Year In Ears 2014: #14

Biggest God Damn Surprise

June 7, 2014
OU (with Amy Denio)
Duende, Oakland

Like many people in the Bay Area, I place an inordinate amount of trust in KALX DJs. So when Greg Scharpen played some OU music, or mentioned them, or was on the air talking with Amy Denio, or was reading a calendar listing, or was wordlessly thinking about this band, I received the message loud and clear. I parted ways with the Mysterious Michael Zelner outside the YBCA Forum where Myra Melford and Ben Goldberg had conducted an interesting conversation (and almost as interesting performance, but for time constraints). MMZ was headed up the street to tUnE-yArDs, and I opted for the tiny alternative as big as a house: the Sardinian sextet that trampled the Duende stage, trampled I tell you, like it was a big puddle and they were a twelve-legged toddler.

A twelve-legged toddler with an insane aunt.

A twelve-legged toddler with an insane aunt and a razor wit.

A twelve-legged toddler with an insane aunt, a razor wit and a genre-bending grasp of quantum physics.

A twelve-legged toddler with an insane aunt, a razor wit, a genre-bending grasp of quantum physics running its own circus…

to which you are perpetually invited.

Check it.

Year in Ears 2014 #13

Best Double Act of Relentless Churning To Completely Different Effects

September 1, 2014
Swans and Carla Bozulich
The Independent, San Francisco

Carla opened with collaborator JHNO and Lisa Gamble reinventing saw, drums and electronics, for me a totally riveting voice in that trio. I was delighted to see Carla return to a higher profile venue in the Bay Area and sad to see Carla return to a higher profile venue in the Bay Area. The problem was that the setting was literally higher: on a stage. I’ve learned that some essential part of Carla’s performance eventually takes place on the same level as the audience. Add the trials of opening band sound engineering and a small agony began to grow over this set, by turns reaching and recoiling its connection between us all. There is a lesson about expectation in it that I’m still uncovering.

Apropos of expectation, it took over 20 minutes for Swans to introduce a tonal pulse into Frankie M, the opening song in their set. I was hoping they would take at least another 20 minutes to end that restrained, incessant quarter note hit because, surprisingly, no one in the audience had dropped out yet. That fact was giving me Real Hope, the likes of which I had not experienced for ages. This was not the sort of not-dropping-out I’m used to, which is usually the attentiveness of geezers (like myself) who remember the bad behavior / extremity of a band back in the day and wait, just short of prayer, for it to occur again, and that takes extreme focus. This was just 400 Swans fans going someplace together, and that place seemed to be under the absolute direction of Michael Gira. That first song was nearly as long as Carla’s entire set.

A recording hasn’t surfaced. Makes the memory that much more intense.


Year in Ears 2014 #11 #12

Best Drones

Apropos of the difference tones / retinal effects of Andy Puls, 2014 had a lot of intentional and unintentional drones that I sought out, or sought me out, or happened because of me, and without me I can be sure according to the artifacts. They are all staying with me. Here are two in particular.

July 3, 2014
The Norman Conquest
Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

Norman Teale is back, enrobed, and just short of breaking all the 3rd story windows in the Luggage Store Gallery with his one evolving note. I was ready to be patient. After all, this is the artist who took as long as it was going to take to create a recording of 10,000 things. The light from another astonishingly actually summery summer evening faded to twilight. Our gallery was re-illuminated in a series of warming sodium blue, ash and amber from the Market Street lamps, throwing TNC into dark silhouette. I know the set ended (I mean, we’re here,yes?) but part of it is still going on since that time. At least every time I’m in the neighborhood and I look up at that place.

July 27, 2014
Soundwave ((6)): Music for a Changing Tide
Ocean Beach, San Francisco

MEDIATE Art Group’s biennial has developed a signature for placing performance in public places, usually interstitial ones between the built and natural worlds. This composition by Nat Evans was made for a moment at Ocean Beach, which, for once this year, was as properly cold and miserable as it could be for the too-small audience assembled for the sunset edition. I loved it for what it intended to do, and for what it unintentionally revealed:

  1. It was clear by the staggered ending that 20 people can’t press Play at the same time. The phasing of performance off by milliseconds is probably super interesting but we’ll never know. That wasn’t the piece.
  2. Over-ear headphone signal in a natural environment eventually begs to be abandoned. I thought about staying for the night edition with one ear in and one ear out. I got a hold of myself before I did, and instead returned a couple days later and watched the tide go out again: sitting there without any gear listening for Nat’s composition in the air. Sounded great.

