Monday, May 05, 2014

Looking Back at the Weekend

It was a good weekend for music in Pittsburgh. Robert Pollard was in town for the opening of an exhibition of his art at the Irma Freeman Center on Friday. I didn't make it to that event, or any of the Unblurred/gallery crawl stuff because Ben Opie was premiering his composition Concert for Orkestra at the New Hazlett Theater that night. Those of you from out of town who aren't familiar with Ben can check out my preview article about it here. He's the same guy who helped bring Anthony Braxton to town in 2008, and recorded a double-CD with him.)

I've seen several shows at the Hazlett but this was the first time the whole space has been lit up and you could see the back of the hall. The loading dock door was visible in the back, as well as a catwalk running across it. With all that exposed, it really had to the look of an old factory, to the point where it seemed a huge industrial-sized fan was casting a shadow on the wall, in a cliched noir style.

The music was great. To prepare for my article, Ben gave me a CD of a practice run, which didn't have the full 15-piece band on it. So it really sounded like sketches or intros. At first, hearing it felt like it was going to spoil the surprise of the performance, but when it came time for the show it was more like certain figures came up and I thought, "Oh, I remember that," or "So that's how it's supposed to sound." Ben's style is really all over the place. He has a fondness for Mingus, Monk and Strayhorn, but he's also able to do Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton-style music convincingly. So it oversimplifies the concerto to say that he incorporates all of that into the piece, but at the same time he does. There were some pretty lush parts, that were really accessible. Tenor saxophonist Lou Stellute delivered one of the strongest solos of the evening in a mellow piece, though what he blew was not bound to any kind of straight ahead tradition. Opie, when he took a solo or a lead a section, straddled a rough and rugged tone with something that was more akin to '20s or '30s jazz, that kind of thick-toned execution.

The piece was divided into 10 movements, but after awhile I stopped trying to figure out if they were onto a new section or if there was just a tempo change within one. The group (which consisted largely of musicians that play in Opie's Sun Ra-inspired group Opek) had a conductor keeping everything together, which allowed the composer to concentrate on his playing.

Bringing my son to the show was a crap shoot. He's been to several Pittsburgh Symphony concerts lately, wearing his volume-cutting headphones, so I thought he might be into this. A couple weeks ago, when I was on my way to interview Opie, Donny said he wanted to come with me. So naturally figured this was a worthwhile chance.

Well, bassist Paul Thompson will be happy to know that the opening two-note bass riff got Donny's attention. He pulled off the headphones and listened intently to the minor third groove. He also dug one of the trombone solos that began with a loud, vocal splat. But that was about it. Fifteen minutes in, I gave him my phone to play with. He likes playing with the calculator and also likes a web game called First in Math. So that held him for the rest of the show. The only thing I really missed was getting to talk to folks after the show.

I could've followed that show with a trip to the Freeman Center to see Pollard. Or I could've driven all the way out to Mr. Small's to see Wye Oak. Instead my friend Toby and I went out for drinks and caught up with each other. He used to work with me and he's into a lot of the same jazz that I am. We sat at Kelly's comparing notes about new and old albums, shows that we've seen or wish we'd seen. Hanging out with him was obviously a rare thing, but just the idea of talking to somebody about all this music really seemed out of the ordinary. I feel like there's no one around who's wired into all this kind of avant garde stuff. Maybe that sounds cliched or perhaps a tad arrogant. Or maybe I'm exaggerating. Or maybe the few that I know are the types who talk about it in jaded, know-it-all ways. I know of at least one other cat that likes to talk good music shop, although he's not really up on the latest ECM releases or the Vision Fest schedule.

Anyhow, good times on Friday.

Saturday night my band the Love Letters played a show at Garfield Artworks. The space is a gallery/performance space that's been around for..........oh, over ten years I guess. The guy who runs it went to high school with me. A lot of people don't like him because he can be kind of nasty and self-righteous, to a degree that I think he's shot himself in the foot many times. But he can also be a good egg, and sometimes really funny.

The bill consisted of us, locals Scott Fry Experience and Miss Massive Snowflake, who hails from Portland. The Love Letters played first, and we're still a power trio, though we hope to fill the space vacated by our keyboardist. (Anyone who's curious should get in touch with me post haste, especially if you're a woman who can sing. The original person was.) Things were a little ragged but it was a good time, and the audience - largely people we didn't know, there to see the other bands - gave us a good response and some compliments.

When Miss Massive Snowflake - who, for the night, consisted only of guitarist Shane de Leon - was starting to roll, something hit me. This was the first show we've done in ages where all we had to do was promote the evening, show up and play. We didn't have to chase down opening acts, chase club bookers and hope they'd take us. We were on a bill with strangers who were all really cool and brought something new to the evening. It felt good but it also felt rare.

MMS's set was about 30 minutes and he came off a little closer to singer/songwriter than I expected (the flyer used the phrase "art pop") but it was fun. I ended up buying two records at the end of the night, an album and a split 10", the latter of which he only had two copies left.

The Scott Fry Experience played next and Manny, the Garf-Art guy mentioned above, told me they were sort of like GBV, which I kept in mind as they played. They were, but not in the dudes-getting-sloshed-as-they-play sort of way. It was unpretentious, unpolished rock that was fun. Things wobbled a little here and there, but the same could be said for us.

So it was disappointing that none of the people I invited came to see us. Not one. But my bandmates got people out, and like I said, some strangers liked us. Strangers in the 20s. At the end of the night, we made a teensy bit of $ but we weren't given a hard time about draw. Yesterday, I still went through the usual post-gig comedown ("depression" is an extreme word, though it's close), wondering what the future holds. But I also felt like we need to play out more often, trio or quartet, to get used to it and to avoid stumbling through changes in songs.

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