Monday, August 29, 2022

Catching Shows by James Hart Band, the Beagle Brothers & Action Camp

I've struck up conversations with my friend James Hart the few times that he's come into my workplace (and his former workplace). He co-fronted the Pittsburgh band the Harlan Twins in the late '00s/ early '10s and I thought, at least for a while, that they could be the next band to blow the lid off of Pittsburgh, in the same way the Modey Lemon did at the turn of the century. It didn't happen but James has continued to play music, predominantly in a supporting role since then, a position he's really good at. (Along the way, he and I also took part in a pick-up band that played Canned Heat songs at a Woodstock tribute back in 2010. Looking back, I'm amazed we pulled that together.) 

When he and I talked, I thought nothing of encouraging James to get back to doing his own thing, fronting a band. So when I saw that he was actually doing it again, in a public place, I felt like I had to be there. Plus, if the Beagle Brothers were also playing, all the more reason to get out to the show.

Stepping upstairs to the Brillobox last Saturday was like stepping back in time. The venue (downstairs bar, upstairs live space) had closed following the pandemic. It beat the odds and opened back up again in March, which is a good thing for music and those wanting some suds (and eats) outside their house.

There was a time around 2010 where the Harlan Twins might sell out Brillo. I recall at least one night when I waited downstairs until a few people filtered out so I could make get in. That wasn't happening last week, but it was great to be out at a show and see a flock of people that I knew from several years ago. 

It was funny that the first person to saddle up next to me and say hi was someone I met during my time as the PTA president at my son's elementary school. (For perspective on time that has passed, the kid just started 10th grade today.) Before the night was over, several other conversations involved updates on friends' kids. There was a little more gray hair in the room, maybe a little less hair overall, but why worry about looking young?

James and the band were onstage, getting ready to start, when I got there. (Apologies to Lindsay Dragan, who opened the show while I was finishing up at work. I haven't seen her yet but I've been piqued by her online presence.) While waiting for the band to start, I felt someone shove past me, moving through the crowd. At first I thought it might be some drunk who wanted to get a good spot at the front of the stage. It was actually the soundman, who might be better called a Sound Bro because after charging past me, he jumped onstage and swung a boom mic stand out of his way, spinning it right at James' mouth. I know what it's like to be working and letting pressure get to you. I also know the frustration of equipment that needs to be tweaked. But jeez oh pete, man, there's no reason to be a storm trooper. 

I'm not really a fan of Americana rock or whatever you want to call that style. In fact, I might as well go on the record and say that I feel like I don't know much about rock at all anymore, since the new music I'm listening to is mostly jazz. I know some people play that style and it sounds *nice* and that's about it. It just kind of flows past me. But then some people can hit a G chord that feels like the start of an anthem that makes you pay attention. That happened during the Hart band's set on Saturday. And when James sings in the upper register - his voice coming close to cracking but only adding more of a passionate rasp - it gets even  better. One other impressive moment: seeing him lean over and grab a sip of his drink while he was still playing. That was almost as slick as the scene in Straight No Chaser where Monk plays a piano solo, dabs the sweat off his forehead and picks up his cigarette for a drag in one chorus. James is no Monk, but he is slick.

The Beagle Brothers played next. Back when I first heard them, they were almost completely acoustic. No drums, bull fiddle, about four guitars. The day I heard them go electric was when they played an event at the cemetery chapel where my wife worked. (I had connected them under the thought that they were still acoustic.) 

These days it's all about electricity for them, though they still have some pedal steel and mandolin along with the gitboxes and drums. The other pleasant surprise was seeing my friend Kraig Decker not only filling the bass seat but singing lead on a batch of the songs. 

Their set was plagued by sound issues, mostly dealing with the ups and downs of the steel and mandolin in the mix. A friend had some damning thoughts about Bro's mixing, but that detail is lost in the haze of the second drink so it's better to leave it at that. Clearly I didn't get other details like the names of new band members on a scoop pad (didn't bring it that night). But it didn't diminish the power of what was a solid set of country-inspired tunes. Like the James Hart Band, the Beagle Brothers have always been a group that rises above the umpteen other country-inspired groups through their songwriting and performance chops.

Maybe it was the hooch, maybe it was seeing so many familiar faces, but going out again to see bands felt really good that night. I have been to a few shows in the last several months, but each time feels like a new thing. There's such a rush being around folks. 

One Saturday previous, I had a similar experience at local trio Action Camp's release show for their CD Cusp. Again, it was a night when I was working the closing shift, but I got there right at the trio was starting their set. (Glad to see them but mad that I missed the Long Haul as well as both Normal Creatures and Fortune Teller.) 

The last time Action Camp show I saw took place at Club Café, which is much more intimate space than the Thunderbird. The latter used to be more intimate, in a way that wasn't really built for bigtime shows. Now the room is HUGE, with high ceilings and concrete floors, but the sound is great and it was perfectly suited for Action Camp. Their sound is pretty big for starters, with the addition of drop-tuned bass lines, all of Bengt Alexander's weird guitar textures and Maura Jacob's brawny voice, which can go from low to high easily, with all the appropriate drama. You could feel all of that last week.

