Category Archives: Listening

AntsMarching or AntsBitching? Fandom and Partisanship

Disclaimer 1: Posts on the blog are largely considered drafts, likely for further exploration and sussing out down the road. This is by no means a final, polished work.
Disclaimer 2: I’m diving into the DMB rabbit hole here. (Similar to diving deep into the Wagnerian weeds in past posts.) Be warned.

Fandom can be a curious thing. Like Dr. Venkman’s laundry, it has many subtle levels. It ranges from being a passive fan of an artist or group – appreciating what’s heard on the radio and in friends’ collections, but not seeking out recordings or live performances – to being a fanatic – taking every word and note as gospel, acquiring all memorabilia, and seeking out every performance possible. (These are the “healthy” examples, of course; the dark side of this is of course being the likes of Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Jr., et al.) When it comes to Dave Matthews Band, I consider myself on the healthy and self-controlled/restrained fanatic end of the spectrum. Beyond knowing the catalog, I’m regularly purchasing memorabilia, seeking out live recordings, and have seen them – including offshoots Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds and Dave Matthews & Friends – 64 times throughout the country, from The Gorge in WA to their hometown of Charlottesville, VA. Thankfully for me the group is rarely off the road for long, as I’ve seen them annually since 2000, with 2009 including nine shows. (For what it’s worth, my runner-up of live shows is TOOL at 15.)

[Before the classical music-oriented readers start looking down their nose, consider analogous trends in “art music”: seeking out performances, attending festivals, engaging the literature and scholarship. After all, I’m also a Wagnerian.]

The internet has allowed fan bases to unite and share information easier than at any time before. Fan zines and tape trading has now been replaced with message boards and bit torrents. The hub of this for DMB is AntsMarching.org, the largest fan site dedicated to the band. (The site’s namesake of course being the band’s de facto theme, “Ants Marching.” Ants are DMB’s Deadheads.) With over a couple hundred thousand active members, the site is also an informative source of info about the band and fan community at large, rich with data and news, and hosting hyper-active message boards. It has also evolved into a lobbying arm of sorts, one whose editorial bent I’ve rarely agreed with throughout its run. I love the objective news and rich data, but spare me the opinions. Hence this post’s subtitle of “AntsBitching” – complaining is one thing the site’s operators do quite well. And it’s of course well within their right to do so, but after a while it can provide a rather skewed representation of DMB’s fan community at large.

I’ve been a member since 2003 (I thought earlier, but perhaps I switched accounts), a year after the site’s launch. The site is like ESPN or cable news on overdrive: up-to-the-date info on whatever statistical minutiae you’d like to get your grubby paws on. My profile, which includes a list of all shows (and set lists) I’ve seen, offers some great discussion fodder with other fans. Overall, at the time of this writing, I have seen “64 Dave Matthews Band shows in which 1294 songs were played, an average of 20.22 songs per show. At these 64 shows, there [were] 185 different songs played.” What does that mean? Well, for example, the two songs I’ve seen the most are “Grey Street” and “Two Step” (28 each), the opening song I’ve heard most is “One Sweet World” (6), and my statistically rarest full-band set list is 12.03.05 (likely because of the rare “Christmas Song” coupled with the super-rare “Linus and Lucy” cover). Oh, and my rarity index is 25.32. Go team! I don’t participate in the forums, but I do actively watch the set lists while the band is playing each night of a tour (the songs are posted via the fan site as they’re played). DMB is first and foremost a live band, and one with an immense library of originals and a wide array of strong covers. Which is to say: I still get surprised and excited every show. For example: it took 39 shows for me to finally see the elusive “Halloween,” and 63 to FINALLY see “Pay For What You Get.” My first show opened with my favorite song (“#41”), and then I didn’t hear it again for years (even though it was often played the show before or after I saw them). And I’ve been fortunate enough to see some rarities: “Angel From Montgomery,” “#34,” “Rockin’ In The Free World” (w. Neil Young), the first time of three that they covered “Blackbird,” a show with two “#40” teases and an “Anyone Seen The Bridge” opener, a double encore, and more. Enough of my pedigree. Suffice it to say, one can easily get lost in the wormhole (as I arguably just did).

As you can see, I love the site’s info and find it quite valuable. So what’s my beef? As mentioned, the site’s creative directors try too hard to lobby for this era, that album, and a particular setlist. They take the internal joy of fandom and try to weaponize it into group think-style campaigning via the site and social media. And it’s not like the band and management are completely unaware. After all, Live Trax 16 was selected for release by AntsMarching.org. (If only they’d moved ahead two shows to my first. Oh well, you can hear me cheering on Live Trax 29.) So what’s all the yammering about?

