Thursday, March 09, 2017

Shows I Saw in the Past Few Weeks

I was on a good roll for a while, posting reviews and album purchases. Then it all fell by the wayside again. The past two months have been marked by various degrees of sickness (and the lack of motivation they bring on), as well as what felt like a healthy dose of winter doldrums. AND, I was one of the ringmasters behind a talent show at my son's school last week. No wonder my doctor told me my blood pressure was up last week. 

Things look better now. Besides, during all that, I did have a good run of articles in Pittsburgh City Paper. In fact, this week, I have no less than three things in the arts section: a profile of jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield; the Local Beat column, which mentions the salute to Dave Vucenich and the Unread Records show; and a preview of Patti Smith's Horses show. Follow the links and you can see what I'm talking about.

After seeing Battle Trance over the weekend, I realized I never mentioned anything about the last show I saw at City of Asylum's Alphabet City venue, which is now up and running in full effect. So here's a little something on both. 


Mostly Other People Do the Killing hadn't come to town since about 2009 or 2010. At that time, the group featured bassist Moppa Elliot, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans. In the studio, the band has grown to include pianist Ron Stabinsky, bass trombonist Dave Taylor and banjo player Brandon Seabrook. Evans has left the band, with Steven Bernstein assuming trumpet duties on the new Loafer's Hollow

When the group pulled up at Alphabet City on February 22, the lineup was reduced to the trio of Elliot, Shea and Stabinsky. After the frenetic interplay between Irabagon and Evans, not to mention the expanded arrangements with the larger group, the trio almost sounded like a different band. Even Shea, who specializes in careening drum crashes that always catch themselves before they fall completely down the stairs, sounded a little more subdued. This was a piano trio, albeit one that still lives life on the musical edge. 

And while the band's zaniness always made for a good time in the past, the new lineup gives more attention to Elliot's compositions, which have gotten more elaborate even as he chooses to throw a quote from "Mercy Mercy Mercy" or "Misty" into them. Now that they've been at it for over a decade, some of the "how dare they" dust has settled, and there is time to catch up with the back catalog and fully appreciate them. 

Last week was a banner week for touring bands that play adventurous music. Australia's the Necks came to town last Friday. I totally missed them due to the aforementioned Talent Show. But I did make it back over to Alphabet City to check out Battle Trance on Sunday. (Prior to the shows, I wrote a double-preview of them in City Paper.

Battle Trance played "Blade of Love,"  the same piece 45-minute piece that I saw them play in New York back in January. Hearing it again made me realize that I pretty much walked in to the New York show without missing much more than seeing them stand on stage quietly for two minutes, somewhat entranced, before the piece began.

Anyone who has gone to see a symphony and picked up on the full sound of, for instance, four upright bassists can understand the power of several musicians playing the same note. (The same can be said for works by Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham too, I'm sure.) The sound starts to swell and slight variations on it can make a big difference. Travis Laplante (the composer, on the far right picture) knows that and exploits it with their music. One of the best part of the piece came in the final third of it, where all four of them shifted from altissimos to high register wails, which they adapted with various levels of vibrato. The other favorite part for me, since I knew it was on the way, occurs about 15 minutes in, when all of their swirling arpeggios suddenly turn into low honks, which they land on together, seemingly out of nowhere. It was extra suspenseful for me, since I knew it was coming, but I wasn't sure exactly when.

A couple sitting in front of me left after about 20 minutes. Or they at least walked over to the restaurant section of the place. I was in the second row, so I can't say how many other people followed them. Granted it is intense music, that requires a little more patience and a willingness to explore the possibilities of sound, rather than following melody lines or chord changes. But you have to give it a chance.

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