I've listened to Cusp once or twice since I bought it that night, and I want to dig into it more. The songs are a bit unconventional in structure and sound, even while they could be easily accessible. They're another band that should be explored by more people looking to hear something that pushes beyond the musical status quo, without completely abandoning a pop structure. 

I do have to wonder how people find out about new music anymore and if the desire to hear more music produced in their own backyard carries any merit anymore. With Jacob getting ready to have a baby this fall, folks will have to wait to hear more from Action Camp in person. In the meantime, it couldn't hurt to explore the new album either

Saturday, August 27, 2022

LP Review: Raymond Byron - Bond Wire Cur

Raymond Byron
Bond Wire Cur

As usual, the introduction for this piece had been swimming around in my head for at least a month before I could find the time and focus to write about this album. Bond Wire Cur presents another installment in ESP's Drive to Revive Weird Rock, which has resulted in the past year with releases by artists like Bridge of Flowers and ATTITUDE! (click here for details). With offerings like that, this Drive must be encouraged and followed. 

Upon putting Raymond Byron's newest release on the turntable, he reminded me of ...someone. That laconic drawl, the simple musical setting (acoustic guitar, some piano) and a gift for a compelling narrative from which you don't want to turn away. He's an original, but there's a familiarity to him. 

Then it hit me - he's in a league with Vic Chesnutt. That late great singer had a lot going for him - a balance of rough and beautiful, mean and sweet, and so poetic. Lord Byron has that too. 

But before I could sing his praises, he took on another quality similar to that of Chesnutt: He died on July 30, 2022 at the age of 41. A cause of death has not been revealed and I don't mean to imply that he died in the same manner. I only want to mourn the fact that the world has lost another gifted performer. 

Raymond Bryon Magic Raposa has had a rather long and fruitful career, prior to his ESP debut. He recorded several albums under the moniker Castanets, all of them on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label. In addition to Stevens, he has worked with St. Vincent's Annie Clark and Deer Tick's John McCauley. Clearly I was a bit late to this musical party, but it was still in full swing.

Many songs on Bond Wire Cur last less than two minutes. Moods changes quickly between tracks, from pure acoustic folk to country to some psychedelic hybrid of both of them. A marimba appears out of nowhere during "I Don't Captain" [sic] and it fits in with the acoustic guitar perfectly. Strings appear on "Benediction Mountain," adding to the sanctified feeling of the words. 

No less than ten artists are credited on the back of the album, though no musical or vocal credits are attributed to them. So the plethora of women who harmonize with Byron shall remain something of a mystery. The best examples come in "Wings of a Dove" which sounds like members of the Carter Family working with Sun Studio recording techniques, creating pure reverb by leaving the monitors on while recording and creating an echoey feedback. (We did the same thing in college radio.)  

The patchwork aspect and ever changing dynamics also recall the better moments of '90s era Guided By Voices, when those shifts were part of the charm on an album. The difference here is that a 1:53 track is a full blown song delivered with brevity, not merely an idea that could've been more. It all holds together as an album, delivering 20 songs in about 38 minutes.

All that can be attributed to wit that Byron puts forth in his lyrics. He twists a closing time cliché into a fresh idea ("You don't have to stay/but you can't go home"). "Before What's Left of Our Minds Go" is a wry but charming love song of sorts with a protagonist who wants to live life to the fullest while he still knows what he's doing. The title track stretches out the longest - five minutes - beginning with some random ideas before switching to a second movement where Byron croons (with a delayed double-tracked vocal) over one lonely minor chord that never gets old. 

"Next Trick" ends each verse with a play on a line from a magician's act, the final one being, "For my next trick, I will disappear." It's hard not to look at some of these lines as possible clues that Byron knew the end of the line was coming. But if that's the case, there's nothing we can do now. Nothing, that is, but enjoy what he left for us. And then start to explore the back catalog. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Remembering jaimie branch

August 23, 2022 was a dark day for jazz music. Deaths usually come in threes, but Fate decided to go one step further. The word came down that we lost producer and Impulse/CTI visionary Creed Taylor, DJ/journalist Michael Bourne, guitarist Monnette Sudler and trumpeter jaimie branch. (The latter preferred no capitals in her name.)

While all of these are tragedies, branch's death hit me the hardest. (She died on Monday, August 22.) Not simply because she was just 39 years old but because I started following her from the moment I heard her 2017 debut Fly or Die. I felt something of an investment in her music. It was clear this was a trumpet player to watch. When other people joined me in listing Fly or Die as the debut album of '17, I was happy that other people noticed her too. 

She had chops and a vision that started with forward-thinking AACM-inspired ideas of freedom and continued on with a fearlessness that included funk, blues and electronics. And when I say "fearlessness," it was clear that branch was going to do her thing her way, regardless of what you thought. Her typical outfit consisted of a ball cap, often worn sideways or backwards, baggy pants and an oversized jersey, which may or may not have had the name of some sports team on it. 