It seems that AntsMarching‘s editorial team is basically out to pretend that the years 2001-7 largely didn’t exist for the band. Supposedly the group lost its way with 2001’s Everyday, 2003’s Busted Stuff, and 2005’s Stand Up, collaborating with different producers and experimenting with different sounds and approaches (e.g., tighter arrangements). While those albums often featured new sounds for the group, I argue that the band’s core approach – a rock band with a lead sax and violin in lieu of a lead guitar – remained intact. Studio albums since 2009 may have featured some more familiar sounds, but since then the band has started to become a rock band with lead guitar, an active horn section, and an occasional fiddle. I’m all for artists evolving as time progresses – look at Miles and Trane – and I think the band sounds great now. However, you can’t sit there and tell me with a straight face that, stylistically, the Dave Matthews Band of 2004 is headed in the “wrong direction” whereas the Dave Matthews Band of 2013/4 is “true to the group’s spirit.” The DMB that’s existed since 2008 is a radically different band than what came before. And I continue to marvel at AntsMarching‘s ongoing crusade against the band’s middle period, which has culminated this summer in the occasional skirmish with band members on social media.

Part of this “misunderstanding” on AntsMarching‘s part, though, is the fact that none of them are musicians. If you want to engage in a sort of music criticism, which they at times do, it doesn’t hold as much weight if you’re not musically inclined or literate. Should they each have to play through Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Absolutely not. But there are so many facets that they neither appreciate nor understand simply because they don’t have a musician’s perspective. For example, in a recent podcast, one of the editors condescended to drummer Carter Beauford’s statement in a 2001 Charlie Rose interview that he felt professional when recording Everyday because he had charts for the music.

How dare he? Well, for Carter Beauford, an in-demand drummer long before DMB existed, I’m sure it did feel nice in the band’s context to enter the studio with professional charts for a recording session. That’s just one small example of the many to choose from. Also, if any of the moderators happen to ever read this, “Fool To Think” is NOT in 7/8. Shame on whomever told you that. The vocabulary word you seek to describe the chorus is “hemiola.” As for setlists and song selections, sometimes musicians just don’t feel like playing particular pieces. And, often times, a piece can be played repeatedly because it’s a good vehicle for improvisation (e.g., “Jimi Thing,” though I agree with Ants that it could be shelved).

Before going further, a brief history to catch newbies up to speed, if interested.

The band’s first three major label releases – Under the Table and DreamingCrashBefore These Crowded Streets; otherwise known as “The Big 3” – are universally near-mythologized by fans and critically praised. (Even if you don’t like DMB, you can thank BTCS for knocking the Titanic soundtrack from the Billboard #1 spot upon its release.) The producer for all three was the one and only Steve Lillywhite, also known for his work with U2 and The Rolling Stones. While working together on a fourth album, the band and Lillywhite euphemistically “parted ways.” However, the tapes of that album-in-progress were leaked, resulting in what we fans refer to as The Lillywhite Sessions, a wonderful proto-album of great, albeit depressing, songs. Many of the album’s songs, such as the aforementioned “Grey Street,” were played throughout the 2000 summer tour, a tour that was effectively an album release tour for the ultimately abandoned album. 2001 then saw the sudden release of Everyday, an album starkly different in tone and production from both The Lillywhite Sessions as well as much of the band’s earlier material. The band collaborated with producer Glen Ballard, who advocated a tighter, more radio-friendly approach: shorter and more taut arrangements, a sheeny “pop” mix, and Dave playing electric guitar as well as acoustic. This was – and remains for many – a betrayal by the band toward its longtime fans, many of whom adored The Lillywhite Sessions. This “rift” between the fans and the band largely continued through 2003’s Busted Stuff (a largely re-recorded The Lillywhite Sessions produced by Stefon Harris) and 2005’s Stand Up (produced by Mark Batson). 2009’s landmark Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (produced by Rob Cavallo) is considered by many fans to be the album that brought the band “back on course,” with AntsMarching.org declaring that the band finally has a “Big 4” – Big Whiskey… holds up to the mythical first three albums. Similar remarks were made about 2012’s Away From the World, which reunited DMB and producer Steve Lillywhite.

I see and hear it differently, however. While the studio albums in 2001-2005 may have featured a different tone and production quality – tighter arrangements, “poppier” mixes – the band’s overall stylistic formula remained the same: a rock band with no lead guitar but instead a saxophone and violin as lead melodic instruments. Yes, Dave Matthews himself played electric guitar on Everyday and Stand Up (a landmark departure), but it was still in his trademark riff-based style in a largely rhythmic capacity. 2009’s Big Whiskey…, on the other hand, may have included lengthier jams, but the band’s overall style began to change in the studio (although it had already significantly changed live in 2008). This shift was officially signed, sealed, and delivered via Away from the World. I dare say that the mixes and arrangements may have come full circle – lengthier jams and an earthier, more live sound – but DMB can no longer fully claim that they’re a rock band with a sax and violin instead of a lead guitar. As far as new material is concerned, they’re now more of a rock band with a lead guitar, active horn section, and occasional fiddling. This also gradually applies to a chunk of the older catalog. Enter the once-touring-now-de-facto-permanent members Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross, and Jeff Coffin.

