field report no.030718

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Shopping

OBSERVATIONS:
There's an art to making something like a simple rock trio come off as more than just some over-loud pop. There's a performative aspect that, overplayed, will seem just a campy gimmick. Shopping hits the sweet spot. They seem genuinely elated to be on stage, winning and cheering the crowd. Their live dynamic, trading lines in call-and-response, has echoes of the Beastie Boys interplay, hidden in a spiky wrapper of Gang of Four. After the bevy of post-punk-aping bands of the mid 2000s, Shopping's influences may feel familiar, but they have the wherewithal to keep the ball moving forward.

Their frontwoman, Rachel Aggs, is a powerhouse, also leading Trash Kit and Sacred Paws (and previously of Golden Grrrls), and each is a reliable go-to for me. 

NOTES: Shopping; French Vanilla; Konvoi
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.022318

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Jonathan Richman

OBSERVATIONS:
Jonathan Richman is a bundle of contradictions. He exudes a studied naiveté. His songs appear simple but his performances are filled with subtle dynamics. He plays the everyman while singing in no less than four languages. His music is humorous, filled with grinning turns of phrase or out-and-out punchlines, but he never seems less than sincere. In fact, many of his goofy tunes are, by turns, heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Richman's music endures by virtue of its humanity. In person, he's human-scale—no a larger than life icon on stage. While he possesses charisma and force-of-personality to spare, the show itself feels intimate. For one night only, Richman is your own private Cyrano, serenading you with sonnets galore. I've seen him billed as opening for large scale acts, like Wilco, and I have to wonder how his show translates to such a vast crowd—but I shouldn't underestimate Jonathan, he's more cunning than he lets on.

NOTES: Jonathan Richman, featuring Tommy Larkins on drums; Ané Diaz
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

field report no.021518

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Center AVL.NC
SUBJECT: St. Vincent

OBSERVATIONS:
Instant gratification is rarely the sign of a great artist. Annie Clark's albums as St. Vincent often land with an initial, vague sense of disappointment. That feeling, more honestly expressed, is a sense of loss for the most-recent version of St. Vincent, who I'd  started to love, but, with the arrival of this latest missive, is no more. With time, I found myself awestruck by Masseduction—it just took me a while.

Much of Masseduction deals with ideas of product and manipulation (in various forms). Even the title suggests pop's purpose: tapping people's collective neural pathways, evoking lust and desire to make sales. Her live show foregrounded this by filling the stage with Clark, alone, in an outfit somewhere between dominatrix and superhero. Sexuality, as a performance and product.

While I was apprehensive seeing her perform solo, with pre-recorded backing tracks, this show made those concerns obsolete. Her staging and presentation were impeccable and engaging. St. Vincent's presence was outsized and her performance leaned heavily on her powerful voice and an under-appreciated ability to absolutely shred on guitar.

NOTES: St. Vincent; Tuck & Patti
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F; Grant B; Michael J

field report no.012118

LOCATION: the Orange Peel AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Neko Case

Neko Case at the Orange Peel

OBSERVATIONS:
No writeup of Neko Case fails to mention that voice. It has a presence almost outside herself. A clear, forceful tone: sans vibrato and with only a hint of country twang (not enough to seem put on). Her voice is even more arresting live. It's worth pointing out, though, all her vocal prowess would be wasted if not married to such striking, individualistic songs. There are no shortage of good and powerful vocalists, but few of them possess Case's creative streak.

Neko's development is chartable, since her first couple of albums were mere covers affairs, which in retrospect seem more like clearing her throat than announcing her intent. By the time she released Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, she was a different beast, easily fitting in with then-label-mates Nick Cave or Tom Waits. This songwriting is the heft behind her voice.

Case announced at some point, that this was the deep-album cut tour. In the midst of recording a new LP, this pass through was about performing songs that were rarely aired, live. Luckily, this ended up including many of my personal favorites. 

