The tenth annual Latin Alternative Music Conference presented a mix of new and old at Central Park’s SummerStage. Rising DJ—and founder of Buenos Aires’ ZZK Records—Él-G performed an interim set that straddled the styles and rhythms of the evenings other two acts, the Brazilian samba-funk and hip-hop artist Curumin and Argentinean Juana Molina. While Él-G even incorporated a remix of Animal Collective’s “My Girls”, much of his set was reserved and inconspicuous, as if waiting to unleash his subtropical mixes. Earlier in the evening Curumin eased into his set with a cover of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, eventually turning up the tempo. Even though he was mostly static, singing behind his drum kit, his music was dynamic and rhythm perpetual. Both sampled and electronic melodies were woven into samba grooves and the mostly seated crowd grew restless. Near the end of his performance he played the best “Beat It” cover I’d heard in the last two weeks, transforming it into a sensual half-time lament. Juana Molina began with the opening—and title—track to 2008’s Un Dia. Gently singing the words “one day” and then looping them, she layered more vocals and then guitar passages on top before initiating the audience with more adlibbed vocals and musical yelps. Finally her bassist and drummer innocuously entered such that the song itself seemed to sublimate the casual utterances and nuances of everyday words and sounds. Over and over Molina created her signature ethereal blend of vocals, guitars, and electronics—with added bass and rhythms. Near the end of the night she played a solo song, “¿Quién?”. She wrote it after a weeklong trip to NYC years ago ended with her young daughter fearing complete abandonment, and the chorus echoes her daughter’s longing. What made many of her songs so captivating, however, was the scope of vocal textures she was able to produce and layer: Vocables, ombasure manipulation, and rhythmic variations. Paired with her music’s soft undulating cadences, her songs paralleled the night’s gentle breezes.
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Though the four-piece instrumental band Explosions in the Sky is no stranger to Chicago, this show was made special because it marked their tenth anniversary together as a band. Over the past decade, throughout the band’s five studio albums and consistent touring, they’ve perfected their experimental sound and their ability to turn it into a massive shared experience. It’s difficult to find many other bands of this genre that can match their sonic energy in a way that both adeptly acknowledges a gentle calm brightness and at other times a loud chaos. Like most of their song titles, their music accepts a sort of hopefulness that feels empowering and utterly complete.
Playing a gorgeous 90 minute set, Explosions in the Sky forgoes banter and instead lets each song seamlessly crash and evolve into the next, creating a sense of new wonder for each performance. Guitarist Munaf Rayani is the spokesperson for the band and typically makes a humble statement at the beginning and end of each performance about how much the band appreciates the audience and how special it is for them to perform. This time, he added a special note at the end that he hopes the band is together forever with the vast wall-to-wall audience in boisterous agreement.
Though guitar and pedal effects create a huge portion of their sound, Chris Hrasky’s drumming allows the songs to reach new levels of tension. The band plays with very little foreground light on their faces and bright beams of background light that spotlights the audience more than what is happening on stage. Munaf Rayani is the most animated of the three guitarists, often swirling his guitar around the Texas flag draped over the speaker cabinet for his amp.
Similar to many of their individual songs, their set began with a serene calmness and built slowly into a powerful crescendo of epic proportions. The audience provided a passionate response, throwing hands up in the air, clapping spontaneously during the songs, and cheering wildly for more. Highlights of the set included: “The Birth and Death of the Day”, “Catastrophe and the Cure”, “The Only Moment We Were Alone”, “Memorial”, and “Your Hand in Mine”.
With their alternating tumult, reeling guitars, and shimmering sense of dreamy grace, it’s difficult to not see some similarities to bands of the shoegaze genre. The band is often classified as post-rock though, and perhaps they take the elements of shoegaze to a new level. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of removal from time and space when they are playing and imagine a strange sort of postmodern wasteland where you’re bound to see a few ghosts. In the midst of the struggle, there seems to be hope for redemption and recovery. Perhaps Explosions in the Sky is this generation’s answer to My Bloody Valentine when the words would only get in the way.
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.
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”.