Guitarist Tim Reynolds has been a friend and colleague to members of the Dave Matthews Band since before DMB’s inception. A fixture of the Charlottesville music scene, Dave sat in with Tim’s band before forming his own group. Tim regularly toured with the band through the 90s and can be heard all of “The Big 3.” Long considered the unofficial sixth member of the band, his often subtle electric and acoustic guitar work is a fixture of the band’s studio sound. It’s a nuance that doesn’t go unnoticed but avoids the spotlight. He’s not a featured soloist on those first three albums, but rather a rhythm and textural guitarist, occasionally jumping in during larger jams (e.g., the end of “Crush”). While he continued with the occasional acoustic tours and appearances with Dave Matthews, he didn’t tour or record with the band from 2000 through 2007. (During that time, keyboardist Butch Taylor toured with the band and abruptly resigned before the 2008 tour. The band was also often joined by backup singers The Lovely Ladies during the 1998-2001 tours. More on them later.) 2008 saw the return of Tim Reynolds, and he’s since remained a full-time fixture: all tours and studio work. However, the Tim Reynolds that toured with DMB in the 90s is not the one who returned in 2008. Tim 2.0 occasionally provides subtle nuance as before, but he mostly is at the sonic forefront. His electric guitars run rampant throughout tunes old and new:
2009’s “Shake Me Like A Monkey”

1991’s “Warehouse”

Do the above songs sound bad with Timmy? Not at all; in fact, I quite like them. He plays like that on the original studio recording of “Shake Me…,” but he surely doesn’t play like that on either the original studio recording of “Warehouse” or live versions throughout the 90s:
“Warehouse” (w. Tim Reynolds) from Live at Red Rocks 08.15.95:

Trumpeter Rashawn Ross started sitting in with the band on the 2005 summer tour. Then a member of opening act Soulive, he would occasionally guest on a couple songs each night, which is standard practice for DMB. Summer 2006, however, proved different as Ross joined the whole tour, sitting in for not the whole set but gradually more and more. By the time I saw them late in the tour at The Gorge, he was on and off stage throughout the night, and no longer playing solos or occasional backing lines, but rather playing defined parts with saxophonist LeRoi Moore as well as playing on that tour’s new material. For example, 2006’s “Break Free”:

By 2007, it was clear that Rashawn was at least a permanent touring member, at least for the time being, as he wasn’t leaving the stage and he was also assisting with background vocals. For the record, I’m a fan of Rashawn’s playing and what he’s done with DMB. But it can’t be denied that his inclusion ultimately affected the band’s sound. But more than simply playing solos and singing, he and Roi started to functionally become a “horn section” as opposed to a couple of horn soloists, meaning that they starting to become a sub-unit within the band, separate from Boyd’s violin or the rhythm section. It’s worth noting that, apparently, this was something Roi had wanted from the band’s inception. Granted, I’ve heard Dave and Stefan mention this in at least a couple interviews, but enacting it ~15 years in is a noticeable departure. It looked like the band was headed in the direction of a lead guitarless-rock band with a horn section and violin.

Then 2008 happened.

I, along with all other fans, greatly anticipated the 2008 tour, as Reynolds was to re-join the band on the road. I was happy to finally see Tim play with the full band as well as Butch, and then Butch unexpectedly and mysteriously left the band on the eve of the tour. (For reasons that have yet to be confirmed — he apparently remains on good terms with the group.) The tour started off with a bang, with the band playing a slew of new and unexpected covers as well as dusting off a number of rare originals. In the few shows I saw at the beginning of that tour, I thought that both Roi had backed off some solo-wise, with Tim picking up Butch’s piano solos as well as a couple of Roi’s. (The transformation into a defined horn section was nearly complete.) Also, Tim’s guitar was a much larger presence than I – or I think anyone else – had really anticipated. I enjoyed it, but it was certainly a marked departure.
“Cornbread” live at Rothbury Music Festival ’08 — I wasn’t far from the stage…

AntsMarching, however, was simply happy that Tim was back. Outside of some minor observations upon his return, the site’s moderators haven’t really addressed this change.

Also notice the different saxophonist (and music stand) in the above clip. Jeff Coffin, one of my favorite saxophonist long before 2008, jumped aboard when LeRoi Moore was critically injured in an ATV accident, leading to a coma and his eventual death a couple months later. (Eerily, he died in his LA hospital the day that the band was to perform in that same city.) Coffin has since remained with the group and integrated his own playing style into the band’s sound, which was of course different from Roi’s. All of this of course made 2008 a landmark tour. A founding and core member died (and was replaced), Tim Reynolds returned, and that tour’s song selection is considered legendary by the community.