NOTES: Neko Case; Mt. Joy
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.111717

LOCATION: the Orange Peel AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Slowdive

OBSERVATIONS:
Arriving at the show late from another event down the road, I knew I'd probably missed the opening act—Soccer Mommy—and Slowdive would have just taken the stage. I questioned that assumption when I heard the throbbing pulse coming from inside. While Slowdive has evolved through many sounds—from twee dream-pop to spacious ambient rock—rhythm was never their calling card. They punched up the rhythm on everything from their new, self-titled reunion album (arguably, their heaviest) to Souvlaki classics. I wonder what they sounded like to see back in their early-90s hey-day. Did they provide such a tight, cathartic performance? Or, was it more of the amorphous ambience that I expected? Is this is a trick they've learned in the intervening years, now they're play to be bigger crowds than back then? Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised.

NOTES: Slowdive; Soccer Mommy
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.110817

LOCATION: Revolve AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Glenn Jones

OBSERVATIONS:
Sitting at the front a gallery listening room, flanked by his collection of guitars and banjos—each in a different tuning—Glenn Jones makes his finger-tangling folk songs feel effortless. Hands down, Jones is my favorite inheritor of John Fahey's American Primitive guitar innovations. His command of dynamics turns his instrumentals into it's own type of storytelling. Songs dip and swell, surge forward or hold back, like breathing things.

Before Fahey's reappraisal in the 90s, the lore of six-string folk was mostly an oral history, so Jones (like many of the apostles of the style) is an encyclopedic storyteller. He wove winding tales introducing each song—each tied to figures he's known. Jones grants you a glimpse of his private lore, tracing the titanic footsteps he knows he's followed, but he never fails to push those traditions further with his own accomplishments.

NOTES: Glenn Jones; House & Land
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

field report no.102817

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Hailu Mergia

OBSERVATIONS:
Moving from NYC to Asheville forced me to branch out. In New York, there was always something that fit the bill (as it were), but in Asheville I must, to some degree, take what's on offer. All the listing for Haliu Mergia needed to say was that he was an Ethiopian jazz musician from the 70s—I've devoured enough of the Éthiopiques album series enough to know what was in store.

It's a rare treat, anywhere, to see this form of groovy, traditional music presented by someone who was a part of its creation. Relying on the Fender Rhodes sets Mergia apart, though—most Ethio-jazz relies on tinny, biting organ sounds. The Rhodes' dulcet bell tones set a dreamier mood.  My favorite by far, though, was when Mergia switched to accordion. The pump action of the accordion mimicked the heavy, vibrato voicing I've come to associate with the 'Ethiopian Sound'. Aided by an able rhythm section, Hailu Mergia gave a small crowd in Asheville a master class in Ethio-jazz.

NOTES: Hailu Mergia Band; Lord King
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

field report no.102117

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Asheville Symphony Orchestra

Asheville Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky 5th Symph

OBSERVATIONS:
As someone who doesn't go out to the symphony all that often, I was inordinately excited to find out that Asheville has its own symphony orchestra. During the 2017-18 season, they are auditioning finalists to be the new conductor and artistic director. Each major concert of the season features a different conductor, curating a set of their choice. Rei Hotoda's lineup caught my eye for including a modern concerto written for tabla and orchestra, by Dinuk Wijeratne, along with some more traditional fare by Dvorák and Tchaikovsky.

The concerto that brought there me ended up a disappointment. Perhaps it was well played, but unfortunately the mix was way off. The mic'd tablas overwhelemed the orchestra. It was all percussion and dimly heard strings. What did make it through, sounded as if the sections of the orchestra were used in rounds, to give the soloist, Sandeep Das, free reign to navigate his circuitous rhythms through it all, but it was hard to tell.

