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Americana deluxe: (l-r) Pohl and Richard of the Kamikaze Hearts at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio.

photo credit: Joe Putrock

A Hunk of Burning Love
By Erik Hage

The Kamikaze Hearts
WAMC Performing Arts Studio, Sept. 25

It’s a sleight-of-hand that the Kamikaze Hearts have employed again and again: They grind the song down to a hush, to its quietest (most suggestive) potential, and then—in one big, warm ebb of sound—burst forth again, like one large, living organism. It’s a moving flourish and most striking when caught live, bearing witness to the group’s remarkable synergy. (On my Norwegian ancestors, it’ll give you chicken skin.)

The Hearts have become one of our area’s most distinctive bands, firmly mastering the dramatic potential in each of their songs, which wind through emotional rises and valleys and sometimes just plain take off in gorgeous flight (Matt Loiacono’s deft mandolin sprinklings or all the voices blending in pure harmony). Sometimes they drop intriguing lines with all of the implied, wound-up potential of a Raymond Carver sentence—the opening of “Lubbock,” for example: “In a dinner near Lubbock, you’d just left the table/That’s when I made my queer bolt through the exit.” (In truth, I don’t know if Troy Pohl sings “queer” or “clear,” but does it really matter?)

At the WAMC Performing Arts Center, recording their long-awaited radio performance in front of a capacity crowd, the Kamikaze Hearts had all of that going on . . . and more. And over a two-hour period they firmly asserted themselves as one of our area’s finest bands.

The last time I caught the group was in 2002; back then, I was caught up in their interesting dynamics (cryptic intra-band debates between songs), abstractly rustic sensibilities and raw, original spirit. But they have bloomed into a tightly nuanced outfit, crafting a sort of surreal, intelligent Americana that could have only grown up in the weird, wonderful little Capital Region. (It’s rocky ground, but when a seed finds purchase, it’s a hardy and original specimen.)

The show felt like the culmination of something, like a milestone (a Last Waltz, would be too grand and terminal a phrase, but you get the idea—it seemed both celebration and recognition). To add to the payoff, the Hearts generously shared the spotlight with three local musical allies: singer-songwriter Brent Gorton, DJ Miller (of popular local hard rockers Small Axe) and the ubiquitous Mitch Elrod.

The group primed the vocal audience with a little taste of their own stuff (“Accident” and “Western New York” were particular highlights)—hauling through warm, tight grooves and euphoric little fills—then brought out the dapper, modish (in V-neck sweater and tie) and downright beguiling Brent Gorton, whose strong popsmithery and childish cheekiness (à la Jonathan Richman) seemed a perfect (if contrasting) accent.

The guests for the performance were so distinctly different that they cast various personalities on the Kamikaze Hearts’ sound. Warm acoustic pop and Scud Mountain Boys country-pop gave way to something swampy, sinister and deeply sorrowful when DJ Miller hit the stage (all resonant growls and marble-mouthed bluesyness). The Hearts even became Small Axe at the end of Miller’s turn, wielding their acoustic hardware with dangerous intent.

Mitch Elrod’s mic was a little muted in the mix, but he came on for the most joyful turn of the evening. The chemistry and clear mutual affection between Elrod and band crystallized into a euphoric romp through his material. Elrod possesses a hard, pretty warble that calls to mind the late Gene Clark. It’s a fierce but vulnerable sound.

Throughout the night, Bob Buckley’s bright lashes of dobro and Loiacono’s mandolin and banjo and Gaven Richard’s distinctive, tight drum rhythms provided a solid musical bed for the voices and personalities of their guests. And when all had been given their turn in the spotlight, it was time for the Kamikaze Hearts to take it home. And take it home they did, reminding us that, all sharing aside, it was their name that burned brightly on the outside marquee, lighting up Central Avenue.

An Artist in Full

Nick Lowe, Geraint Watkins
Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Sept. 24

There comes a point in a musician’s life when more of their career is behind them than lies ahead. The sheer, inescapable mathematics of mortality make this a certainty. Passing into their 50s, they either move forward, lashing themselves firmly to their audience by celebrating what once was, or they emerge as true artists. Nick Lowe falls squarely into the latter category.

Over the past decade Lowe has released a trio of brilliant albums: The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, and The Convincer. These are the work of a mature songwriter and performer, free from the often-daunting pressures of major-label hitmaking machinery. The pop music marketplace is built to make stars out of bands and individuals primarily in their 20s. Lowe’s forays into the lower reaches of stardom occurred when he was in his early 30s and coincided with his emergence as a songwriter of note and his work as a producer (most notably on Elvis Costello’s first handful of titles). Perhaps these factors gave him an added measure of wisdom and a healthy perspective to carry him forward with class and commitment.