With the next year’s release of Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, the band made a strong statement that it was here to stay. (Even though the future seemed uncertain with Roi’s death.) The new material was STRONG, and the band hasn’t quite disclosed which lines were Roi’s and which were Jeff’s on the studio album, though I have my notions. (Portions were recorded before Moore’s passing.) “Shake Me Like A Monkey” is a good primer for the album, featuring a lead electric guitar, tight horn lines, and somewhat buried fiddle. As much as I love that song, it’s signal as to where the band would go henceforth. Fast forward to 2012 and Away from the World cemented that fact. To me, Away… sounds more like a Dave Matthews solo album than it does a full-band effort much of the time (see “If Only,” “Sweet,” “Mercy,” and “Belly Full”), even though I love it (particularly “Rooftop”).

Throughout this whole process and for reasons unknown to me (though I do have my theories), violinist Boyd Tinsley has fulfilled an increasingly diminished onstage role. While at The Gorge in 2009 or 2010, a friend even turned to me and asked, “Where’s Boyd?” He used to be a prominent and fiery soloist, but now he gets maybe two solos per show, and what solos he gets have occasionally been shortened (e.g., the end of “Seek Up” on this summer’s tour). On top of that, he’s often buried in the mix. I see him up there, but I rarely hear him during full-band moments. Musically and technically, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes. He’s easily become the band’s weak link over the last decade, as he’s obviously rested on his laurels. Personally, given how he’s played the last several years, I’m not lonely for his playing. And that’s truly a shame, because he has been known to rip it in the past…

So, an increased and prominent lead guitar role, a soloistic saxophone turned horn section, and a once-soloistic violin is now, arguably, a glorified member of the rhythm section.

Now what does all of this have to do with AntsBitching? Well, as mentioned, depending on what podcast you’re listening to or article you’re reading, Big Whiskey… and Away…each can be held up alongside “The Big 3.” That, together with the site’s blind faith in all things Tim, Rashawn (and now Jeff, after a trial period), and Lillywhite Sessions, as well as the editors’ (and subsequently many other fans’) core disdain for Everyday, Stand Up, setlists, and Lovely Ladies, leads to a toxic, partisan approach to the band, particularly on this just-finished 2014 Summer Tour.  AntsMarching and its allies want the band to feature its supposed “classic” or “authentic” sound or approach that, so far as I can tell, is anything the band did during the years 1991-2000 and 2008-present (with the exception of 2006’s “Shotgun,” a song fetishized by the site’s editors). However, the band sounds far different in 2008-14 than it did during the first ten years.

Finally (hopefully), I mentioned that this one-sided tension between AntsMarching and DMB had culminated this summer into a couple skirmishes with band members. It did so over a relatively unexpected topic, that of The Lovely Ladies, who unexpectedly returned to performing occasional sets with the band throughout this summer after a 13-year break. I didn’t see them this round, but I saw them during a few shows in 2000 and 2001. Ants moderators and allies quickly and ferociously rallied to get them to stop appearing with the band through the tour for various reasons. I believe that one main reason was for the association of the Ladies with the Everyday material, particularly the marathon renditions of “Angel” from 2001 (even though they’re a result of “Stay (Wasting Time)” from Before These Crowded Streets and oldie “#36”). Even though the Ladies didn’t help bring back the Everyday songs, these “fans” went ballistic and got both bassist Stefan Lessard and trumpeter Rashawn Ross to engage on Twitter, both of whom deleted “impolite” tweets afterwards.

What concerns me most is not this debate over backup singers, but rather the aggressive lashing out because the “fans” seem to know what’s best for the group, especially when there’s no consensus. It’s hard to really tell what the majority of total fans is on a given topic, but Ants and social media have now enabled the vocal and active (possible minority of) fans to act as a mouthpiece for the fan base at large, which is unfortunate. Ladies aside, it’s this odd, almost nonsensical battle over “authenticity” of eras that’s led to such partisanship and division, which ultimately begs the question What makes a fan?

Is a fan someone who blindly follows an artist or group? Meh, that’s one way of looking at it. DMB has done a number of things I dislike (e.g., not kicking Boyd in the ass). And, speaking of setlist complaints, there are a number of songs I’d be fine to never hear again live, such as “All Along The Watchtower,” “Everyday,” “Satellite,” and I agree with Ants that “Jimi Thing” could be given a rest. (The two Boyd solos in “Jimi Thing” are difficult for me these days.) But I know that I can’t wish them away, and I’m not going to pummel the band with requests. I still go to shows every tour, and I don’t have a bad time if one of the aforementioned tunes are played. And yes, I chase songs as much as the next fan, but I’m still enjoying myself in the moment. Not out of some misguided blind faith, but rather because it’s a great band that continues to deliver (yes, some shows are better than others) night after night, year after year. I understand that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. But does than mean to commit a coup d’état whenever one doesn’t get his or her way? Most AntsMarching Podcast episodes, you’d be surprised to know that editors Matt and Jake actually like the band, since they mostly just complain about how awful various shows and set lists they’ve seen.

