Well Heeled and Well Fenestrated: 2006 in live music (Dan Ruccia)
2006 has been a strange year for me musically. It marks my first full year away from the warm, fuzzy confines of college radio with its endless deluge of new music from random bands I’d never heard of, 90 percent of whom sucked. But it was that 10 percent of the unknown but awesome that kept me going. This year, I had none of that, so I was left to discover music the way I suppose most people do, by listening to the radio, reading sites like Dusted, talking to friends, and randomly exploring. But for whatever reason, the new music that I found in 2006 wasn’t really that new. The best albums I heard were almost all by bands that have been around in my head for a while - Sonic Youth, Uzeda, Parts & Labor, Oneida, Espers, Matmos, Scott Walker. What really grabbed me, instead, was live music. Part of it had to do with the fact that I was living in Chicago (one of the best places to see shows) through September; part of it was me finding a way to replace radio, and part of it was that there were just a lot of really interesting musical acts in circulation last year. So instead of talking about new albums from 2006, I’m going to talk about the highlights of my year of live music in roughly chronological order.
Spits, MOTO at Subterranean, Chicago, IL
Snotty punk rock is always great in January. The Spits played 2-minute ballasts of scuzz for an hour and a half. MOTO made me want to sniff glue and get their cassette tape and cross-bones logo tatoo’d on my calf.
Chris Corsano & Spencer Yeh at University of Chicago
When you get together two amazing noise makers, good things happen. This concert, in a random basement at UChicago with maybe a dozen people in attendance, can be summed up in a single moment. At a certain point maybe 3 “songs” in, Corsano took out a roll of scotch tape, attached one end to the head of his snare drum, and started unrolling it. Fifteen feet of tape later, he started rubbing on the tape with his fingers, creating what can only be described as some kind of unworldly whale mating call that Yeh complimented either matching violin sounds and his signature vocalizing.
Bottomless Pit at the Hideout, Chicago, IL
A year and a half ago, Silkworm was brought to an untimely end by the tragic death of drummer Michael Dahlquist. For whatever reason, before last year I never really paid much attention to Silkworm, maybe because they were one of those seemingly everpresent, solid rock bands who I would explore one of these days. But now, all that’s left are their recordings and the band Bottomless Pit - Silkworm’s Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen joined by drummer Chris Manfren of Seam and Brian Orchid on bass. Their name may be kind of unfortunate, but their sound is anything but. Live, the sound of guitar, baritone guitar, and bass is rich, endless, and more complete than most studio albums. And their songs are earnest, simple, and full in the most joyous of ways.
Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake/Steve Reid & Kieran Hebden at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL
This was a concert of dichotomies. Between acoustic and electric, between drums and pitched instruments, between good improvisation and bad improvisation. Fred Anderson may be ancient, but he still can blow his lungs out for an hour straight, and Hamid Drake remains the best jazz drummer alive in the United States. Together, they spun out 60 delicious minutes of free jazz, with Anderson’s occasionally skronky lines meandering in and out of Drakes constant rhythmic modulations. The two of them could finish each others’ sentences if they had to. Hebdan and Reid were almost the opposite, two musicians who were moderately uncomfortable together who didn’t quite know how to speak the same language. As on the Exchange Sessions discs, Reid was stuck riding his high-hat and bass drum while Hebdan strung out masses of noise and beats. They were inexplicably headlining the show but were easily the lesser duo.
Eleventh Dream Day at the Empty Bottle
Zeros & Ones is a good record, but one that must be heard live to really be understood. On CD, their songs are polite, live they become vicious. Rick Rizzo spent half the time he wasn’t singing tearing his guitar apart, doing his best mix of Neil Young, Sonny Sharrock and Ira Kaplan. On this night, they covered their entire back catalog, including a couple tunes from Prairie School Freakout, and tacked on a completely reconfigured Joy Division cover that became a 10-minute wall of Rizzo’s guitar.
