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Thursday, Jun 4, 2009
Words and Pictures by Sachyn Mital

Though unable to attend the event as a member of the press, I was lucky enough to win two contests (from 101.9 RXP and Moby’s Twitter) to get me into the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium for a listening party for Moby’s new album Wait For Me (out on Mute on June 30th). I missed out on the free booze and the schmoozing unfortunately, and as Moby was there, a chance to speak to him. But for the 250 people, press and contest winners alike, gathered within the gorgeous Rose Center, the listening party was an utterly unique event; the entire album played with accompanying visuals from our solar system selected by the resident astrophysicist for the evening.


The venue could not have been more fitting given Moby’s fascination with space. He titles songs “We Are All Made of Stars” and his ‘Little Idiot’ alien is often a lonely space oddity across many music videos. Snippets of “Pale Horses” playing in the lobby show the alien crafting imaginary friends on the moon or in the older “Why Does my Heart Feel so Bad” he feels excluded after he floats to Earth in a wheelbarrow. And Moby has another direct connection to the Planetarium; it is home on weekends to SonicVision, a mix tape he selected accompanied by visual effects of an abstract universe and giants robot dancing.


Moby humbly introduced the event, noting that the sound system was not operating at 100 percent but thanking everyone for coming. Wait For Me, a more ambient electronic album than his most recent works, has a very cohesive sound though the dynamic changes quite a bit. Some tracks featured the distinctive gospel vocal samples in rotation since Play, at least two tracks had contemporary vocals from Moby and a female friend, and surprisingly one song in the middle had a danceable four-to-the-floor beat. But the majority of the record is rich and lush instrumentals, similar to Little Idiot, the bonus disc to Moby’s 1996 album Animal Rights. And to experience all of this while traveling through the universe, pulling back via the Milky Way, plunging close to the mountaintops of Earth and amidst the rings of Saturn was a grand experience. What a way to introduce a great album to the terrestrial world.


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Wednesday, Jun 3, 2009
Words by Kevin Pearson / Photos by Kate Legere

A Hawk and a Hacksaw are the kind of band I wouldn’t mind playing my wedding or my wake. They alternate between upbeat, oom-pah led numbers, and mournful dirges with the switch of an accordion key. That they do so in such an idiosyncratic way makes whatever musical track they take always sound like them. Of course, this might be due to the fact that no other band in the indie realm—except Beirut of course—utilizes the same variety of musical sources. But while the Balkans and that area’s folk music is a jumping off point for A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Moroccan bazaars, Mariachi bands, and other Eastern influences also seep through into their sound.


Initially a one-man band consisting of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer, Jeremy Barnes, A Hawk and a Hacksaw doubled in size several years ago with the addition of violinist, Heather Trost, as a permanent member. Over several albums and EPs, the duo’s sound—Trost’s violin and Barnes’ accordion—has been fleshed out by a revolving array of auxiliary musicians, most notably renowned gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and the Hun Hangár Ensemble. While neither of these groups back Barnes and Trost on this current European tour, the duo are instead augmented by three additional musicians playing tuba, bouzouki, and trumpet.


At first, it’s fascinating. Each musician is thoroughly engaging. It’s not your typical instrumental set up either. All of tonight’s percussion comes via Barnes’ foot, which stomps out a minimalist beat upon the skin of a solitary kick drum that is also attached to a couple of tambourines. That he does this whilst simultaneously playing the accordion is cool. The fact that he’s always on beat and on key is impressive. Trost’s violin playing is rousing in that it seemingly spirals out of control like a wild steed only to be lassoed at the last moment. “Nimble” is an understatement when describing the bouzouki player, whose fingers dance across the fret board faster than a stenographer covering a front-page court case. The only musician whose playing seems un-chaotic and methodical is the tuba player. But while this might not be as exciting to watch, his deep notes, in lieu of a bass or proper rhythm, ties everything together, allowing Barnes and Co. to cavort in their gypsy instrumentation.


If there’s any complaint to be made it’s that, aside from an encore that found the band playing unplugged amongst the audience, crowd interaction was kept to a minimum. Instead of being encouraged to move and to dance, it seemed, at times, as though we were watching a museum piece. There was a gap between performer and audience that was never gulfed. I am sure that this has a lot to do with the band’s need to concentrate on their dexterous playing, but such joyous music, especially music of an instrumental nature, needs interaction and both band and audience failed to adhere to this. Sure, there were a few handclaps and some nodding of heads, but unfortunately the overall the atmosphere was one of reverence over reaction.



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Monday, Jun 1, 2009
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley

Ah, Norway: Land of free health care, fjords, and a bustling creative art and music scene. From the psychedelic rock of fellow Norwegians Serena Maneesh to the complex lullabies of Hanne Hukkelberg, it seems like Norway is chock full of amazing bands. Though four piece I Was A King is part of this community, they also have a unique sound all onto their own. Using guitar pedal effects to create just enough fuzz, the sugary pop songs recall something akin to a fuzzier, feminine Beulah. Without the effects, it could have easily been considered twee-pop but it was also less silly and more focused. Still, one couldn’t help smiling while listening to the tunes, which came off as super happy and very catchy. 