Do I have an answer? Of course not, other than perhaps to tone things down a bit. There has to be some sort of happy medium between blind faith (which is abhorrent) and “the customer (fan) is always right.” To quote the great and wise Larry David, “In fact, the customer is usually a moron and an asshole.”

[Yes, I’ve now successfully linked the Larry David canon to both Wagner and DMB.]

The Larry David quote is of course humorous and a bit much, but he has a point. No, I wouldn’t be happy if the band “played the phonebook” (a DMB community meme this summer), and I’ve never thought that. But I’m not about to let the perfect be the enemy of the good either.

Ivory Towers of Glass

Sweeping generalizations can be effective. Can be…

I came across an older blog post from Sator Arepo at Think Classical a few weeks ago that has since stuck with me. Think Classical is a “classical music blog” – a term that the author surely hates, for good reason touched upon below – I’ve regularly followed and read the last several months. The posts are, on the whole, informed and thoughtful. Mr. Arepo (I’m guessing the gender based on social media pronouns) is intelligent, well-read, and writes authoritatively on many topics, and I regularly learn much from his posts. A favorite recent series focuses on so-called “Nazi Opera Conspiracy Theories.” I strongly suggest reading it in full if you have the time.

Late one night I was scrolling older entries and came across a couple of compelling posts about the brain-washing evils of pop music. (Admittedly, this is good bait for yours truly.) I read them chronologically backwards, but his first piece criticizes the nature of “genre” in pop music, and the second attacks pop music’s commercialist trappings. (The seedling for both appears to be this one about commercialism.) I’m not setting out to fisk the posts line by line, and I certainly don’t consider this the beginning of some one-sided personal feud with the author, whose blog I very much enjoy, but I believe his notions are symptomatic of a larger problem with criticizing popular music – or, more generally, criticizing music with which one’s largely unfamiliar.

Genre – labeling in general – is a good place to start. I can’t speak for Mr. Arepo, but I believe he and I both succumb to the familiar labels of classical and pop: the former representing Western Art Music of the past ~1200 years, and the latter relating to a continuity of socially and commercially popular but stylistically diverse musics of the last ~150 years (if using Stephen Foster and the national proliferation of minstrelsy in the US as a starting point). (Folk and jazz receive similar wide-ranging labels.) He admits to as much in 2014’s maiden post, rejecting the absurdity of putting Josquin, Mozart, and Birtwhistle under the same “classical” umbrella. His initial point about genre is largely correct: “pop music” is a catch-all phrase connoting commercially popular styles with structural and (musically-)theoretical similarities. Furthermore, these similarities – melody, harmony, rhythm, form – are often simple and benign when compared to other, more sophisticated styles (e.g., serialism). But to then make the leap and say that any and all supposed pop music amounts to diatonic tripe is quite a leap. One could just as easily and incorrectly label all classical music as boring vocal and instrumental music written for the sake of being difficult or abstract, lacking any greater purpose or context.

Curiously, Mr. Arepo uses one pop example (Metallica) and six classical examples (Brahms, Boulez, Mozart, Dufay, Takemitsu, Xenakis) to make his point. What’s more, he chooses some low-hanging fruit from Metallica: “Nothing Else Matters” from 1991’s Metallica (aka The Black Album). Of course, stepping inside the world of pop music, “Nothing Else Matters” was seen as an artistic slap in the face of many Metallica fans who expected more thrash- or speed-metal stylings similar to the band’s previous albums and songs. (Just read this description on this YouTube posting.) “Nothing Else Matters” features the tinny acoustic guitars, lush strings, and lilting 6/8 that infected many ’90s power-ballads. And yes, it’s quite simple harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, and structurally.

Responding in kind, one need only look to the initially ballad-like “One” from Metallica’s preceding album …And Justice For All (’89). Granted, little in this song is intellectually formidable in comparison to many classical (Western Art Music) composers – simple time signatures (3/4, 4/4, etc.), diatonic harmonies and melodies, largely homophonic textures. However, the material is richer here than on “Nothing Else Matters”: motivic development in the introduction (it’s not Brahms or Schönberg, but it’s something), occurrences of polyphony, changes in pulse/feel, virtuosic solo guitar lines (and fast duet lines in parallel motion), and a form that avoids the verse-chorus and strophic trappings. The lyrical content is also of a different caliber: “One” is based on the anti-war novel and film-of-same-name Johnny Got His Gun instead of the woe-is-me “Nothing.” Therefore it’s no surprise that when the band picks up speed the drums often mimic gunfire – a nice bit of text painting. It’s not Xenakis, but it’s also no cookie-cutter power-ballad. I think Mr. Arepo would agree that not all sonata forms are created equal. The same can be said for metal singles (with this radio single being just shy of 7.5 minutes in length).

