Archive for March, 2009

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Soothed by the Swimmers

March 30, 2009

Now that was more relaxing. After going into a mini-depressive stupor following the Art Bergmann concert, three nights later, I was soothed by the Great Lake Swimmers.

While the Swimmers have a great band sound, they revolve around singer/acoustic guitarist/songwriter Tony Dekker. At acoustics-friendly St. James Hall (a former church), his vocals were as wondrous as they are on the group’s recordings. Where does a voice like Dekker’s come from? What kind of otherworldly DNA does he have that enables him to sing so gorgeously? After just one song, a friend sitting near me in the pew had tears in her eyes. As far as I know, she’s not the type that cries on command. It was the aural beauty that got her.

They did a lot of tunes from the new album Lost Channels, which will be released tomorrow. The songs sounded more upbeat than the last release Ongiara. This made me a bit uncomfortable at first because I’ve been so beguiled by the powerful stillness of the angelic vocals and banjo (played by Erik Arnesen) of Ongiara. But hearing them rock out more is probably a good development; they would risk turning into a cliché if they stayed still too long.

Opening act Kate Mackie was a bonus: She was funny when she talked to the sold-out audience, and I loved it when she went country. Mackie had a pedal steel player, and I’m a sucker for that instrument’s high lonesome wail.

The Swimmers:

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Feeling numb about Art

March 29, 2009

I saw a lot of familiar faces at Art Bergmann’s concert last week. The Vancouver Sun’s John Mackie, who wrote many stories praising Art over the years, was there. Photographer Alex Waterhouse-Hayward, who captured Art’s rock and roll sneer better than anyone, was standing at the foot of the stage without a camera. A few bodies away Bev Davies, the Annie Leibovitz of Vancouver’s punk rock scene, did have her camera and she was snapping away. In another part of the packed Richard’s on Richards, Paul Wong – the video artist who created a stir at the VAG in 1984 – was holding court. I was with my friends David, Ian, Michael and Keith, all of whom I’ve known for more than 20 years.

I knew it would be like this. That anyone who was around in the 80s and experienced Art’s magnetism, absolutely had to be at the man’s first Vancouver show in years. What I wasn’t sure about was whether he could actually pull it off. The signs weren’t good. I read in the Straight that his hearing was damaged (no surprise) and because of his severe arthritis, Art would only sing and not play guitar. Then a friend told me that Art was interviewed on CBC Radio, and he sounded pretty rough.

“Junkie Don’t Care”, captured by ace videographer BunkleLife at the gig:

Art came on stage at 11:15 pm-ish and immediately plunked himself down behind a lectern that had been placed at the front of the stage. This was odd and worrying. But the musicians started playing, he picked himself up and put mouth to microphone. It quickly became apparent that the 56-year-old’s singing voice hasn’t aged well. While there were a few moments when he approximated the vigorously defiant punk from back in the day, he mostly came across as worn.

Seeing Art on stage without an electric guitar was just plain weird and wrong. Art’s guitar playing was never about technique. It was about drawing from his years of experience (in music and life) and summoning up an exhilarating sound. One that matched the raw passion of his vocals and the vivid imagery of his lyrics. At Richard’s, I kept hoping that Art would grab the guitar from Tony ‘Balony’ Walker (another punk survivor) and magically give us one more incendiary solo, or just a riff or two. It didn’t happen.

Art moved around the stage erratically. He had a mammoth, protracted struggle with his mic stand while obsessively adjusting it. When people brought Art some shooters, which he downed on stage, for some reason I got righteous. Even though Art had encouraged it, if these people really cared about Art’s survival they wouldn’t have plied him with drink.

“Our Little Secret”:

The morning after the show, a friend said this in an email: “I’m still recovering from the psychic shock of that one-man train wreck. That may have been the most dispiriting thing I have ever witnessed.” I won’t go that far; it wasn’t a complete train wreck. Art got through the songs, and he cared enough about the words to have the lyrics on the lectern, which he looked at through his thick glasses from time to time. And what did we expect? That Art would give a note-perfect performance, like the Pointed Sticks did at their reunion gigs two years ago in the same venue? That wouldn’t have been Art’s style. Plus there have been too many drinks, too much arthritic pain and time away from music, and too many broken promises from the music biz. Considering all of that, it was miraculous that Art performed at all.

The audience gave him a rousing response; they even jumped up and down during a few tunes. I didn’t clap or move at all. I just stood there feeling numb. It’s a tragedy that he never really got his due before it was too late. That hit home during the show.