Year in Ears 2014 #10

Best Front Yard Show at the End of One’s Backroad

July 18, 2014
Special Ghosts and Bear Flag Trio
Burlington Hotel, Port Costa

A chance to be charmed by two trios in the feel-good venue of the year at the end of the road before you get dunked in the Carquinez Strait? Check. Special Ghosts, which includes local artists Michael Wertz, Andy Cowitt and Isabel Samaras not only brought their idiosyncratic folk pop but a series of handmade adoptable ghosts to complement the Burlington’s apocryphal tradition. You can buy one and I probably don’t need to remind you that you should after you content yourself with the promotional video. Bear Flag Trio came down the other way from Sacatormento to sing of joy and despair using member Chris Harvey’s Turkeytone guitars.

The audience crammed in to the front room of the hotel to see the show, too many of us because we’re so in love with these people and couldn’t coordinate the right number in advance, all of us careful not to smash everything to smithereens simply because we weigh 100% more than the pioneers the furniture was designed for, and none of us really wanting to go home.

Year in Ears 2014: #9

Best Backyard Show in One’s (Burning) Downtown

December 6, 2014
Bristle & Friends
Maybeck Studio, Berkeley

Thinking we had lost the Maybeck Studio as a venue, Randy McKean’s December convening there proved that all wrong, except for a squish in the Venn diagram that left me outside the sphere of influence of the curators, and calendrically impaired due to a little thing called subscribing. Granted, the people’s revolt against the unconscionable actions of the police also made driving to the Berkeley Hills an adventure on December 6th, but at least the sound of hovering helicopters (they did not protect the citizens, as it turned out) came in at only appropriate intervals and with correct tunings during this show.

Randy consistently presents as the straight man to his own demented compositions (and packaging), but he’s one of the most joyful players I ever seen, magnetizing all kinds of talent to his Seinfeldian meditations on our (lack of) progress, and his easy forgiveness of same. The evening included great compositions from Cory Wright, Lisa Mezzacappa and Jason Levis, back in town. Download that album, why don’t you.

Year in Ears 2014 #7 #8

Best Downtown Sounds In One’s Own Backyard

I used to get to New York a lot more often but no longer, or when I’m there, I’m completely self-absorbed and miss huge swaths of culture. In 2014, a bit of the past, present and future of the so-called Downtown, Anti-Downtown came to my town to make me nostalgic, and then mock me for it. What a relief and no TSA.

May 30, 2014
Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
SFJazz Center, San Francisco

Marc Ribot spent the better part of a week at SFJazz in a residency, which I took to mean SFJazz spent the better part of a week with Marc Ribot attempting to amass cred. I saw as many nights of it as I could (including closing an appalling gap in my cinematic education by seeing my first screening of Chaplin’s The Kid) and observed many highs and lows, as one naturally would. However, the way Ceramic Dog marked its territory in the Miner Auditorium was just so glorious. They smashed through a set with hammers, angles, and loudness, much to the delight of an adoring crowd and the apparent absence of management. The set lasts forever and includes a huge dynamic range, tenderness, and rage. I was dissatisfied at the end because (a) I never spotted anyone leaving, and (b) I kinda wished I was at the Hemlock for this show.

Then I came to my senses.

June 20, 2014
Duende, Oakland

I thought the trio of Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara was a Mary Halvorson vehicle, but it’s that thin slab floating in space forever without flipping over because of the perfect distribution of the players’ weights. Way better. The evening was filled with compositions from each of them, blurred divisions between soloists and forms, migrations from one compositional voice to the next.

I was stoked to see Tomas’ drums set up front, always a welcome sign of sonic equanimity. Buy the CD already.

Year in Ears 2014 #4 #5 #6

Best Investigations of Sound and Vision

2014 had three powerful entries into the Bay Area’s rich tradition of expanded cinema: the upstart Shapeshifters Cinema, the many film-music projects of composer-performer Lisa Mezzacappa, and a John Davis’ Gravity Spells, the mid-summer convening that culminated his residency at Kala Art Institute, pivoting that mecca for print into an emerging resource for media and social practice art forms.

February 21, 2014
Live Cinema with Lisa Mezzacappa & Konrad Steiner
The Uptown, Oakland

It might have been enough for me that Lisa finally proved that the Uptown (which died in 2014 but not because of this) could support a screening of an experimental film accompanied by a large, creative ensemble. I have issues in this area. But happily, there was so much more:  an unusual moment in Lisa’s work as a composer and Konrad’s work as a filmmaker, with new modalities from each of them and a literal layering of musical and visual motifs. Take a look.