Visiting Chicago as part of their very first American tour, I Was A King were energetic and fun but did not talk too much in between songs, attempting, instead, to play as many songs as possible. Lead singer Frode Strømstads even announced that they were minimizing their banter with the purpose of doing just that. The chemistry within the band seemed understated as well between songs, but it seemed as though they were perhaps saving it for the melodious songs instead. The lovely intertwining female/male vocals from Strømstads and Anne Lise Frøkedal created a certain sense of lushness that was interesting and reassuring at the same time, like a sweet dream.


 


In some ways, it was fitting that Strømstads wore an Elephant 6 shirt because it would be easy to picture him listening to many of the bands in the collective (their self titled record even has a guest appearance by Gary Olson of Ladybug Transistor). However, I Was A King came off as a little more accessible than most of those bands and not caught up in a sense of idiosyncrasy. Though they treated Chicagoans to nearly an hour of songs that, if edible, would surely be delicious, it felt as if a mere fifteen minutes has passed by the time they finished. Those are the type of songs one could easily listen to all night, relishing in the glorious texture and hooks.



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Monday, May 25, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

Ahmad Jamal presented a tight, affable early set at the Blue Note, playing through a repertoire spanning both genres and decades. After sitting down to the piano and launching into “Wild is the Wind / Sing”—from 2008’s impressive It’s Magic—Jamal quickly stood back up and, going from stage right to left, introduced his supporting cast: Percussionist Manolo Badrena, drummer Jake Johnson, and his trusty bassist James Cammack. He then impishly added, “…and me!” As if there was any doubt.


As a stalwart bop pianist in earlier times Jamal’s playing flaunted timing and urbane impulse, all without resorting to innocuousness. His rhythm always attacked and then defused in interesting ways. Thus his work with Badrena has been a welcome marriage, blending dynamic rhythms and feel with eclectic textures. A new composition, “Love Is Lost”, showcased some of Badrena’s bells and “It’s Magic”, a slow ballad, was made even more tender with gingerly conga flourishes.


Cammack also showed-off his tenure with Jamal, effortlessly playing with and under Jamal’s strong lines. A new tune, “Flight to Russia”, was grounded by a swinging bass line that carried the piece. At another point Cammack played a brilliant solo of modulating octaves, all while fighting over a waiter’s steak order in the background.


Jamal was still, however, very much the focus of the set. Vocally, he would chide his aging hands when they failed him during a virtuosic run or compliment Cammack or Badrena after invigorating turn-arounds. It gave the intimate club an even more intimate feel, like we were picking his brain in real-time. Musically, Jamal was engaging as ever. Though he sometimes stumbled on his most difficult passages, his classics, like “Poinciana”, were ethereal in their resolving harmonies and syncopated cadences.



Closing with “Baalbeck”—written after a 2004 performance in the town of the same name in Lebanon—proved a disappointing choice. Its militant, and prominent, snare-drum rhythm smothered Jamal’s playing suffocating the piece. It was simply unrepresentative of the night’s warm performance as a whole.



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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

Dan Deacon’s seminal solo tours became the stuff of indie legend: One Humpty Dumpty man clad in Sally Jessy Raphael frames; a DIY table covered in lo-fi electronic equipment and electrical tape set up in the middle of the dance floor; and raucous dance parties with Deacon’s idiosyncrasies at the epicenter. Much has changed since his breakthrough electronic album Spiderman of the Ring’s and its accompanying tours, however. Deacon, musically and financially liberated, composed an epic album, Bromst, of sweeping instrumentals and densely rewarding layers with the help of a 14-piece ensemble—his very own Baltimore Gamelan if you will. Naturally, the size of his new arrangements invite new constraints into his live show and so Deacon was resigned to performing onstage at the Bowery Ballroom.


Going to the late show of a double header was also dubious. Given the energy of his shows, it was unsurprising that his entire ensemble couldn’t keep up and some were performing on fumes, despite Devo-inspired jumpsuits. Deacon himself—repeatedly comparing the later show to previously successful gigs in Brooklyn and the night’s first show—was easily frustrated by the late crowd’s inability to follow his instructions for crowd participation and interactivity, lashing out, “Did I eat show poison before this?” While those in attendance put forth a fair amount of effort, Deacon was irked by the crowd’s ineptness (inebriation?) and his frequent substitute teacher-like berating cast an awkward shadow on the show at times.


Regardless, Deacon seems incapable of committing any wrong towards his fans. They danced, soliloquized, and jumped on command all night long, reveling in the throbbing mass of sound coming from onstage. But the late set took its toll. Exhausted from dancing to the ironic Enya and Lisa Loeb house music before the show, the crowd seemed drained by 3am. From Deacon’s questioning it sounded like many had been to all three of his shows over the weekend. The others must have been more coherent.  Songs like “Of The Mountains” and “Woof Woof” lacked the dynamic punches and gradations that so greatly enhance their recorded counterparts. Next time, I’ll have to make sure and catch him earlier in the night.



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