On the way home, I put the just-released Lost Art Bergmann that I bought at the show in my car’s CD player. Listening to it brought back his ragged brilliance. The last few days I went a step further and searched around the house until I found it: his 10-song demo tape that was released in 1984 and re-released in 2000 as Vultura Freeway. In my view, these forgotten songs represent Art at his best, before the industry BS, lifestyle excesses and ill health took their toll. Despite the lo-fi format, the music crackles with vitality. If Art goes back to the Alberta farm he’s been living at and never does another gig, at least I have this old cassette. I’m going to listen to it some more.

BunkleLife’s review of Art’s show
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward’s take on the gig
My blog post previewing the concert

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Jamming with Robin Eubanks

March 22, 2009

My cellphone rang early, not long after 8 am. It was Mike, who I play with in OEQ. He asked if I was going to the SF Jazz Collective concert at the Chan Centre that night. I told him I was going to a Canucks game. Mike said there was a possibility of hanging out after the show with Robin Eubanks, the trombonist in the collective. Mike met Robin years ago in Edmonton. Mike and Oliver, who’s also in OEQ, jammed with Robin once, and maybe he would jam again.

Despite Mike’s call, I didn’t really think anything would happen. But then he called again, sounding more excited, and advising me to make myself available after the game. I started to get intrigued. Robin is one of the world’s best jazz trombonists, who leads his own groups, plays with the Dave Holland Quintet and Big Band, and has performed with leading artists: Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, and Michael Brecker among many others. Robin also comes from a musical family: his brother Kevin is a guitarist and leader of the Tonight Show band; another brother Duane is a trumpeter. Meeting Robin would be cool; playing with him would be scary!

Sure enough, after the game, I got the call to come over to Oliver’s place, which is where OEQ rehearses. When I showed up, Robin wasn’t there, because he went to grab a bite with Niina (Mike’s friend, who has also jammed with OEQ). After they returned, we hung out upstairs – Robin is a very nice, easy-going guy. Eventually someone suggested we go downstairs to play, and Robin was game. By this point it was after midnight, on a weeknight, but I didn’t care.

Robin brought his trombone down but he slid behind the drum kit. Oliver played electric bass, Mike was on tenor sax, Niina did spoken word, I was on keys, and a bunch of people sang. We played reggae (“Shanty Town”, “Guns of Brixton”, “Rudy, A Message to You”), a lounge version of a punk classic (“Too Drunk to F_ _ _”) and jazz (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, “So What”).

Robin isn’t known for his drumming, but he laid down a solid groove, swung, and knew how to play reggae (the true test of a drummer). As for the rest of us, we shambled along, sounding pretty rough. But it didn’t matter. No snootiness came from Robin, who just a few hours earlier had shared the stage with the likes of Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Renee Rosnes and Miguel Zenon. He looked pretty content and was having fun, like the rest of us. My only regret is that we didn’t ask Robin to play trombone, but that would have changed the relaxed dynamic of the jam.

After we finished with “So What” at around 2 am, I drove Robin back to his hotel. When I went to get his trombone out of the trunk I accidentally referred to his horn as a “sax”. (Dummy.) But he didn’t care. Robin was a class act right to the end. We shook hands and I drove Mike and Niina home, all of us buzzing after a memorable evening with Robin Eubanks.

An example of Robin’s trombone virtuosity:

Robin’s sites:

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Drum God David King and the Bad Plus

March 18, 2009

Exactly one week ago I took Miles to see the Bad Plus. It was well worth the trek to far-off West Vancouver (for those who don’t know, a rich suburb of Vancouver). Months ago when the concert was announced, I knew I had to take Miles, mainly for one reason: hearing drummer David King.

I actually took him to a Bad Plus show a few years ago, but we had to go again. That’s how good King and the other musicians in this atypical jazz trio are. King didn’t disappoint. In my mind, he was the focal point. Even when pianist Ethan Iverson played virtuosic solos, my eyes and ears were locked on King. He was all over the drum kit (and his charming toy percussion instruments), never getting repetitive with his rhythmic patterns, segueing between focused restraint and well-timed explosions. On a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb“, King was masterful: a brush in one hand, a stick in the other, each doing something different but complementary. And then there’s that look of unadulterated joy on his face. King’s a drum God.

Exposing Miles to King’s drumming style is part of my master plan to convince him that jazz, not metal, is the way to go. I don’t seriously think I can sway him, and I support his forays into metal. But part of me wonders what impact a drummer like King could have on Miles. Above all, King and the Bad Plus show that you can pull off playing creative jazz with an alternative rock/pop attitude.

By the way, the concert consisted of two sets: the trio played mostly original instrumentals in the first half; they did offbeat covers with vocalist Wendy Lewis in the second half. She sang beautifully, as did bassist Reid Anderson on tunes including “Heart of Gold“. I would love to hear more singing from Lewis and Anderson in the future, but when it comes to the Bad Plus, my heart will always be with King.