With no new album to promote, Lowe’s brief solo tour stands as simply an opportunity to remind Americans of his rich songbook, presented in brave simplicity by just the man with his acoustic guitar. While combo-based on record, his songs are resilient and flexible vehicles for this pared-down approach. His show at the Iron Horse in Northampton last Friday found him in complete command of voice and instrument, playing and singing with subtleties born of quiet confidence and experience. There was not a moment of grandstanding all night. The sold-out audience was treated to a free-ranging tour through his catalog. There were relatively recent numbers such as “Soulful Wind,” “Lover Don’t Go,” “Man That I’ve Become,” “The Beast in Me,” and “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” as well as such older favorites as “I Knew the Bride,” “Heart of the City,” and “What’s So Funny (’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding).”

Pianist Geraint Watkins, who’s been a regular part of Lowe’s bands, opened the night (and returned to the stage for Lowe’s last four numbers). His set was drawn largely from his exceptional new album, Dial W For Watkins. A stylistically kindred spirit to Lowe, his low-key presentation was brimming with casual brilliance, as a songwriter, singer and musician. He’s lent his keyboard talents to the likes of Van Morrison, Dave Edmunds, Paul McCartney and many others over the past 30 years. No mere sideman, his own work stands equal to any of his employers.

—David Greenberger

Stop Now, What’s That Sound?

Ben Owen and the NY Phonographers Ensemble
The Gasholder Building, Sept. 23

For the music fan habituated to rock & roll flyers and nightclub marquees, the bill for Saturday’s show at the Gasholder might have been a little misleading: The implication of “Ben Owen and the NY Phonographers Ensemble” is of a single unit, a band—you know, like Gizmo and the Widgets, or J-Peg and the Holy Motherboard, or whatever. In fact, the performance featured not one cohesive musical entity, but 10 individual musicians doing their thing in turn. But for the rock & roll fan in attendance, this may likely have been the least of the surprises.

Phonography is, as was explained to me briefly by Seth Cluett, one of the evening’s performers, the aural analog to photography; whereas the photographer works by framing a subject visually, the phonographer works by framing a subject sound—generally an unauthored or “found” sound—temporally. There are different camps and styles within the field of phonography, different philosophies as to how sound can or should be gathered and/or produced and presented, differences that can be traced back to the mid-20th century tension between the French musique concrete and the German preference for synthesized sounds. (Here it’s acceptable to just nod and murmur knowingly, “hmmm, Stockhausen,” and then excuse yourself for a smoke, because, honestly, this can all get pretty heady and academic.) In our post-modern world, though, Cluett pointed out, theoretical purity went out the window and now it’s even more confusing. Which leaves only the question, “Well, what did the sounds sound like?”

Let’s see: There was rain and surf, and insects and birds, and deep, peristaltic rumblings, and muffled, reverberant speaking voices and chants, and percussive industrial clatter, and moody amphoric exhalations and all matter of whirring, buzzing, clicking, humming, creaking and keening. But these all are merely ingredients; listing them in this way doesn’t give you much of a sense of the impact of individual works as these components were mixed live for the audience in the dramatic circular Gasholder building.

If you can imagine “viewing” a movie performed entirely by Foley artists, you won’t be far off. The works each provided a kind of suggestive, exclusively sonic mise en scene. For example, during Michelle Nagai’s work, the combination of a rhythmic, pressurized hissing, a droning mechanical crescendo and indistinct human voices in an echoey, cavernous “space” made me think of a clandestine mission to graffiti, or to subway surf; Cluett’s composition was a meditative—almost monastic—evocation of a dusty, rain-soaked Italian piazza; Scott Smallwood’s piece placed me in the rusty hull of some battered, and only hopefully seaworthy, freighter (that Smallwood paced the Gasholder’s dirt floor from mixer to mixer, peering up into the heights of the building like a ship’s mechanic listening for engine trouble only reinforced this flight of imagination).

Not all the pieces were so directly cinematic, though: Stephan Moore, who designed and built the semi-
spherical speakers used during the performance, performed a thrumming work that emphasized rhythm, albeit subtly, and sound placement throughout the space, dramatically calling attention to sound as physical phenomenon; and Ben Owen’s presentation was a curious and obscure selection of noises suggestive, to me, of some insectoid biological process, rather than a particular human narrative—the word “carapace” kept popping into my mind.

Admittedly, 10 performers makes for a long evening in a damp and dusty building if you’re a reviewer with adult-onset allergies, but the loose Phonographers Ensemble provided a set that was in turns engaging, lovely and challenging—and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

—John Rodat


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