The picture above comes from a 2018 show at City of Asylum/Alphabet City. The drummer was Stoli L. Sozzelberg. Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm was also onstage with them that night. But the outfit was secondary to what branch played. This is the kind of cliché you typically try to avoid, but she seemed to draw on the whole history of the trumpet. If she wanted to play a ballad, she could melt your heart. If she wanted to blast you against the wall with fury, she could do that too. If she wanted to get you think about the state of the world around you, she could do that too. 

That can be heard on last year's Fly of Die Live album, which included "Prayer for Amerikkka Pr. 1 & 2," a song she later said was not inspired by the 45th president so much as it was about the way people were being treated at our borders. branch was not content to just spew bile either. That same album included a repetitive number called "Love Song" which consisted largely of the line, "It's a love song for assholes and clowns." She knew that hate wasn't going to solve anything. Love was needed. The recording came from a January 2020 concert in Zurich, Switzerland, just before the world shut down. and it wouldn't be released until the following spring. branch didn't know how true her words were, and how important such a sentiment is.

It was barely a month ago that branch came to Pittsburgh with Anteloper, the project she helms with drummer Jason Nazary. The event took place in a former warehouse turned into a raw (to put it mildly) DIY space. There was bad ventilation and a men's room where you had to pour a bucket of water down the toilet to flush it. Fine for the younger set, but for anyone who needs to sit and rest their weary bones mid performance, good luck. It mattered not a whit to Nazary or branch. The duo played with the same intensity that they displayed with I saw them at the comparatively posh environs of New York's SOB's a few years prior

Standing in front of a table lined with samplers and other electronics, her trumpet always within arms reach, branch began the set with a call to arms ("Trans rights are human rights," and a pro-choice mandate) before creating long heavy loops in tandem with Nazary, who often whacked his traps with one hand while turning knobs with the other. What slayed me was the way a vocal whoop that branch looped early on would continue and get remixed into the sound and could still be felt several minutes later, even as things evolved around it. 

I turned fanboy a bit earlier in the evening, talking to branch and buying the latest Anteloper album. Despite the wildness of the evening and the ever-present loud volume, she was gracious and thankful for the effusive words, very down to earth and approachable. Despite playing in a more primitive space, she was well-scrubbed and enthusiastic. A musician of her caliber should be playing places like Le Poisson Rouge all the time, but she seemed happy to be playing music for people that appreciated and understood what she was doing.

That's why her death hurts so much. She was on her way to bigger things, still very approachable along the way and now she's gone. Maybe it's inappropriate to lump her together with Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Lee Morgan, Booker Little and Roy Hargrove - all trumpet players that were snatched from us too soon. But jaimie was THAT good. 

After seeing Anteloper at SOB's, I put a post on some social media site as I ran off to the next show: "I love you, jaimie branch." (Though I probably didn't use lower case.) 

I still do. 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

CD Review: Secret People

Secret People
Secret People 

Dustin Carlson (guitar), Kate Gentile (drums, vibraphone) and Nathaniel Morgan (alto saxophone) are no strangers to the Out of Your Head roster of players. All three appeared on Carlson's Air Ceremony, a septet session and the second release on the label in 2018. Beyond that, each one has a significant number of recordings under their own names and as part of other bands. They may be secret now, but that won't last long. 

Moments occur on the trio's self-titled disc where they sound quite a bit like one of Tim Berne's projects. Part of that could be a sonic comparison, since Morgan's alto often has a tart tone similar to Berne's, and Carlson takes swipes at his guitar that recall Marc Ducret. Gentile has also played with Berne, absorbing the ever-shifting rhythmic scope of his melody lines.

A middle section of the 10-minute "Peephole" even sounds like it could have come from a Snake Oil set, with guitar and alto playing just a heartbeat apart. Gentile joins them on both drums and vibraphone, making the whole thing rise out of the improvisation that preceded it. But just as things seem to catch fire, the trio stops on a dime.

Therein lies the difference. Before this Berne-esque knot, the group traverses through a fuzz guitar/alto mix of punk/free fusion, with Gentile providing the kick, before everyone melts into a drone of percussion clatter and moans that can blur the difference between reeds and strings. "Peephole" concludes in a similar vein, with a noirish sea of sounds that create a late night soundtrack to street noises outside the window, or beneath the street level. 

Secret People excel in both this type of loose improv and fully composed works. "Ascetic Dust" (a solo guitar interlude) and "U" (the whole trio) are complete works that present as much protein as the album's longer tracks. With regard to the latter, "Swamp Gaze" tries on several hats, from a manic free introduction to a bit of death metal where Carlson's "Bass VI" credit on the cover rears is low-ended head. Gentile's well-placed crashes ensures that things rock hard and never get excessive or turn into a parody. The same goes for Morgan. As the track morphs through a few different sections, he never resorts to cathartic shrieks. His quick lines joust perfectly with Carlson's restless fretwork. 

His alto does scream earlier in the album, on "Legitimate Perseverance," but that could be because he and Gentile both seem to have trouble keeping up with Carlson's fast lines, which might either be inspired by either hardcore or fusion. As choppy as the rhythm gets at times, Gentile still manages to groove in the rocky terrain of "Choc(h)oyotes" which also ends dynamically with some trippy, bowed vibraphone.