The revelation of the evening, for me, was Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. My Tchaikovsky barely extends beyond 1812 and the Nutcracker (the latter of which I've heard the composer himself didn't care for). This was far less cloying. It relied heavily on the underused lower registers of the pit, all contrabasses and low woodwinds. It gave the work and meaty, tactile sonorous quality.

NOTES: Rei Hotoda, conductor; Dvorák; Wijeratne; Sandeep Das, tabla; Tchaikovsky; 
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

field report no.101317

LOCATION: Masonic Temple AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Bill Callahan

OBSERVATIONS:
Even before he traded in Smog for his real name, Bill Callahan was shifting from stylized indie-rock productions to more stripped-back, malleable, folk forms. Live, he handles these simple structures with a bluesman's flair of timing—drawing out bars or speeding them up, to suit the mood or his whimsy. The electric guitarist, brought along as sole accompanist, deftly navigated his tempo shifts, adding color whilst taking care to not push the outside songs' boundaries. Despite their traditional framework, Callahan's songs never feel trite. He avoids relying on tired lyrical tropes of the styles he's donning. The differentiation is writ plainly on his face: where the average troubadour would be earnestly closing their eyes as they sang to covey their sincerity, Callahan stares wide-eyed into the audience, brows arched up as sings, looking charged and  electrified.

I had thought, for such a simple presentation, they had quite an elaborate stage set up, featuring a small forest of cutout trees with a multi-layer scrim painting. That was until Callahan made a comment about the oddity of it all. It must have been some part of a production going on the same stage, but really, it seemed perfect.

NOTES: Bill Callahan
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.100317

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Ballister

OBSERVATIONS:
A mere six months after catching Dave Rempis solo, his long-running trio, Ballister, rolled through Asheville. The group features fellow Vandermark 5 alum, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and tenor guitar, as well as the ubiquitous Norwegian, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Ballister's is a powerhouse sound, cast in the mold of bombastic FMP-era groups, but after 8 albums and 7 years of touring, they've developed a nuanced communication only well-heeled bands have access to.

In this raucous context, Rempis dips into his gut-bucket skronk more than he did on the solo set. Lonberg-Holm frequently plays the wildcard, pushing the trio over the precipice, sawing at the cello and running it through guitar pedals for a metallic edge. Nilssen-Love, for all his power, never just pummels his kit. He punctuates, deftly finding open spaces, even in an all out scrum.

NOTES: Ballister; Omnicaster
PRESENT: AMS

 

field report no.092817

LOCATION: Revolve AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Rafael Toral

OBSERVATIONS:
A very unscientific poll implies Rafael Toral's fans are split along the two portions of his career. I've found little overlap between his ambient-electronic guitar manipulation pieces and his  homemade electronics improvisations. While I've enjoyed both, it's by dint of viewing the two phases of Toral's work-to-date as if by separate artists.

When I heard this show announced in a preamble to the Daniel Levin show (the week before) at Revolve, I could hardly believe it. That he would play a gallery space in Asheville, NC, seemed too improbable. Toral's work seems so isolated and niche, I counted myself lucky catching him a few years ago, in NYC.

Toral performs with smaell, curious, make-shift electronic devices that seem homemade. Many of them work, on some level, with feedback. This emphasizes gesture, making him move his arms in wide sweeps to control the sound, occasionally using his body as a dampener. The delicacy of his control, his expressive touch with these somewhat crude tools is nothing short of impressive.

Unfortunately the tools themselves are not nearly as expressive as he is. Monophonic and with a throttled tonal range, he wrings everything possible from them, yet it can still feel two dimensional. I would rather, given a chance to see him again, catch a duo or trio setting. He'd thrive in a scenario where there's something for him to play off. He could even introduce some expansion effects—variable delay or reverb—to add a depth of dynamics to the sound.