Of course, as with classical (or any other) music, the ink on the page is only a fraction of the overall story, particularly with piano-reduction-like scores of pop songs. (You’d never guess that these songs include percussion, let alone the exact parts, by looking at piano-reductions.) Instrumentation (dare I say orchestration?), timbre, and dynamics are paramount in much pop music, particularly rock. The electric guitar is a timbrally versatile instrument, rich in overtones and and widely varied depending on the model and player. Lead sheets don’t convey this whatsoever. Musicologist Robert Walser intelligently discusses this and related points in his groundbreaking Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993). Is a voice and piano reduction of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde equally moving as the original orchestration? Hardly.

As mentioned, Mr. Arepo’s classical examples against Metallica aren’t Top 40 material – someone unfamiliar with classical music would likely stick to the greatest hits of Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi instead of Xenakis and Takemitsu. (As expected.) Similarly, straying from the beaten path that is Metallica, I briefly and humbly offer the late Frank Zappa, himself a champion of contemporary music (including orchestral releases), as a shining example of creating art rooted in rock. To offer a richer and more technically impressive example than “One,” without digging too deep in the weeds, one need only listen to Zappa’s so-called “Yellow Snow Suite” that often includes the songs “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Nanook Rubs It,” “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast,” and “Father O’Blivion.” Zappa’s music includes equal parts humor, absurdity, poetry, obscured meanings, and social commentary, but there’s a sincerity throughout. These pieces aren’t just thrown together, over a modified blues or verse-chorus format, but they’re well thought out and executed.

Below are two versions of the “Yellow Snow Suite”: an extended 1978 performance featuring Zappa himself, and a 2006 performance by Zappa Plays Zappa (a top-flight band including surviving band members dedicated to his catalogue, fronted by his son Dweezil). Yes, the songs are mostly diatonic, but there’s a fair amount of chromaticism throughout. (Far more than the above examples, which included none save for a few blue notes.) But the chromaticism works – it’s not at all obtrusive or out of place. Other goodies include: a nice variety of meter (including mixed) and tempi, vocal harmonies, unexpected vocal and instrumental interjections, non-traditional form and structure, a cornucopia of rock and pop styles as well as a great Latin groove, and rich orchestration. While “just a rock band” at first blush, a number of the musicians are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, and they greatly expand the sonic palette for such “commodity music.” The lyrics – equal parts clever and crass – bring the piece full circle. There’s a real rock & roll spirit here with a fun, almost jubilant attitude that’s buoyed by substantial musical content. It’s best to let the music speak for itself. The ’78 clip featuring Frank shows you “the real thing” and grooves hard, while the ZPZ clip features a tighter band and arrangement:

With such well-rehearsed and well-executed live performances, these two groups are arguably more akin to chamber ensembles than “rock bands.”

To close this out for now, as I stress to my Music Appreciation students: I don’t care that they necessarily “like” new styles and sounds, but I expect that they learn to 1) understand them and their contexts, 2) appreciate them for what they are, and 3) can tell me intelligently why they don’t like something, if applicable. And that’s a two-way street – it’s not just for people getting acquainted with Western Art Music. It can also be applied to learning about non-WAM styles, or whatever new genre or style awaits you.

Selective Lineage

Across many styles of music, many of the greats drew on a variety of artistic influences. Charlie Parker, though a titan of jazz, was fascinated by Stravinsky, who happened to be interested in jazz. Miles Davis was in awe of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone, assisting his turn to fusion. Harold Budd originally wanted to be a jazz drummer, and Flea was similarly taken with jazz. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin have strong rhythm & blues influences. A number of hard rock and punk acts seemingly have an affinity for free jazz. Yada yada yada. And yet, when considering these or any other musicians in the context of his or her respective stylistic traditions, then tendency is to only look at the lineage within that particular style. So, for Budd, non-ambient and non-Minimalist (or “non-post-Minimalist,” etc.) sources can be a curious footnote. (Although, Budd’s employing saxophonist Marion Brown and his quotation and adaptation of Coltrane‘s “After The Rain” in Pavilion of Dreams are hard to ignore.) So on and so forth.

I mentioned here that this blog isn’t included on The Big List of Classical Music Blogs, likely because it’s not solely dedicated to classical music. No biggie. Yet, a darling topic of a number of contemporary classical music publications is the genre or style often labeledindie classical.” This term references pieces or artists that share qualities with varying degrees of indie rock (a vague enough term on its own) and classical music. Popular examples of this include Sigur Rós, Radiohead and in particular guitarist Johnny Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens, and numerous collaborations by Kronos Quartet. Consequently, some new music sources are now occasionally exploring certain related rock artists. Somewhere, I’m sure the classical Illuminati have circulated a whitelist and blacklist, as only certain groups and artists seem to consistently make the cut. For example, would DMB‘s collaboration with Kronos Quartet on 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets fall somewhere on the indie classical spectrum? (Fellow indie- and pan-stylist Béla Fleck also appears.) I doubt it, at least today. (Perhaps in a few years, when such cross-pollination isn’t as “novel.”) And this phenomenon isn’t new. After all, Brahms‘s affinity for Hungarian music came in part from the folk and stylistically “popular” musicians he encountered in Vienna. To engage Brahms’s music in a classical vacuum alone is to miss part of the story.

