Monday, September 10, 2012

Harlan Twins + Sonny Simmons = Wild Weekend

Oh, what a weekend it was. Friday night was the Harlan Twins album release party. And when I say album I mean a 12" slab of black vinyl in a cover with some shrink wrap. They released Old Familiar both as a record and as a download, no CDs, which I think is a pretty smart move.

Their show was at Belvedere's, which despite its vast amount of space, reached its capacity at about 11:00. Glad I showed up when I did, but my friend Marta wasn't so lucky. Since I walked her back to her car, I missed a good amount of the set by the Delicious Cakes, the second band of the evening. What I did see sounded really good. They come from the Elephant 6/Olivia Tremor Control neighborhood, with a slightly shambolic delivery of really great pop songs, played on jangly guitars, with a few auxiliary people (well, maybe just one) with them onstage banging on extra drums and adding to the festivities.

But before them, the show started with Outsideinside, a trio project by guitarist Dave Wheeler, also of Carousel. Like that band, this trio churned out some heavy '70s style rock, with a little more of a streamlined feel as Carousel's twin-lead assault. They made me think of the obscure Epic label band Tin House, but that might just be me.

I didn't write about the Harlan Twins show for City Paper in part because I already have a full plate this month. But if I had, I was going to lead by recalling the band's first CD release show. That night I told James Hart he absolutely had to keep that lineup of the band together because there was so much power there. "If anyone wants to quit," I told him, "make like Charles Mingus and punch them in the mouth."

These days, he and fellow guitarist/vocalist Carrie Battle are the only remaining members of that lineup and there was no punching going on. But the group is still amazing. The songs are well crafted, the arrangements are tight, and they've evolved beyond their habit of doing the slow rise in dynamics to a rousing climax. Not to put that habit down, because they did it well. But they have more tricks up their sleeve.

Two-thirds of the way through the set, the band brought up the former members Jules (bass), Neal (drums) and Paul (keyboards) and they brought the house down. At least they brought down my house. When they slammed into the rave-up "Get Gone" it was like they never stopped playing together. I nearly screamed myself hoarse. There's just something about that lineup. And I swear Jules plays the songs the way I'd play them, although he has more chops and great vibrato.

I listened to Old Familiar yesterday. Somebody that night said it was better than the first album, which made me skeptical. I'm not ready to pass judgment either way, but it is damn good. In part because you can really hear the way Greg's keyboards work with the guitars, which doesn't always come across live.

After a day at work where my legs were really sore from bouncing around (luckily my head felt fine...)

.....I headed to the Thunderbird to see Sonny Simmons play with the Cosmosamatics. My interview with Sonny ran in last week's City Paper and you can read it here.

Like most times when some adventurous jazz guys come to town, I went on a bit of a crusade to make sure there would be more than 10 people in the audience. So I was really pleased to see a whole crowd of people at the top of the steps leading to the stage area, with more sitting at the upper deck.

Charles Wallace, a local band that featured six guys that evening none named Charles, opened the show with a set of fairly straight ahead but heavily swinging tunes. It looked like the crowd thinned a little after their set was done so I grabbed a seat up front.

It took awhile for Sonny and the crew to start their set, but his warm-up on alto and English horn was pretty tuneful in its own way. I wasn't even sure if he still got out the double reed, but he played it like he's never set it down. And he was LOUD, on both instruments.

The first tune lasted pretty close to 30 minutes. (When they announced it later, it sounded like the title was "Avant Garde Destruct," a track from one of their albums.) Michael Marcus was playing clarinet and keyboards, and Jay Rosen rounded out the group on drums. After a theme full of hold and release notes, Marcus and Simmons blew fire together and then Rosen kicked into a free flowing thing to accompany Simmons.

And the man didn't stop blowing the alto the whole time. His tone was impeccable, all the way up to the top register of his horn. He was blowing long notes and embellishing them with Bird-like flurries. After awhile Marcus started playing some chords on the keyboard, which gave the some some extra shape and it almost seemed like a cue for Simmons. If Marcus was trying to get him to make room for some clarinet, Simmons wasn't buying it. He blew straight through. The inspiration might have wavered a little bit, but the energy did not.

Although I could've done without the women who were whooping and hollering regularly during the solo, like we were at some dance club. There were also some people behind me talking during the set, even during the quieter moments. I can't understand how you could look away from music like this long enough, without fearing that you'll miss something. Some of the yellers had started yelling, "C'mon, Sonny, we are READY," while they were setting up, which seemed kind of inconsiderate when a musician is fine-tuning their sound. But they left before the first tune was done.

And I digress....

"Dance of the Zentrons" was up next, with the English horn coming out. Again the tone on that instrument was pretty astounding. Marcus got his chance to show his stuff too, which by this time I had been eagerly anticipating. I've seen the two-horn-and-drums set up and almost would've preferred if Marcus stuck to the reeds all night. ("Reed" I should say because he didn't have his tenor.) The shifting back and forth to keyboard and clarinet kept taking away from the sound: should it sound full or spare?

After brief solo pieces by Marcus and Rosen (while Simmons had a drink off to the side), the trio wrapped up with slow blues, complete with some vocals. It was a good way to end the set. Actually I think it ended with some free wailing ("Free" is written on my note pad) so that must have been the last statement of the evening.

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