NOTES: Rafael Toral; ANKA
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.092517

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: The Church

OBSERVATIONS:
The Church were as stately as ever. The last time I saw them, they were touring their sophomore album, from 1982, in its entirety. This night they were focused on promoting their new album, Man Woman Life Death Infinity. While they're conscientious to sprinkle in fan favorites from their 35 year career, The Church remain moving forward. They've never simply tread water.  While their sound has progressed and evolved, neither has it radically shifted. Many of the newest developments came when leader Steve Kilbey ceded his bass duties to a roadie, freeing him to deliver more daring vocals for songs, like Undersea, that are unique in their catalog. Submarine pushes their atmospheric psychedelic leanings as far as they've been. Meanwhile, I Don't Know How, I Don't Why is formed in a classic Church mold, and would easily be a highlight from any LP in their last decade.  Speaking of, I don't know why I never noticed the krautrock motorik pulse underneath their 80s single Tantalized, but live, there was no denying it. 

NOTES: The Church; Helio Sequence
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.092217

LOCATION: Revolve AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Daniel Levin

OBSERVATIONS:
I'd only just caught wind of Daniel Levin with the recent Live at Firehouse 12 set. I was busy playing catch-up with his discography (as is my wont) when I saw this show, in an Asheville gallery space, announced. The relative scarcity of high calibre of improvised music in our remote region made it must-see for me and the (maybe) 50-or-so people who could cram into Revolve's listening space this night.

The solo performance we witnessed was in the Tristan Honsinger / Tom Cora tradition: the cello serves as a resonant sounding board to be tapped, scraped and rubbed with any traditional soundings relegated to mere filigree. At times it's a more of a focal point for the activity around it, almost a prop to remind us of the performance's musical origins. Yet, it's hard not to search for the rhythmic pulse at the heart of it all, even as he stomps the earth and flaps crumpled pages of a notebook about, arms outstretched. Such is our minds' visceral need to order sound, no matter how abstract.

NOTES: Daniel Levin, solo; Sonic Parlour & Constance Humphries
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.091117

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Shabazz Palaces

OBSERVATIONS:
I've seen more hip hop since moving to Asheville than I saw in all my 10 NYC years. Which is to say, New York just had more on offer for a tangential fan of hip hop. Given that, Shabazz Palaces is much more my speed than any other rap I've seen. You could argue they're more of a continuation of the trip hop tradition, which is a movement I (personally) count as formative. The left field abstraction and sonic u-turns of Shabazz Palaces is more in-line with the likes of Tricky, or even MC 900 Foot Jesus, than Digable Planets (which their leader, Palaceer Lazaro, hails from—as any writeup is obligated to mention).

Shabazz records can veer so oblique, their live show gave heft and punch to tracks that could too often drift by, almost unnoticed on the stereo. The instrumentation was stripped down, with a fitful stop-start pacing to refocus your attention. I'd seen Shabazz once in Brooklyn, but the situation—as a poorly matched opening act in a daylit, open-air amphitheater—was by no means flattering. This time around I left as a convert.  

NOTES: Shabbazz Palaces; Porter Ray
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.090617

LOCATION: the Orange Peel AVL.NC
SUBJECT: the Mountain Goats

Mountain Goats at the Orange Peel

OBSERVATIONS:
I was surprised upon realizing I hadn't seen the Mountain Goats live since way back in 2006, in NYC, when they were touring their album, Get Lonely. That gap speaks in part to their success: their shows sell out quickly. Now, they're touring Goths, which like Get Lonely is a little more understated in terms of performance—often using what Darnielle has called his 'middle voice'. It also features him on a Fender Rhodes for a number of songs, instead of his usual guitar. The material also throws in some fun instrumental flourishes like the chorus-drenched bass at the end of Shelved, a tip of the hat to the subject at hand.

While they have climbed far from their humble beginnings, The Mountain Goats unlikely ascent to the upper echelons of indie-rock has been fairly linear in artistic growth. The seeds of their original recordings, when the band was really just John Darnielle yelping misanthropic tales into his shitty boombox, are still nestled at the heart of their music. A band has simply grown up around him. Half way through the set, that band took a break while Darnielle dug deep into his back catalogue, giving a glimpse at the still extant core. 