This isn’t a campaign to get my blog included on classical directories, but rather a notable symptom of what seems to be a much larger issue. My generation (early Generation Y?), as well as Generation X, has benefited from a horizontal access to the whole history of music at our fingertips. Consequently, many of us have diverse interests and tastes – at least, it’s not a rarity. And yet I still see somewhat of a tendency to wall off classical music as slightly “other,” separate from and aesthetically superior everything else. While it is indeed aesthetically different, I don’t consider it to be automatically superior. You can’t engage a Mahler symphony as you would a Grateful Dead concert. But you can engage them both, and if you do so sincerely and in the appropriate context, the impact for both can be equally powerful, though in different ways. Going from there, if cross-pollination is going to be celebrated (e.g., “indie classical”), then perhaps a deeper appreciation will result from trying to engage the disparate sources on their own terms.

Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Chicago’s Constellation

“Meditative” and “liturgical.” Those were pianist Tord Gustavsen‘s whispered descriptions of his impending set at Constellation on Saturday night. He and his quartet – Gustavsen, saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bassist Mats Eilertsen, drummer Jarle Vespestad – brought their intimate Nordic jazz to the small but attentive capacity crowd. The performance was part of a five city promotional tour of the US in support of the recently released Extended Circle, an album I highly recommend.

The band’s ~75-minute set featured material from the quartet’s two albums Extended Circle and The Well along with earlier Gustavsen selections from Restored, Returned and Being There. Gustavsen and his band have a very stark approach on record, and I was curious how that would translate to a live setting. I’m pleased to report that it did so perfectly. The small venue and low lighting complemented the band’s restraint. It took until the set’s final number (before the encore), “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg,” for them to reach a semblance of forte, and in doing so provided a welcome release – and relief! – after the long, simmering slow burn. The set was a series of peaks and valleys, with each peak slightly higher than the last until the zenith during “Eg Veit…” I very much appreciated the group’s restraint – not once did it feel forced. Subtle intensity, Gustavsen’s specialty, is often more difficult to achieve than via the usual “high-fast-loud” means, and the band successfully executed it.

Such subtlety was achieved not through dynamics and dissonance alone but also via texture. Brunborg began and ended the evening on soprano (“The Child Within” and “Vicar Street,” respectively), but otherwise played tenor saxophone throughout. However, the tenor/piano/bass/drums instrumentation was exploited to its full potential. Gustavsen tastefully played outside and inside of the piano with great ease, completely avoiding any sense of gimmickry. Eilertsen beautifully played pizzicato and arco, and seeing a jazz bassist use a bow well was a breath of fresh air. Perhaps the MVP in this arena was drummer Jarle Vespestad. His control of his instrument, be it with drumsticks, mallets, brushes, or his hands, was second to none, particularly his cymbal work. I saw it as him approaching his drumset from a percussionist’s perspective instead of a drummer’s. And floating above it all was Tore Brunborg’s golden tone. Wow – I’ve listened to him on a lot of different recordings and none of them prepared me for just how deeply resonant his tenor sound would be in person. The icing on this sonic cake was their touring sound engineer. The amplification was used not to necessarily increased the volume but rather to enhance the live mix and balance, and every sound was crisp and clear.

Each musician basked in the spotlight some throughout the evening, including a couple of unaccompanied piano solos and a bass cadenza. Overall, however, Gustavsen’s music is more conducive to featuring the ensemble as a whole rather than an individual member, as improvised and composed passages seamlessly blend together. The set featured a nice mix of tunes, including “The Child Within,” “Suite,” “The Embrace,” “Glow,” “Eg Veit…,” “Vicar Street,” and others. Similar to the emphasizing of the ensemble as a whole, the individual tunes were less important than the flow of the overall set, which culminated in “Eg Veit…” and then unwound with the encore “Vicar Street.”

I attended this performance with my partner in crime Matt Borghi. Our shared love of ECM aside, this concert was rather special for me personally, as I never thought I’d see Tore Brunborg perform in the US. (And it’s not yet worked out for me to him in Europe.) He’s received some attention on this blog, notably for his work with Manu Katché (in whose band I first heard him), but also a quick reference regarding saxophonists who’ve influenced me. He should get his own full post at some point, as I enjoy his work – both as leader and sideman – but suffice it to say that I’m quite a fan. Furthermore, visiting with the band after the show was a real treat, and it was great to learn that they’re wonderful people as well as top-flight musicians.

