In Concert: Three Ways, Progressing

Thank You Scientist with Bent Knee and Entransient at The Pyramid Scheme, Grand Rapids Michigan, June 13, 2019.

“There’s only one way to rock!” — Sammy Hagar

Well, that’s one school of thought.  But after this downtown club triple-header, it struck me that (at least in theory) there can be as many paths to playing progressive music as the number of artists that give it a shot.  On Thursday night, three fine young bands unwittingly tested my hypothesis, approaching their music in three very different, equally valid ways.

Grand Rapids’ own Entransient, fresh from a showcase gig at Florida’s RosFest, kicked things off.  The quintet’s 3-song, 30-minute set of “melodic neo/post-prog rock” refined readily admitted influences (Anathema, Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Pineapple Thief) into their own unique blend, with a rich sound and atmosphere.  While guitarist Doug Murray and drummer Jeremy Hyde were standout players, the group as a whole (fronted by Scott Martin on subtly tasty keys and fierce vocals) was thrillingly tight and professional.  Prog metal bands are a dime a dozen these days, but Entransient has a distinctive, readily appealing touch. As they blaze a fresh trail in a genre that easily collapses into cliche, they’re well worth a listen.

By contrast, Bent Knee dove into their local debut determined to sound like nobody but themselves.  With Courtney Swain’s sweeping synth sounds and bracing, uninhibited singing to the fore, the Boston sextet blew through a clutch of mostly new material, including the recent single “Catch Light”.  Their sound is artful, cinematic and immersive — a unpredictable, unstoppable rollercoaster ride of dynamic, rhythmic and textural contrasts and transitions, underpinning allusive, cryptic lyrics.  You’re pulled in, put through the wringer — then ejected, safe and smiling!  It was a joyful, cathartic set, and the biggest crowd of the night readily caught the vibe; Swain made a lovely announcement about how she doesn’t like to compare audiences, but she loved this one.  Their closer “Lovemenot” launched guitarist Ben Levin and bassist Jessica Kion into full pogo mode, with Levin gleefully diving offstage to cap the evening.  An impressive, enjoyable experience — and a real revelation to me; I’d go see Bent Knee again in a heartbeat! (Photos below by Robert Henry)

 

To wind things up, Thank You Scientist pumped up the energy another level; the heady mix of Snarky Puppy-ish jazz/funk chops and Mars Volta-like whiplash transitions could have come from no other band.  Focusing on the brand new album Terraformer for their 90-minute set, the virtuoso New Jersey septet reeled off complicated riffs, head-spinning solos and breakneck unison lines with awesome precision, with Salvatore Marrano’s idiosyncratic falsetto vocals soaring over the adrenalized counterpoint.  To be honest, I found TYS’ non-stop barrage relentless to the point of exhaustion at times; good thing founder/guitarist Tom Monda whipped out his Chinese shamisen to change the pace on an instrumental rhythm section feature.  Great horn work from Sam Greenfield on sax and Joe Gullace on trumpet then set up a towering version of Terraformer’s title track, with violinist Ben Karas and Monda tearing it up as Marrano’s surreal narrative brought the delighted audience into the home stretch.

So yeah — there’s more than one way to rock — and to progress — and each of these committed, talented bands proved it!  Enjoy them when they hit your town.

 

— Rick Krueger

Setlists:

  • Entransient
    • Sirens
    • Weaker Hearts
    • The Weight of Things
  • Bent Knee
    • Way Too Long
    • Hold Me In
    • Land Animal
    • Catch Light
    • Garbage Shark
    • Golden Hour
    • It Happens
    • Leak Water
    • Lovemenot
  • Thank You Scientist
    • Wrinkle
    • FXMLDR
    • Swarm
    • Blood on the Radio
    • Son of a Serpent
    • [Shamisen/Rhythm Section Feature]
    • Poop Magician
    • Chromology
    • Anchor
    • Mr. Invisible
    • Terraformer
    • Encore: My Famed Disappearing Act

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other

If you haven’t heard Rhiannon Giddens yet … well, just listen:

Gifted with a glorious, classically trained voice plus extraordinary skills on banjo and fiddle, equally at home with African-American spirituals, Celtic “mouth music” and opera, Giddens is the kind of protean musician that comes along once in a generation.

Founding “postmodern string band” the Carolina Chocolate Drops, writing music for Bob Dylan’s words on The New Basement Tapes, winning a MacArthur Genius fellowship, acting in CMT’s Nashville series — Giddens has gone from strength to strength in a remarkably short time, earning every step up in her meteoric rise.  Seeing her live in the summer of 2015, I walked away giddy, as she and her band effortlessly filled a Cape Cod town hall with irresistible rhythms, utterly committed performances that ran the gamut from a tear-inducing take on Dolly Parton to funked-up Appalachian folk tunes  —  and that powerful, powerful voice.