ICP Orchestra at the Chicago Cultural Center
Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, like Fred Anderson, remain feisty in their old age. They still run what is arguably the best free jazz big-band in existence, one that manages to combine free splatter with ragtime, almost always with a wink. But on this night, Mengelberg was showing signs of running out of steam, adding little to the conversation save for one breathtaking Mahler via Stockhausen piano solo. Bennink, though, remains a monster behind the kit, at many points overpowering the ensemble with just his snare. The other dozen or so players are equally fantastic; their musical conversations are truly a sound to behold.
Pitchfork/Intonation at Union Park, Chicago, IL
Lumping two gigantic festivals into one blurb may seem silly, but these two festivals were essentially two sides of the same monster. I only went to Intonation to see Roky Erickson and the Boredoms who were sadly back-to-back, meaning I had to skip part of Erickson’s fantastic set to get a good spot for what would be a truly euphoric Boredoms set. Pitchfork had more worthwhile bands, with my highlights being hearing Matmos do “Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan,” seeing the most boisterous Yo La Tengo set I’ve seen in years (I love hearing Ira disassemble his guitar on stage), and literally flipping out when the fuzz guitar line finally showed up in Os Mutantes “A Minha Menina.”
Zs at the Empty Bottle
I attended this show on the advice of Dusted writer Adam Strohm and was not disappointed. Zs are, at present, a quartet with two guitars, saxophone and drums. At this concert, they played a single half-hour long composition that was equal parts minimalism, math rock and jagged punk. There were starts and stops, there were sudden turns, there was prog, there was everything. The only point of comparison I can think of is Orthrelm, but that seems largely inadequate. It’s complex, but in the best of all ways.
Carla Bozulich at Schubas, Chicago, IL
Expressionism is a lost art form these days. Few people do it well, and most who try end up sounding pretentious. Somehow, though, this year was full of expressionism, with Scott Walker leading the way and Carla Bozulich (and possibly Josephine Foster) close behind. Every moment she was on stage, she looked like she was about to explode from the heft of the ecstatic emotions she was trying to express, while the band behind her wrenched out tortured, beautiful music that only furthered the affect. She played almost exclusively songs from Evangelista, filling them with every ounce of energy she could muster. What’s more, the emotions she was expressing weren’t fear or disillusion or anger, but pure, unmediated, uncontrolled love, making it that much more devastating. Like an inversion of Diamanda Galas. It’s the type of show where afterward, you want to smoke a cigarette, down a couple shots of whiskey, and sit in a shadowy corner of the bar not talking to anyone to let your psyche unwind.
Rhys Chatham’s Essentialists at Local 506, Chapel Hill, NC
When you think of Rhys Chatham, you don’t normally think of heavy metal. Yet that’s exactly what he’s doing these days. With a small ensemble - three guitars, bass and drums - Chatham is trying to do for metal what he did for punk 25 years ago: make it into minimalism and overtones. Sadly, metal riffs don’t lend themselves quite as well to this goal. I applaud his effort though, and any chance to see him in concert is worth it. And, as an added bonus, they did a short version of “Guitar Trio” as an encore.
Touch & Go Festival at the Hideout
A more perfect festival, I have never attended. Uzeda, the Ex, Shellac, Enon, Monorchid, Killdozer, Scratch Acid, Quasi, the list goes on and on. It is everything Pitchfork and Intonation wish they were.
Vashti Bunyan at Lakeshore Theatre, Chicago, IL
If I could pick anyone to be my surrogate mom, it would be her. Her songs are so intimate and warm that I just want to wrap myself in them to ward off the problems of the world. Her between-song banter, a combination of stories, song explanations, and ruminations on time, only added to that sense.
John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada at Page Auditorium, Durham, NC
John Zorn may exist in a world apart from the one you and I live in, but when you get him together with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Greg Cohen, and trumpeter Dave Douglas, the resulting music is spectacular. But you probably are aware of that. What comes out seeing them live is that the group really consists of two conflicting duos: the obvious one between melody and rhythm sections, and the less obvious one of character with Zorn and Baron getting way out while Cohen and Douglas are fairly straightforward. It is those internal tensions that propel the chemistry of the group and allow them to create so much fantastic music off of a simple set of Jewish scales. The best moment on this night was when Zorn busted out the circular breathing to pull out a solo that was equal parts Peter Brötzmann and Marshall Allen.
By Dan Ruccia