If you have the opportunity to see this group, you must certainly take it. 2014 tour details here.

For a taste, here’s the quartet performing “Vicar Street” in 2009:

My Ambient Canon II: Pumpkin Seeds

SP_Heart

As I wrote in my previous post, my introduction to ambient music wasn’t via ambient music directly, but rather through a variety of other sources. This nascent series isn’t intended to be chronological (from an autobiographical point of view). I’ll attempt some organization, but we’ll see. For this entry, I’ll begin with what I think may be my “patient zero,” at least as much as my memory is concerned: Smashing Pumpkins.

About three years ago I briefly wrote about SP as being a musical “primary source” of mine. Among the band’s many musical layers and nuances is the use of sonic ambience. Although it’s not a crutch, Billy Corgan‘s (and James Iha’s, etc. – but, primarily for studio recordings, Billy’s) guitar is often made many through overdubbing. Beyond that, the group has always featured two guitarists live (2+ via studio magic), and the added chordal layer is part of what gives the band’s music such sonic weight. Aside from weight, the additional guitar allows for layering in both the foreground and background. This is quite prevalent throughout Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and album that left a profound impression on me. (After all, I was 12 when it was released and I first heard it.) The album is mammoth in scope and sonic breadth – alternately intimate and epic. Some songs include layers that I would now consider to be ambient-friendly, though at the time it wasn’t in my vocabulary. One example is the lush and often soaring layers atop the core band in “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.” The song itself is good enough, but that layer greatly enhances the sonic depth and I’ve always been very attracted to it. Of course, such layering is different from the symphony orchestra employed in “Tonight, Tonight” (bravo Chicago Symphony Orchestra!), as the orchestra plays defined parts and lines. “Porcelina,” on the other hand, includes additional layers meant to simply add sonic presence and/or weight. If you eliminate the core song – vocals, rhythm & solo guitars, bass, drums – the remaining layers would themselves, to me, provide an enjoyable listening experience. While I may not have been able to precisely put my finger on it as a preteen, I know that part of the attraction to this song has always been my wanting to listen to and enjoy that layer in a vacuum.

Another SP song to do this, released a year later, is “Set the Ray to Jerry” from 1996’s MCIS b-side box set The Aeroplane Flies High. “Jerry” is nowhere near as grandiose as “Porcelina.” It’s a chill, contemplative, midtempo number – one of the band’s hidden gems. (The box set, originally printed as a limited edition, has now been reissued and I encourage SP fans without it to correct themselves.) The song begins with a quiet arpeggiated ostinato before the full band enters, and it remains throughout most of the song. And while its nowhere near the piece’s focus, like “Porcelina,” it dramatically improves the listening experience. Towards the end of the song, additional soaring-but-subtle guitar lines are added to drive – or, in this case, coast – things to a close.

There are many other examples from the entire Pumpkins catalogue from which to choose, but these are early examples that stuck out to me at the time, especially considering that Mellon Collie was the first full SP album I dug deep into. But many other SP songs can be argued to have either ambient-, space-, or drone-/noise-friendly qualities. Some are: the outro in “For Martha” (…and much of the rest of the drum machine-laden Adore), “Soma,” “Glissandra,” “Owata,” “Silverfuck” from Earphoria (utilizing pure noise in a live rock performance blew my early adolescent mind), the 23-minute Cage-ian “Pistachio Medley,” and much of MACHINA: The Machines of God, including the fabulous outro of “This Time.” And of course there’s the seemingly ubiquitous EBow

Beyond the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy let these tendencies run rampant as well. An easy go-to would be his digital-heavy solo effort TheFutureEmbrace, which I described here. Also, Zwan, with its lineup featuring three guitarist, offered a richer sonic palette live than the Smashing Pumpkins, particularly on the epic “Mary, Star of the Sea.” In fact, droning nature of that song’s intro is something that, even now, my mind quickly goes to when in an ambient mood.

Interestingly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t that about a year ago Matt and I briefly discussed Robert Fripp, after which he sent me a video clip of him performing live. (A big name in ambient and non-ambient music, of course.) I don’t recall what it was specifically, but it instantly reminded me of Billy Corgan. I don’t know how much Fripp influenced Corgan specifically, but it’s interesting to somewhat reverse-engineer that lineage now, even if I’m largely speculating. (I know Billy likes David Bowie, but I’m unsure of King Crimson or Fripp alone.) And it was less than two months ago that I purchased Travis & Fripp’s Thread, an ambient album featuring guitar and sax/flute. Talk about coming full circle…

VIDEO: “Set the Ray to Jerry” live at Detroit’s Fox Theater 10.07.07. (I was there and pleasantly surprised that they played this one…)

(Photo: Smashing Pumpkins logo)