Pt. 1-4
Indiscipline
Red

Jammin’ Java, the quaint coffee house/bar doubling up as music venue located in the charming neighbourhood of Vienna, in the Washington DC metro area, seems to have become a firm favourite with Tony Levin and his Stick Men bandmates, Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter – even though the Boston-born bass/Chapman stick wizard must be used to much larger, flashier venues. Judging by his happy demeanour, Levin seems to have a soft spot for the place (as does his friend and former King Crimson partner, Adrian Belew) – even when, as in this case, the gig involves some considerable juggling.  Indeed, the April 27 date (following the triumphant, sold-out appearance by Two of a Perfect Trio in September 2011) had been rather oddly sandwiched between a date in Connecticut and one in upstate New York – forcing the band to cut their show rather shorter than usual to allow them to hit the road in good time.

The screen at the back of the stage proudly displayed the banner of the DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR), a group that for the past few years has been quite active in promoting progressive music in the Washington/Baltimore area . Unfortunately, attendance was not what such a relatively high-profile outfit would usually command, and the long, dimly lit space before the stage was nowhere as crowded as it might have been in different circumstances. Indeed, having a concert start at 7.30 on a Friday night in a high-traffic area is quite likely to keep away quite a few prospective attendees.  Though all of the 25 VIP tickets had been sold, they were not really worth the extra $15, as the only advantage they gave was to be able to get inside early and listen to the soundcheck while partaking of food or drink in the Lobby Bar. The VIP seating area was also quite cramped, while the tables and seats that had been arranged in the general admission area were much more comfortable, and allowed a great view of the stage. Luckily, as I observed in my review of the Two of a Perfect Trio gig, the ear-shattering volume that had characterized my first two visits to the venue in 2009 has been toned down, so that people will not find themselves stunned by the sheer impact of an almost physical wall of sound.

For those who are still pining about the demise of King Crimson (at least in terms of live performances), bands like Stick Men are a godsend, as they retain all the energy and complexity of the original, coupled with a much more open, friendly attitude towards their audience. Although I have never seen Mr Fripp in action, I am well aware of his inflexible stance about taking pictures during concerts – which was replicated by Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero Project at NEARfest 2010 (much to the dismay of the audience). Seeing Levin, Mastelotto and Reuter smile and wave at the fans, take pictures of the audience at the end of the concert, take some time to chat with the fans, and generally enjoy themselves on stage – all the while retaining a thoroughly professional attitude – was incredibly refreshing, and a boon to everyone who had bought a ticket in spite of the inconvenient scheduling of the gig.

In spite of the time constraints, Stick Men produced a richly satisfying setlist, expanded from their September performance, and including enough King Crimson material to please the more nostalgic component of the crowd. However, their own compositions definitely stand up to comparisons with the “mother band”, following in its footsteps while avoiding the clone-like feel that occasionally mars the output of celebrated acts’ side projects. While highly proficient in the technical department, Stick Men’s music is powerful, muscular and strikingly modern –  the endless range of expressive possibilities offered by two polyphonic instruments such as the Chapman stick and Reuter’s custom-made touch guitar (a glossy red number deceptively looking like a traditional guitar) supported by Mastelotto’s rhythmic powerhouse.

In spite of their extensive touring schedule, Stich Men are busy working on their new album, which is slated for a fall release. In the meantime, they have been writing other material: Levin jokingly stated that they had written an album last Friday, and the audience was treated to one of those new pieces, titled “Open Pt. 3”. All the original compositions were very strong, ranging from the evenly paced, atmospheric “Slowglide” (featuring Levin on vocals, and an entrancing, effects-laden middle section) to the aptly titled “Relentless”, a hard-hitting piece reminiscent of King Crimson’s late ‘90s incarnation.

As could be expected, however, it was the King Crimson stuff that drew the most applause. Classics like “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt II” were rendered in a heavier, though perhaps less subtle fashion, proving once again the essential role played by King Crimson in the development of progressive metal. Reuter filled Fripp’s role with aplomb, and Levin’s Chapman stick was all over the place, aided and abetted by Mastelotto’s unflagging beat. A particularly intense version of “Indiscipline”, with a slo-mo, drawn-out introduction and Levin doing a decent Belew impersonation, was one of the undisputed highlights of the show, together with the stunning “Firebird Suite (Pt. 1-4)”. Mastelotto’s imperious drumming paralleled Stravinsky’s trademark percussive firepower, while Levin and Reuter seamlessly worked their way through the intricate orchestral arrangements, debunking the myth that banks of keyboards are indispensable to any reinterpretation of great classical music.