The last time I saw the Bad Plus was in 2007 at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. In a circus tent, they put on an amazing show that also included two sets: one featuring the core trio and another with Happy Apple, King’s other band, which morphed with the Bad Plus to play nothing but Ornette Coleman tunes. I mention this gig for no good reason except to gloat that I was there and to use it as an excuse to insert some photos I took of lovely Edinburgh:

Edinburgh Castle and fountain:

Edinburgh castle & fountain

Stunning Scottish landscape:

Stunning Scottish landscape

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Two Basements

March 8, 2009

At 10:30 am on Saturday, a beautiful sunny morning, I dropped Miles off at his friend’s house for a band rehearsal. 10 freaking 30. Good thing the neighbours are deaf. (Really, they are.) Actually when we showed up, no one was home. But in five minutes Miles’ friend and the friend’s dad (who’s a professional drummer, Miles’ drum teacher and also my pal) drove up, returning from a guitar lesson. Then another kid showed up. It was the bass player, who’s two years older than the other boys. He was lugging his bass, amp and a keyboard in a big box. The bassist/keyboardist is in a demanding academic program, who probably doesn’t have time to play loud music in an East Van basement. But here he was, driven by his mom, who even offered to come back with lunch for everyone. One more boy was on the way.

I was struck by this scene. The boys could have been doing what teenagers do (MSN, Facebook, eat, sleep), but they chose to be here. Asian mums aren’t known for tolerance when it comes to their children taking time away from homework. But this mom was so supportive. That goes for all of the parents of the kids in this band – we love that the boys are writing songs and making music. It doesn’t matter to us that they’re playing metal.

After I dropped Miles off I drove across town and picked up Brian, who plays in OEQ with me. I have only known Brian for a year and a half, but I’ve learned a few things about him. Namely, he’s a terrific singer and guitarist, a natural born musician with deep instincts. We drove to my house and headed down to the basement, where we just did tunes: Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”, Hendrix’ “Little Wing”, The Zombies’ “She’s Not There”, Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” and others. It was relaxed, fun.

sweeetsoulmusicAfter we played for awhile my wife called us up for lunch, which Brian really appreciated. He was also impressed with her musical knowledge. While I did the dishes, they checked out my record collection. Brian pulled out Nick Lowe’s Pure Pop For Now People. And I showed him Sweet Soul Music, a vintage soul platter from Arthur Conley, who was mentored by Redding. Brian’s eyes lit up when he saw these records. Then we went back down to play some more.

Two basements: old guys in one; boys in another. Unruly metal reverberating in one; archetypal rock, pop and soul in another. Just another Saturday morning in Wong’s World.

My vinyl (The thick red box on the right is The Trojan Story, a three-record set of ska, rock steady and early reggae that I picked up in London in 1987):

Vinyl

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Lamb of God – My Thoughts on “Wrath”

March 5, 2009

Yeah I know, this is kind of late, but I’ve been busy with school and stuff so I haven’t been able to do this yet. Well here it is.

“The Passing”. A nice instrumental acoustic start for this, and very Metallica-esque. The drumming could be a bit more subtle during this one, but whatever. And then “In Your Words” just punches you right in the face. Are those bursts of blasts I hear Mr. Chris Adler? Great riffage, great drumming, classic LOG. However some of these lyrics are kinda getting to me. It turns out the rest of the album was mostly like that for me. The first single, “Set To Fail” is also a very in-your-face song from the start. Man, I love those blastbeats. The chorus is a bit too … catchy though. This reminds me a lot of “Redneck”, but rhythmically it’s pretty different, and the drumming’s a lot more complex. Next up, “Contractor”. This verse is very thrash-like. But when it comes to the chorus, it’s a basically forgettable. Though I love the bridge in this song, when it gets fast again. “Fake Messiah” starts with a 12/8 beginning. Very cool, and it works well. The rest just flows. The first 30 secs. of “Grace” is some nice acoustic guitar which then leads into your typical LOG riff. A lot of this album isn’t super innovative for their sound, but there are some tracks on here that really stand out for me. The next one, “Broken Hands”, is a great drum track. The beginning has a weird sort of beat which is really cool. There’s a grooving section, which leads to this pre-chorus part that has a sick double bass and snare beat going on. The bridge also has another good batch of double bass work. “Dead Seeds” has some interesting song phrasings, but besides that it’s not totally bringing anything new to the table. Same goes to “Everything to Nothing”. “Choke Sermon” is pretty good overall, sick drumming, and the guitar on the chorus is great. Finally, the 7 minute “Reclamation” brings the wrath to an end. Overall, I give this album an A-.

On the other side of things … WATCHMEN COMES OUT TOMORROW. Very exciting stuff. Can’t wait.

miles \m/