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Say Amen

By Shawn Stone

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Times Union Center, May 14

The First United Church of Bruuuce (Springsteen, E Street Band edition) held a wildly successful revival meeting in Albany last week. The Hon. Rev. Springsteen preached love and faith and understanding to a capacity arena crowd more than ready to receive his word.

“We’re gonna build a house here tonight!”

“We’re gonna take despair and turn it into hope!”

No one can lead a crowd like Bruce Springsteen. Sure, guys like Alice Cooper and Neil Diamond can hold crowds in the palms of their hands, but the relationship between Springsteen and his audience leads one to believe that if Bruce wanted to lead a march from the arena, he could do it. (Instead, he just encouraged them to donate to the evening’s designated charity, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.) The crowd hangs on every gesture. It’s rock & roll and politics and religion all rolled up in one, and Springsteen is rock god, president and preacher—you know, The Boss.

And it’s an awesome thing to behold.

The show, which featured the promising debut of replacement drummer Jay Weinberg (pop’s in L.A. working for the other boss, Conan O’Brien, preparing for the relaunch of The Tonight Show), mixed songs from across Springsteen’s career. Predictably, the best-known tunes got the biggest responses: opener “Badlands,” an affecting “Out in the Streets,” “Thunder Road,” and main set closer “Born to Run.”

But there were plenty of other highlights. “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a powerful statement in and of itself, was elevated to being the highlight of the evening by guitarist Nils Lofgren’s blistering, extended solo. “The Promised Land” and “The Rising” were emotional anthems; a cover of “Mony Mony” drove the crowd a little nuts.

The encore set began with a powerful version of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” Resistant at first, the crowd soon were pulled into the song as if Springsteen had written it himself. The other highlight of the encore section was the bluesy “Kitty’s Back.” A crowd request—the person who made the sign with the excellent cat painting deserves a gold star, too—it gave band members their best solo opportunities of the night. (Roy Bittan’s spiky piano playing was the high point.)

If he’s part preacher, Springsteen’s also part gunslinger, like the protagonist in the third song of the night, the anthem “Outlaw Pete.” His guitar solos were intense and economical: He got right to the point. Even when he wasn’t playing, swaggering around the stage, both hands on the mic with his guitar slung behind his back, Springsteen sang with his entire force of being.

Which is what people pay the big money to see.

Sonic Contortionist

Rafael Toral

EMPAC, May 8

To most performers, audio feedback is an unruly hobgoblin that can rear its head without warning and spoil an otherwise pristine musical moment. Even for those (many) rock guitarists who deliberately conjure feedback, it exists as a chaotic, elemental force just outside of human control. This is why it’s raw, exciting, and blew so many minds in the early ’60s. For Rafael Toral, who works in a genre he’s calling “post-free jazz electronic music,” feedback is a musical language like any other. His performance at EMPAC proved his mastery of the tongue.

Unlike most contemporary electronic performers who rely on mechanized tools (turntables, samplers, sequencers, laptops) that by their nature hide the musical process in knob-controlled boxes, Toral has invented a number of instruments that demand physical technique—a technique that Toral has likewise had to invent. Onstage, Toral’s body movements constitute a visual corollary to the sounds his instruments produce, not only making for a more engaging performance, but for a brand of electronic music far more visceral and emotive than that of his cerebral peers.

The first piece in his ongoing “Space Program” featured Toral, backlit by a sterile blue screen, with a tiny portable amplifier in his left hand. With his right hand, he manipulated a microphone-mounted photocell (ostensibly a flashlight) over the amplifier’s speaker. Depending on the angle of the microphone and its proximity to the amp, a range of precisely controlled feedback was generated. With gestures that seemed to evoke sewing, writing and, at their most dramatic, swordplay, Toral was able to play the device like a tiny synthesizer. With rapid motions, the device would squabble in a voice akin to R2D2. With longer, subtle gestures, Toral could manipulate oscillations in the pitch and create wailing drones. As with the Theremin, a sort of invisible grid describing pitch and volume eventually became apparent to the audience as Toral’s technique became familiar.

While his improvisations were decidedly atonal, Toral’s motifs were always broken into lyrical phrases that bore a conversational quality. It’s this methodology that legitimately places Toral’s work in the realm of jazz. The tongue may be one of Toral’s invention, but it speaks in real time, striving to communicate something from that musical locus called “soul.”

In another piece, Toral played what appeared to be a slinky dangling from a guitar stand by striking the higher rings and letting the open cylinder vibrate. This time, the sound mimicked the structure of the instrument more than the actions of the person playing it. In yet another, he produced a simple gray box bearing a single green LED light. By rubbing his thumbs and fingers across the top panel, he produced deep, clean sine waves that had the classic burble and squonk of early sci-fi soundtracks. As he throttled the box, one couldn’t help but be reminded of either an overzealous Gameboy player or someone trying to keep an angry bat inside a shoebox.

It’s unlikely that these analogies are entirely incidental. In approaching electronic music with an unprecedented degree of control and physicality, Toral seems to be encouraging a new ethos for the technological age. The motions required to play his amp/photo-cell call to mind the Blackberry, but rather than retreating into a simulated, digital world, Toral suggests we can use our gadgetry to engage one another in real time (and space). Similar to the practice of circuit bending, it’s a domestic sort of futurism that encourages us to learn the alien languages of common and even archaic tools, and so become more present in the ordinary actions of our lives.

—Josh Potter

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