In a few months, those who missed out on Friday’s gig will be able to see Stick Men perform again with Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (under the handle of Crimson ProjecKct), when they open for Dream Theater on their Washington DC date (July 13, Warner Theatre). Levin’s former partnership with John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess in Liquid Tension Experiment should be enough to explain this apparently odd pairing. It is to be hoped that this slot on a much longer and higher-profile tour will create more interest in Stick Men’s own original material, which deserves all the exposure it can get.

Links:
http://www.papabear.com/

http://www.dc-soar.org/

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A few months ago, fans of King Crimson had reason to rejoice when the amusingly-named Two of a Perfect Trio tour was announced – an extensive North American tour that would feature Adrian Belew and Tony Levin with their respective bands, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (AB3 for short) and Stick Men. Many of those fans (including myself) had been waiting in vain for a full-fledged 40th anniversary tour, and in 2009 news of its cancellation had caused widespread consternation among the ranks of those who had been unable to attend any of the four 2008 concerts. Even if the release of A Scarcity of Miracles earlier this year brought some respite to the starved Crimson fans, the lack of live action and the uncertainty about the future of the band were discouraging to say the least.

Not surprisingly, about a week before the event, tickets for the date in the Washington DC metro area were already sold out . While other dates of the tour had been booked in medium-sized theatres, the DC gig was slated to take place at a rather unlikely venue, considering the relative fame of the artists involved. In fact, the Jammin’ Java  (as its name suggests) is a café/bar that doubles up as a music club with a regular schedule of evening concerts. Incidentally, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio had performed there in the summer of 2009 (a week or so after the near-legendary performance of Eddie Jobson’s U-Z with Marco Minnemann, Simon Phillips, Greg Howe and Trey Gunn), so the venue was a known quantity at least to one of the artists involved.

Anyway, though rather unconventional and far from capacious, the Jammin’ Java is very conveniently situated for anyone living in the DC metro area, and also quite pleasant and full of character – even if the dim, cellar-like lighting does not allow for a lot of social interaction. For the occasion, though, the venue had been redesigned in order to allow as many people inside as possible: the seating had been removed, with the exception of the small, fenced “VIP area” and the bar benches at the entrance for those who were partaking of food bought on the premises. On my two previous visits to the club, the volume of the music had approached eardrum-shattering proportions; this time around, however, the sound system operated at a manageable decibel level, rendering the use of earplugs unnecessary even when standing very close to the stage. To be perfectly honest, I would have enjoyed the concert even more if I had been able to sit down, but the music was so incredibly good (and plentiful) that even the mild discomfort of having to stand up was considerably lessened.

The morning before the concert, as a warm-up, my husband and I had played the complete “red-blue-yellow” trilogy, and were expecting  an evening to remember, encouraged by some of the comments already available on the Internet. However, the concert exceeded those expectations, with nearly three hours of incredible music and a very warm, friendly atmosphere – and that in spite of its rather stripped-down nature. With no gimmicks or special effects besides a few well-placed lights, the two trios relied only on their considerable experience and creativity – letting the music do the talking, as clichéd as it may sound.

Though the music associated with King Crimson projects an aura of intellectualism and near-unapproachability, and is often indicted of being very “masculine”, lacking the necessary melodic quotient to attract women, there was quite a fair number of ladies crowding around the stage, and none of them appeared to be suffering. Personally, I believe that melody is a very important component of music, and do not generally enjoy “noise” for its own sake. However, King Crimson and its related projects simply transcend any specious conflict between  “accessible” and “difficult” progressive rock. Indeed,  the concert proved once again that King Crimson’s music possesses a freshness and cutting-edge appeal that have not been dimmed one whit by time. Not surprisingly, the music of both trios is indebted to the “mother band”, though not in an overtly derivative way, but rather as a form of development. I firmly believe that, while it is perfectly feasible to sound identical to Yes or Genesis (check the latest Wobbler album for confirmation), sounding exactly like King Crimson is next to impossible – due to the fluid, ever-evolving nature of the band’s musical output.