For her third solo album (after 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and 2017’s Freedom Highway), Giddens has teamed with Italian pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, who  filters early Mediterranean folk music through the prism of jazz.  Recorded in Dublin, Ireland in five days with minimal preparation and few overdubs, There Is No Other soars, sears and astonishes — breaking your heart one instant, healing it and setting off fireworks of exhilaration the next, commanding your attention throughout.

Words can only approximate the sweep of traditions and times woven together here.  Folk ballads from Appalachia, Italy and England, jazz via Hermeto Pascoal (a Brazilian collaborator with Miles Davis) and vocalese pioneer Oscar Brown, classical arias by Carlisle Floyd and Samuel Barber — they’re all subsumed into the spell that Giddens (on banjo, violin and viola) and Turrisi (on piano, accordion, lute, banjo, and percussion) conjure up.  This music is warm, determined, melancholy, driven and delighted by turns, seamlessly flowing from one track to track, each its own thing, each part of a greater unity.

And Giddens’ singing — again, gorgeous beyond words.  On “Gonna Write Me A Letter” and her own “I’m On My Way”, she’s an unstoppable force of nature; on “Pizzica di San Vito” and “Briggs’ Forro”, a rippling vocal breeze above dancing beds of rhythm; on “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Trees on the Mountains”, the cry of a broken heart devastated by life and love; on “Brown Baby” and her gospel-tinged “He Will See You Through”, the voice of maturity, determination and hard-won belief.  Nothing human is foreign to her — the wisdom of generations and the optimism of youth come together to devastating effect.

I recommend There Is No Other without hesitation — it’s one of those albums that Duke Ellington might have termed “beyond category”, resonating deeply with the core of our shared humanity.  As Giddens and Turrisi put in in their liner notes,

From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes, and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture.  There are very real and documented yet unheralded historical links between many of the instruments we play; and yet others of the connections we have here arise solely from our artistic instinct; but either way, the overwhelming feeling we have is that there is no Other.

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi tour North America from September to November; tour dates are here.  In the meantime, listen to There Is No Other for yourself:

— Rick Krueger

In Concert: The Who – Moving On!

The Who, Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids Michigan, May 7, 2019.

Taking the mike as The Who casually took the stage, surrounded by a 49-piece orchestra, Pete Townshend saluted my adopted hometown. “Grand Rapids — on the Grand River — a grand occasion!”

As I’ve noted before, Michigan has played an outsized part in The Who’s history — the site of their first US hit single (“I Can’t Explain”, in Detroit) their first US gig outside New York (the Fifth Dimension Club, in Ann Arbor), their first car driven into a swimming pool (at Flint’s Holiday Inn).  Tuesday night brought a new “first” — the opening night of an ambitious band-plus-symphony tour.  Would it be a brave triumph?  A crazy experiment?  An baffling failure?  A cynical cash grab?  We would get to find out — first!

What we got was a mix of the first two possibilities — thoroughly intriguing and pretty gripping, worth some shaky moments and rough pacing for the sheer, audacious impact of the whole package.  The evening was by no means a smooth ride or a safe play to a sold-out sports arena crowd; parachuting into unfamiliar sonic terrain, The Who had to blaze new trails forward.  They stumbled at times, but when they found their feet, the musical vistas they discovered could be downright glorious.

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Big Big Train, Grand Tour

What prog rock does is to free artists from some of the limitations of pop, rock and folk music whilst incorporating their best elements e.g. memorable melodies or story-telling.  The sweet spot is where high-quality songwriting and interesting music collide.

— Greg Spawton, “What is Prog?” (from Big Big Train’s 2017 concert program)

A sweet collision indeed.  On the new album Grand Tour, the members of Big Big Train extend and refine their sonic vocabulary, and broaden their topical reach from the seminal Albion cycle (The Underfall Yard, English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound and various offshoots) to explore a wider, sometimes wilder world.  As fans have come to expect, it’s both instantly appealing and bracingly challenging — richly melodic, spikily rhythmic music, continually reaching toward symphonic scope; words that reflect on, rejoice in and ruminate about the wonders of the past and present, this time breaking out beyond Britain to Europe and to farther shores.

Admittedly, Grand Tour starts more tentatively than some previous albums: setting the scene and foreshadowing what’s in store, “Novum Organum” (the first of drummer Nick D’Virgilio’s composing credits, with bassist Greg Spawton) is a gently hypnotic prologue for patterned percussion and keyboards.  It eases us out of the dock into the harbor, with David Longdon sounding the album’s themes at low tide, setting sail “for science and for art.”