The show had four bands that night, a totally ambitious proposition from Active Music Series in their first annual Active Music Festival. Beauty School was one of those bands, and they terrified everyone with their straightforward ideas free of artifice.

April 13, 2014
Shapeshifters Cinema: Andy Puls
Temescal Art Center, Oakland

I spent 2014 slowly grasping the idea that perhaps the world is a massive vibration, but being kind of cagey about talking about it out loud for fear that someone would think I meant the kind of vibration that is immediately followed by the word Jah and ton of reverb. Not that kind, but of course the kind I’m talking about easily embraces that kind because… it’s the bigger vibration.

Meanwhile, Andy’s “no-source” visualizations found their way (or declared themselves) in the pocket of this contemplation, astounding me with how quickly they entered my bloodstream. His shows strike some as seizure-inducing, but since I haven’t had a seizure at any of them, I find them to be exquisitely subtle, referring more to what is not shown in the signal than to what is brilliantly, unmistakably pulsing on the screen. Seeing an Andy Puls performance is an invitation to surrender to to the psychoacoustic/visual phenomena of difference tones. I admit I could be seeing this completely upside down from the artist’s intention, but it keeps happening, which is why I seek out his work.

July 12, 2014
Gravity Spells Night Two:
Keith and Jeff Evans, Andy Puls, Mark Wilson with Marielle Jakobsons, and Lawrence Jordan with John Davis
Kala Art Institute Gallery, Berkeley

This entire series had the simultaneous trappings of a family reunion, an exclusive art opening, an encyclopedic survey, an all ages punk rock show, a mild hallucinogen and a science fair, resting by a broad, tree-lined boulevard during an uncharacteristically summery summer in the Bay Area. Everyone I ran into there kind of couldn’t believe their luck at attending, performing, or scoring a chair with a decent sight line. This particular night was an avalanche of abstraction and intimacy: Brothers Evans in a rare duet, evoking all kinds of other brothers (like Kuchars, or Spampinatos) with their installation of elaborate physical systems that reflect and layer sound. An electric guitar was there like a glaring, unadorned noun. Buy the monograph.

Year in Ears 2014 #3

Best Cover Band

February 9, 2014
Secret Chiefs 3 perform Masada
Duende, Oakland

I am a complete sucker for the Masada Book Two (Three) and other projects of its ilk: seeding creativity with small, catalytic instructions, taking risks with scale and monumentality. But in the end, playing Zorn compositions requires so much stone cold skill, that I often feel like I’m in a late 19th century surgical theater when I attend. It’s hard to hide my concern for the patient while everyone is being transported by the procedure. SC3 surprised me by not just operating but being operated upon by those compositions. They did this in the middle of another tour above a kitchen making heavenly plates of paella. It was infectious. Listen to it.

Year in Ears 2014 #2

Best Show You Did Not Expect But You Deserved

February 6, 2014
Man Forever
The Night Light, Oakland

After seeing a couple rapturous editions of John Colpitts’ creativity at All Tomorrow’s Parties (Oneida) and the Thrill Jockey celebration, and stupidly thinking I understood it all, this under-attended show surprised me with its generative sonic and visual strategies. With each pulsing iteration (three drummers, one performative projectionist) an old idea about Man Forever departed my head and a new one entered, until I felt I was little more than a contraption for the circulatory system of all that sound.

Year in Ears 2014 #1

Best Show to See After You Just Played an 8-Hour Show qith a Shamanic Korean Performance Artist

January 18, 2014
Surplus 1980 and Vacuum Tree Head
The Night Light, Oakland

It’s true. I hired (at that moment not evil, just expensive and incredibly utilitarian) Uber SUV to bring me, my electronics, a classroom phonograph, my cymbals, several flowerpots, all my mallets, a craptastic student violin bow, an accordion, a flea-market electric guitar, an amp, an ample hand truck and, I think, a 6×9 area rug from a transcendent, durational performance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to the Night Light where I loaded it all in to another car in broad nightlight in front of the Night Light, climbed the stairs and heard the dulcet tones of these two god damn bands in the warm embrace of a hundred god damn friends, many of whom I had not seen since the last Vacuum Tree Head show which I want to say was in the former E.G.Y.P.T. Theater on Foothill Boulevard (or the first Oakland Metro within spitting distance, or the last Heinz Afterworld edition at Merchants within… hurling distance) one hundred million years ago. More than a night of nostalgia, math and fellowship, it was a moment where an eclectic group of dare I say thinking fellers startled the management again by turning out en masse to hop and sing along to the beehive of notes.

Who are these people? the door guy shouted at me.