The concert was opened by Tony Levin’s Stick Men, introducing their new member Markus Reuter, who had replaced Michael Bernier earlier this year. Levin’s warm, gracious interaction with the enthusiastic crowd subtly complemented the sheer intensity of the music – as did his vocals, definitely not “beautiful” in any conventional sense, but still an oddly successful fit for the  band’s sound. Alongside tracks from his 2007  solo album Stick Man and the trio’s latest release, Soup, Levin surprised the audience with a blistering version of “VROOM” that  anticipated what would happen in the last half an hour or so of the show. The trio’s astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite proved once again progressive rock’s affinity for the works of the great Russian composer; while the rap intro and funky suggestions of  “Soup” were also warmly greeted by an audience clearly more open to all sorts of contaminations than the average fan of traditional prog. Markus Reuter, his serious mien occasionally softened by a friendly smile, with his touch guitar (designed and built by himself) offered a perfect foil for Levin’s acrobatic excursions on the Chapman stick – which included using a bow, Jimmy Page-style, as well as his famed “funk fingers”. With the supreme ease and confidence born of a long partnership, Pat Mastelotto provided an impeccable backbeat, meshing with the riveting patterns woven by the two string instruments, and creating textures of astounding beauty.

After a short break, Adrian Belew and his cohorts – Julie Slick on bass and Tobias Ralph (who had replaced Julie’s brother, Eric) on drums – took to the stage for some more humour-laced mayhem. Belew, ever the genial host, looked in excellent shape, his voice still capable of delivering the goods with confidence and flair, while the instrumental firepower unleashed by the three musicians was quite awe-inspiring.  In some ways, AB3’s music has an even sharper edge than Stick Men’s, as amply proved by the almost 10 minutes of  e, the title-track of the trio’s latest recording effort. Adrian’s twangy, trebly guitar tone, like his voice, may be an acquired taste, but makes for a gripping listening experience, especially when assisted by such an impeccable rhythm section – redefining the old warhorse of the power trio in thoroughly modern terms. As far as I am concerned, however, the real focal point of the trio’s performance was Julie Slick, a monster bassist with an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectly integrating with Tobias Ralph’s powerful yet restrained drumming– and a refreshing example of a new generation of women artists who are in the business of making great music rather than flaunting their physical charms. Though a very attractive young woman, with her bare feet and mop of curly hair, Julie is a musician first and foremost, who amply deserves all the respect due to any musician as skilled and dedicated as she is.

And then it was time for the “extended Crim-centric encore” everyone in the audience had been waiting for. Though I am usually a bit harsh on people whom I perceive as “living in the past” – failing thus to appreciate the excellent music put out by modern acts – I will proudly admit to not practicing what I preach when it comes to anything King Crimson-related. Having never been so lucky as to see them perform live (when they played in Rome in 2003 I had to give the concert a miss because I was not feeling well), this was the closest I had got to “real” Crimson live action. Moreover, unlike some more conservative proggers, I am a staunch fan of the Eighties trilogy, and Discipline ranks as one of my all-time favourite albums –  so I was understandably stoked at the very idea of witnessing a live performance of some of those classic songs.

The third part of the show began with only the three tenured KC members on stage, effortlessly running through the funky pace and engagingly nonsensical vocals of “Elephant Talk” (in which the influence of Talking Heads’ take on afrobeat was hard to miss) and the more laid-back strains of “Three of a Perfect Pair”. When the trio was joined by Reuter, the audience was treated to a barnstorming rendition of the iconic “Red”, beefed up by the distinctive contribution of the touch guitar. The infectious “Dinosaur” and the angular “Frame by Frame” had the crowd eating out of the two combined trio’s hands; while  the eerie soundscapes and double-drum spot of “B’Boom” (the latter reminding me of Simon Phillips and Marco Minnemann’s drum duel during the Eddie Jobson set in 2009) and the soothing, almost seductive “One Time” laid the groundwork for the show’s white-hot climax.

Though women are not generally expected to like such stuff, “Indiscipline” ranks as one of my all-time favourite King Crimson tracks, so you can imagine my delight when I heard Levin (assisted by Slick and Reuter) sketch the song’s unmistakable intro – this time stretched into an almost unbearable build-up of tension and false starts, then exploding into a maelstrom of slashing, wailing guitar. Heavier than the heaviest metal, and totally mind-blowing, the song oozed with the pure beauty of chaos. After briefly bowing out, leaving the audience wrung out but deliriously happy, the two bands came back on stage and got everyone to dance and sing along with the irrestistible “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. Who said you cannot dance at a prog gig?

If I wanted to nitpick, I might say that I missed some of my favourites – particularly “Level Five” and “Sleepless” with its killer bass line – but I suppose that, after such a performance, quibbling would sound a bit excessive. Almost three hours of music at that level of quality and intensity are anything but an everyday occurrence, and the two trios delivered everything their dedicated fans were expecting – and then some. They made music written over 30 years ago sound as fresh and relevant as if it had been released today, reaffirming King Crimson’s essential role in the continuing evolution of progressive rock.

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