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Bang on This

By Paul Rapp

Bang on a Can Marathon

Mass MoCA, July 26

I’d seen Bang on a Can at Mass MoCA a few years ago, a twin bill of Indonesian wayang theater and Eno’s Music for Airports. I reacted as one normally would to a group that first played second-fiddle to shadow puppets and then played some pretentious fake muzak. As a result, I haven’t been moved until now to go to one of their legendary marathon concerts. But legendary minimalist composer and musician Terry Riley was going to be there, and they were going to play some Zappa compositions. Well, OK, let’s go.

The six-hour show was comprised of 14 pieces, performed by 14 different configurations of BOAC veterans and a mess o’ talented students who’d been working with BOAC over the prior three weeks. It was a casual vibe; the audience was encouraged to circulate in and out of the Hunter Theater; there was a cook-out in the courtyard, and food and drink were welcomed back in the theater. I learned that, contrary to popular belief, beer and ice cream do go together, if the conditions are right.

The program was already in full-swing when we arrived. After a few quiet-to-the-point-of-being-ponderous selections, we were assaulted, in a good way, by a killer piece: N’Shima by Iannis Xenakis, performed by two female vocalists, two muted trombones and two muted French horns. It was tribal without the tribes—the sound of nature unhinged, with the horns sputtering and quacking while the vocalists blasted deep, guttural noise-syllables in perfect synchronization. It was shocking, it was in-your-face, and it was beautiful.

Next up was Terry Riley’s 1964 piece Olson III, in which a 13-piece ensemble played mesmerizing, shifting and contrasting quarter-note patterns in 3/4 time, demonstrating, almost comically, Riley’s overarching influence on Philip Glass, and again featuring the female vocalists, now numbering three, who sang aggressively and remarkably in one voice, even when they were harmonizing, like a post-modern version of the Lennon Sisters.

A little later came what was easily the highlight of the marathon: a performance of Shelter, a seven-movement piece written by BOAC principles Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Long, performed by a large ensemble, including three percussionists and a not-shy electric guitarist, with surreal and impressionistic film projected on the big-screen backdrop. The whole thing was just stunning. The first movement, especially, was riveting, with the women singers, who at this point were my heroes, now singing with flat voices in close dissonant harmonies, in the style of the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir.

Then came the two performances that drew me to the show, which were both disappointing. Terry Riley’s improvisation piece clocked in at a short seven minutes, and consisted of Riley noodling at the piano while throat singing, with four BOAC members, trying, and failing, to figure how they were supposed in improvise with that. Then the Zappa pieces were attempted by a large ensemble of the BOAC students, who simply weren’t up to the task of playing Zappa’s complex, demanding music. It was just a big mess.

No matter. If the program had consisted of the performance of Shelter, followed by five hours of ducks farting into a funnel, it would have been worth it. Can’t wait ’til next year.

A Good Folk


Valentine’s, July 26

Valentine’s seems to be working its way onto the freak-folk radar. Last year, footage of an Akron/Family show at the venue made it onto the DVD supplement for the band’s album Love Is Simple; and, as Vetiver front man Andy Cabic confessed on Saturday night, his own band’s return has become downright “cyclical.” And why not? Like Francis in Ironweed, Vetiver’s songs are built to ramble, and Albany’s not a bad bet if you’re hungry for a hot bowl of soup.

It was with great chutzpah that the San Francisco quartet opened their set with the softest ballad of the night. A far cry from the mannered psychedelia that kindred troubadour Devendra Banhart dispenses, Cabic’s folk is decidedly unfreaky. While most who get slapped with the freak-folk tag spurn it, Vetiver could easily retreat to the realm of traditional folk with their bent toward the homespun and sepia-toned. As three quarters of the band hail originally from North Carolina, Vetiver’s allegiance is clearly stronger to Appalachia than Haight-Ashberry.

Played through a charming vintage amp, Cabic’s guitar was warm and yielding. The rhythm section showed the sort of restraint that is equivalent to blazing chops, and guitarist Sanders Trippe sprinkled the perfect quantity of riff and high harmony on top. As Cabic sang about rainbows painting pictures in his mind, his band did just what any folk outfit ought—cradled their singer’s voice and rendered the images he described.

Despite having recently released an album of cover songs, the band stuck for the most part to its back catalogue. “Oh Papa” brought the tempo to a place where drummer Otto Hauser could really stretch out. With a delicate touch and the adventurous sense of a jazz drummer, he tastefully fractured the song’s substrata at its highest crescendo. Four years back, Cabic announced, Hauser had come see the band play at Valentine’s and asked to sit in with a tiny hand-drum. He stuck every single change and has been a member of the band ever since. And it’s a good thing. The interplay between Cabic and Hauser rivals that of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche at their best.

Throughout the evening, though, it was Cabic’s honeyed voice that owned the stage. Free of all baroque embellishment, it crackled like a phonograph recording of itself. Sporting his trademark Greek captain’s hat, Cabic seemed to have stepped from another time. Before “driving on through the country,” he stood alone for one last tune about the good times. Then, like a character from one of his songs, he moved “Farther On.”

—Josh Potter

No Rain, No Gain

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

After a round of showers pushed their start time back by an hour, folk-pop chanteuse Aimee Mann and her band fought off the rain, to the delight of the fans assembled for Monday night’s concert in Albany’s Washington Park. Much of the large crowd waited unmoved through the brief downpour, and they were rewarded with a slightly abbreviated set that drew heavily from Mann’s latest disc, @#%! Smilers, but also featured selections from her six other solo discs, including a stripped-down “You’re With Stupid Now,” and “Save Me,” her Oscar-nominated song from the Magnolia soundtrack.






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