One of my favorite parts of seeing the Mountain Goats, though, amazingly persists decades into their career: they seem so goddamn, genuinely happy to be playing for an audience. No one has ever presented songs with such brazenly brutal subjects with such a giddy grin on their face. 

NOTES: the Mountain Goats; opener
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.090317

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Roky Erikson

OBSERVATIONS:
Sometimes you just roll the dice. We hadn't planned on seeing a show, but It was the kind of night where we felt like getting out. I can only claim a passing familiarity with Roky Erickson's music—just the first two 13th Floor Elevators albums, really—but he's a bonafide legend of the original psychedelic rock era. It seemed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That suspicion felt doubly confirmed as Roky didn'tt lot look to be in the best shape. He was in high spirits; obviously elated to be in front of cheering crowd. They had him sat in his chair, arms hanging almost lifelessly at his side, with a guitar he could obviously no longer play given him like a prop or good luck charm.

When the band stuck to his 60s material, it was like returning to the source. We were hearing an anachronistic, oft-copied sound from one of its original innovators. His 70s material, which veered toward substandard, AC / DC knockoffs best suited for biker bars… well, let's say we spent part of the show on the patio, chatting. Honestly, it's rare when I'll go to a show I'm not terribly invested in. It was a bit liberating to feel free to just walk away for a spell. It was an odd dichotomy of being wowed and non-plussed every few songs.

NOTES: Roky Erikson and band; Death Valley Girls
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

field report no.080917

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Lætitia Sadier Source Ensemble

OBSERVATIONS:
Somewhere around Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Stereolab's output veered studio savvy. Since then Lætitia Sadier's music has been exquisitely constructed, perhaps at the expense of a certain visceral impact. For this same reason, ABC Music—a collection of Peel Session and other live(ish) BBC recordings—remains one of my all time favorite Stereolab records. Those performances revitalize the a human impact the band. This isn't necessarily meant as a criticism of Sædier's work—I'm a firm believer that the live performances and studio recordings living as separate entities. My most damning review of a performance is perhaps "it sounded like the album, only louder".

Sadier's new working outfit, the Source Ensemble continues this tradition. They may not court the rockist outbursts of Stereolab, but their live set still belies the entirely human, endearingly flawed aspects of a music that was originally documented in a slick veneer. The album they were touring, Find Me Finding You (her fourth, post-Lab), is a high-water mark—even given her storied history. Anyone, who carries a torch for the heydays of Stereolab, owes it to themselves to catch up with Sadier.

NOTES: Lætitia Sadier Source Ensemble; Art Feynman
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

field report no.071117

LOCATION: Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Woods

OBSERVATIONS:
While I've become accustomed to sparsely attended shows since landing in Asheville, I'm inclined to attribute it to the type of music I opt for. This ain't New York City, and Asheville can only sustain so much experimental music. Maybe it was too early in the week or too close in proximity to a holiday weekend, but the Woods played to a thin crowd on this summer evening. Surprising, since I would have pegged their folk-tinged indie-pop as right in Asheville's sweet spot.

Small turnout or no, after well over a decade of touring, Woods are a battle-tested and dependable live act. Not to say they lack ambition or have grown complacent. Many of their songs still bear tell-tale traces of ramshackle psychedelia from their freak-folk beginnings—exploding into extended, sprawling guitar solos. Singer Jeremy Earl's permanent falsetto delivery has settled into a deceivingly wistful lull that still leans forward, pushing the tunes ahead. The denizens of Asheville missed out when they dropped the ball on this one. 

