Perhaps no individual musician better captures the spirit and attitude of James Spooner’s Afro-Punk Festival than Saul Williams. Though the evolving sounds of Brooklyn rockers TV on the Radio are routinely cited as the Afro-Punk movement’s musical vanguard, Williams’ idiosyncratic mixture of hip-hop, electronica, grime, spoken word and poetry, all delivered with a potent punk ethos, proved an exemplary cross-section of Afro-Punk. Earlier in the evening Janelle Monae delivered a lively—though verbatim—set of her space-age meets rockabilly music, complete with an interpretive painting. A free skate park, bmx demos, and graffiti murals were seamlessly incorporated into the musical portion of the festival, demonstrating the scope and vitality of the Afro-Punk scene.
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Whether poised behind his laptop or seated at the grand piano, Jóhann Jóhannsson maintained a stoic and unfathomable expression most of this evening. Though the Icelandic musician was set to make his US debut in the fall of 2008, that show was unfortunately cancelled. But this summer he started a short American jaunt with two performances at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City as part of the Wordless Music Series. In his minimal style, he builds recurring themes from traditional orchestral instruments and electronic elements. His last two albums—IBM 1401, A User’s Manual and Fordlandia—are two parts in a planned trilogy of conceptual albums with technological and corporate American themes.
Accompanying Jóhannsson was the New York based American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) who opened the evening with a performance of Gavin Bryars’ piece, “String Quartet No 1 (“Between the National and the Bristol”)”. After a short break to rearrange the stage, ACME returned on strings, backing Jóhannsson at his laptop, devices, and piano along with Matthias Hemstock fiddling away with electronics and percussion.
The show began with three songs from the newer Fordlandia: “Fordlandia”, which welcomes and guides the listener along before bursting open over a vast glacial panorama, “Melodia (i)”, and the ever-persistent “The Rocket Builder”. Projections of early footage of automobiles and highway construction shone along the walls.
Jóhannsson and ACME also took songs from earlier works, like his debut Englabörn including “Jói & Karen” and “Sálfræðingur”. These songs evoked cinematic images of hurriedly traversing dark alleys observant of peril, as the strings kept the melody and tempo verging on panic before unexpectedly it cuts to black. The sinister aura leaves an uneasy feeling lingering afterwards.
Other pieces were excerpts from past compositions, “Corpus Camera” and “Viktoria og Georg”, and two parts from IBM, “Part I Processing Unit” and “Part V The Sky’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black” whose forlorn, processed titular vocal vanishes as it switches to sweeping operatic singing and strings that descend to a more hopeful place.
The sole encore was “Odi et Amo”, a short piece that continued the evening’s somber mood (rarely interrupted aside from waitresses bringing out beer or milk and cookies). And though the stark white lighting rarely varied, only shifting into red and blue tones near the end, the projections remained monochromatic, changing from archival film footage to Icelandic landscapes to abstract scribbles. But finally as the applause came, ACME took their bows and Jóhannsson broke his stoney façade, smiled and bowed.
If you were to take the lush vocals found in bands like Starflyer 59 and combine them with the beautiful melancholy of fellow Texans Midlake, you might get something close to resembling Robert Gomez. Backed by a keyboardist and French horn player, Gomez, on guitar, played selections from his last two stellar albums, 2007’s Brand New Towns and his most recent, 2009’s Pine Sticks and Phosphorous. It’s a difficult task, but Gomez manages to construct sad pop songs that tend to linger inside your brain long after the song has finished without the interference of drums and bass. Though he does use drums on some of his studio recordings, the loss of them live made it seem more personal rather then something was missing.
Gomez appeared rather thin and tall on stage and yet his demeanor was a very understated and modest one. He filled the room with alternating dreamy instrumentals and then more structured pop songs with lyrics. His voice is never insistent or even passionate but has a gentle quality that suggests a man trying to find his way in the darkness of the world. When he’s not singing, the instrumentals he creates are heartfelt, similar to what Jon Brion does for soundtracks. You can’t help but experience a sense of wonder listening to them as if they are part of a soundtrack to your life and your life has become a strange sort of cinema.
Though he’s an adept guitar player, with some intricate finger picking now and then, his best skill lies within the overall creation of these delicate laments. They are sad dreams for when you’re awake. Gomez began his forty-five minute set with “October 3rd Post”, a glorious symphony that seems in essence to instrumentally describe the wonder of fall and simultaneously the dread of the coming winter. That seemed to set a certain tone and worked as a wonderful companion for “Middle of Nowhere”. Other highlights of the set included “Hunting Song” and “A Paper Figurine”.
John Vanderslice has paid a decade of dues writing infectious, subtle pop grooves for the masses. His latest record, Romanian Names, is one of the most solid efforts from start to finish in his career, full of vigor and life. Unfortunately, the tracks haven’t been developed to their full potential in a live setting, falling somewhat flat compared to his elder material. In all fairness, it could’ve been an off night at Nashville’s Exit/In, but the band didn’t seem into it and it seemed a great deed to get Vanderslice himself into the performance. It also doesn’t help that half the audience left after the opener, one of the songwriting world’s most secret weapons, the Tallest Man on Earth.
In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim ingrained himself in American popular culture with his release You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, more than peers like Basement Jaxx, Armand van Helden or The Chemical Brothers. The video for “Praise You” won some MTV awards, “The Rockafeller Skank” was used in soundtracks, and the later “Weapon of Choice” video featured Christopher Walken dancing and flying around a hotel.