But before we can drift off, Longdon’s “Alive” slams in — a rocking kick-off that urges listeners to “Find your wings/Dare to fly/Find your feet/Then run for dear life”.  Straightforward rock with a lighter, contrapuntal bridge, it’s a powerful, limber groove with lots of nifty textural touches (backing vocals at the octave, poppy handclaps, Spawton’s bass pedals under the driving rhythm, Danny Manners’ defining Mellotron riff and in-your-face synth solo, spiffy keyboard and guitar filigree at unexpected moments).  And Longdon is having the time of his life, reveling in the new day to seize and the beauty awaiting him.  He’s raring to go — and the invitation to come along is irresistible.

Continue reading “Big Big Train, Grand Tour”

In Concert: Nick Mason Pours Chicago a Saucerful

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, The Chicago Theatre, April 4, 2019.

“After twenty years, I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring.”

Always quick with a quip, drummer Nick Mason tossed off that one during the first lull in his new band’s voyage through Pink Floyd’s early catalog.  Dryly diplomatic and subtly duplicitous (it’s actually been 25 years since Mason last played in North America, 14 since the Live 8 Floyd reunion), it was nonetheless revealing.

In recent years, Roger Waters has trotted his favorite era of Floyd (first The Wall, then a Dark Side of the Moon through Animals-based set) around the globe; David Gilmour toured his solo album Rattle That Lock, then decided to auction off his guitar collection for charity, keeping the door firmly shut on nostalgia following Rick Wright’s passing.  Mason, on the other hand, has dug deep into the history of the band he co-founded — prepping the massive box set The Early Years with Gilmour, then working on the touring memorabilia exhibition Their Mortal Remains.   So when Blockheads guitarist Lee Harris and post-Waters Floyd bassist Guy Pratt suggested a group focusing on the pre-stardom Floyd repertoire, Mason was itching to give it a whirl.

It’s a great idea.  Freed from the expectation of playing the hits, Saucerful of Secrets dives headlong into a rich stream of psychedelia, prog and pastoral balladry, setting back the clock to when Pink Floyd’s audience had no idea what was coming next.  And there’s something for everybody here: trippy blues barrages “Interstellar Overdrive”, “Astronomy Domine” and “One of These Days”; the whimsical Syd Barrett-led singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, along with Barrett’s later, profoundly disturbing “Bike” and “Vegetable Man”; hushed, acoustic post-Barrett meditations like “If” and “Green Is the Colour”; the bludgeoning rock of “The Nile Song” and “Childhood’s End”; and extended free-form explorations of “Atom Heart Mother”, “Let There Be More Light” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”.

Tackling this wide range of material, the quintet was tight enough to keep the audience engaged, but loose enough to veer into clamorous group improvisation as the mood (frequently) struck them.  Pratt and rhythm guitarist Gary Kemp (best known as the main songwriter for Spandau Ballet) divvied up the lead vocals and drove the tunes forward, with Pratt cracking occasional jokes about absent Floyds during breaks; Harris spun off one obliquely creative solo after another on a bevy of guitars; Dom Beken captured Rick Wright’s spectrum of tasty keyboard colors and open chord voicings to perfection.

But ultimately, it was Mason’s show.  Sometimes damned with faint praise like “the best drummer for Pink Floyd,” his fine playing reminded me of Ringo Starr  (another criminally underrated drummer) onstage.  Self-deprecating about his lack of technique in interviews, Mason turns any limitations into assets by laying down an immovably solid beat, leaving plenty of space for his fellow players, and embellishing the grooves in simple, ear-catching ways (his malletwork on tom toms being the most famous example).   His reward?  Finally getting to play the gong on “Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun” for this tour. (Mason’s spoken intro: “Roger Waters is one of my best friends, a brilliant musician, a brilliant songwriter — and not good at sharing.”)

So unlike later Pink Floyd tours, including The Division Bell outing I saw in 1994, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets isn’t about the spectacle (though the light show was fabulous), or the star power.  Rather, it’s about the music — and about the accomplished crew of players that bring these neglected Floyd gems alive in the moment, headed by the drummer who’s somehow become the most stalwart conservator of his band’s legacy.  For the 3,000 appreciative fans that rewarded Mason and his compatriots with a tumultuous standing ovation, that was enough.

Setlist:

  • Interstellar Overdrive
  • Astronomy Domine
  • Lucifer Sam
  • Fearless
  • Obscured by Clouds
  • When You’re In
  • Remember a Day
  • Arnold Layne
  • Vegetable Man
  • If
  • Atom Heart Mother/If (Reprise)
  • The Nile Song
  • Green Is the Colour
  • Let There Be More Light
  • Childhood’s End
  • Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
  • See Emily Play
  • Bike
  • One of These Days
  • A Saucerful of Secrets
  • Point Me at the Sky

— Rick Krueger