NOTES: Woods; John Andrews and the Yawns
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.061217

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Peter Brötzmann / Heather Leigh duo

OBSERVATIONS:
22 years ago, I came to Chicago from Oregon for school. It ended up being a fortuitous time in Chicago jazz. Ken Vandermark was rallying the troops and the Atavistic label was creating connections with legends of European free jazz by reissuing a pile of classics from the FMP library. inexorably bound up in both parts of this renaissance was Peter Brötzmann, the true saxophone colossus.

The (probably) apocryphal tales of his intensity ill-prepared me for how I was to be excoriated that first night at the Empty Bottle, by the Brötzmann Octet (a precursor to his long-running Chicago Tentet). I've lost count of the times I've seen him live, but the frequency went down once I moved to NYC. When I moved on to Asheville, I didn't even entertain hope. But lo! The jazz barbarian did in fact come to raze our small village on what was speculated as perhaps his last US tour.

Since disbanding the Tentet, Brötzmann's favored small groups—trios and duos mostly. This swing through America was with lap-steel guitarist (and former Charalambide) Heather Leigh. Perhaps the greater jazz community's disregard for Peter Brötzmann's scorched Earth improvisations has made him more willing to reach out beyond jazz's narrow circles for partners. He diverse list of collaborators ranges from Last Exit to Middle Eastern folk musicians. Heather Leigh's history with the ecstatic-improvisation scene seems a readymade fit.

While the pairing is pitch-perfect, times have also changed, and Peter Brötzmann once again defied my expectations (in the best way). The evening was not molten peals, split reeds and broken strings, though I would never call it plaintive. Not to say he no longer has it in him: Brötzmann let loose some frightening cries, but it was not a sustained blitz.

The duo created what could best be described a 'volatile ambience'. Leigh summoned a bed of held and distorted tones, swelling to answer Brötzmann's reeds. Since the lap-steel uses a slide, it gave Leigh ready access to a wealth microtonal dissonances, giving everything a disharmonic edge.

NOTES: Peter Brötzmann / Heather Leigh; Thom Nguyen
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.060717

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

OBSERVATIONS:
Over the years, and especially since the early 90s, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have honed their skills, evolving into a captivating band for large venues without giving up a very real sense of intimacy. They are playing their music, yes, but they are performing as well. 

That they've endured long enough to grow into this role is stunning. Their origins, stretching back to the Birthday Party, are by no means populist, let alone stadium material. Cave has passed through years of self-inflicted obscurity and even more self-abuse (in the form of drugs). By persevering without compromise, they've now arrived on the other side with with critical acclaim, but also a large and loyal fan base, and a deep well of songs—no small number of which are just awaiting acknowledgement as classics in the canon. 

Their extended set was heavy on recent material: the harrowing Skeleton Tree and the acclaimed Push the Sky Away. They still had plenty of time to touch on crowd favorites from their back catalogue (they had just released a Greatest Hits collection, after all). For the first time, I realized one of his most enduring tracks, the elegiac Into My Arms, was in essence, the best Leonard Cohen song Nick Cave has ever written. It's poetics are unexpected while still managing a sincere and heartfelt sentiment. It's a song sure to be covered often in the future.

As a title, I Need You might seem as plaintive as Into My Arms, but that's a feint. Each verse dwells in a strange key, always feeling out of tune. For a fleeting chorus, the group will rise into beauteous reprieve, only to fall back again. His words revolve in cyclical, maddening mantras. I Need You is pure, confused desperation distilled to song form. Cave's powerful delivery and presence make it impossible to imagine any cover version. I Need You was a singular highlight of the night, even though it's a song I had somewhat passed over when listening to Skeleton Tree.

I've been lucky to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds a few times now. Each has vastly improved upon the last—no mean feat for an artist who's career itself is now middle-aged. While it seemed odd the only show in the Southeastern US on this tour was in Asheville, since I'm both a resident and a fan, I won't challenge such fates. And while I'd love to see the band dig into their back catalogue for dusty gems instead of fan favorites, I'll always be grateful for whatever Saint Nick sees fit to grant us.

NOTES: All Cave
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.