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Audience Highlights Over the Decade

Though tired of the relentless assault of best-of lists, I guess I can’t help but jump on the bandwagon. The last decade was big for me personally—marriage, a family, multiple interstate moves—but this list isn’t about that. Instead, for posterity’s sake, here’s a list of some of the best things I witnessed from the audience over the last decade. These are listed in chronological order, with mostly a single item per year. Some years had much more competition that others, but each year’s pick was formidable in its own way.

2010: Dave Matthews Band at The Gorge Ampitheatre (George, WA) on 09.04.10
— One of the best DMB shows I’ve attended. The band was on fire and several of my all-time favorites were played: “#41,” “Fool to Think,” “So Right,” “The Stone,” and “Two Step.” I may have celebrated too heartily afterward.
2011: Smashing Pumpkins at Riviera Theater (Chicago, IL) on 10.14.11 | Keith Jarrett Trio @ Orchestra Hall (Chicago, IL) on 10.21.11
— These back-to-back treks to Chicago were well worth it. One of the better SP shows I’ve attended (“For Martha” to close the main set!), plus it’s always nice to see Billy Corgan in Chicago, where it all began. Having his family in the audience made Billy a little extra chatty. As for Jarrett, it was the last time I saw him in concert. I’ve seen him four times (twice solo and twice with the trio), all in Chicago, and this was the better of the two trio shows I attended. It hurts that the trio has since disbanded after so many years of great music-making.
*Honorable Mention: Bon Iver at UIC Pavilion (Chicago, IL) on 12.11.11
2012: Einstein on the Beach at the Power Center (Ann Arbor, MI) on 01.22.12
— A once-in-a-generation production and tour. I’m still grateful I was able to attend this. Nearly a decade later, I still think of this performance often.
*Honorable Mention 1: Charles Lloyd‘s New Quartet at Michigan Theater (Ann Arbor, MI) on 04.14.12 (that version of “Go Down Moses” haunts me still…)
*Honorable Mention 2: James Carter Organ Trio, Spectrum Road, and Neneh Cherry with The Thing at Montreux Jazz Festival (Montreux Switzerland) on 07.07.12
2013: Rienzi at Oberfrankenhalle (Bayreuth, Germany) on 07.07.13
— A uniquely odd but wonderful performance and setting for Wagner’s bicentennial celebration.
*Honorable Mention: Dave Liebman residency at Detroit Jazz Festival (Detroit, MI), Labor Day Weekend 2013
2014: Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Constellation (Chicago, IL) on 02.22.14
— A moving, intimate performance, and afterward I got to hang for a bit with the one and only Tore Brunborg, one of my favorite saxophonists.
2015: Dave Liebman’s Expansions at Kerrytown Concert House (Ann Arbor, MI) on 10.13.15
— Lieb always delivers, and seeing his new regular band was no exception.
2016: River of Fundament at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Cleveland, OH) on 01.30.16
— Need I say more? Arguably the top “performance” of the decade for me, even though it’s a film.
*Honorable Mention: Der fliegende Holländer at Bayern Staatsoper (Munich, Germany) on 07.22.16
— This was my second time seeing this engaging production by Peter Konwitschny in Munich. Even though the end was changed at the last minute due to exigent circumstances (the onstage explosion was pulled due to the chaos ensuing from that evening’s nearby shooting), I got much more out of the production than the first time through. Dr. Mark Berry wrote a lovely review here. (After the opera, my students and I spent the night camped out at the Staatsoper due to the “shelter in place” order from the US, most of them eventually sleeping. It was an unforgettable evening for many reasons.)
2017: Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Chicago, IL) on 11.14.17
*Honorable Mention: Götterdämmerung at Canadian Opera Company (Toronto, Ontario) on 02.05.17
— My first time seeing Christine Goerke at Brünnhilde. Her commanding performance quite whetted my appetite for her debut in Chicago’s Ring cycle later that year.
2018: Radiohead at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 07.20.18 | Middle Kids at Mohawk Place (Buffalo, NY) on 06.07.18 | Elton John at Scotiabank Centre (Toronto, Ontario) on 09.25.18
— 2018 is a difficult one due to lots of great shows. My gut reaction is that Radiohead’s concert was the best one I saw that year. Simply amazing; even better than the previous time I saw the band. However, I can’t leave Middle Kids off the list. Middle Kids is easily my favorite new band of the last several years. The Australian band has yet to really break big here in the US, but fortunately for me the group played Mohawk Place in downtown Buffalo, an intimate, long-running rock club that holds a couple hundred people at most. Being front row for that was a special experience. (One of my great regrets of the last several years regarding this blog is that I haven’t written about Middle Kids. Hopefully that’ll change at some point.) And of course Elton. This was arguably one of the two best shows I’ve seen of his. Hercules and the whole band were on fire all night.
2019: Redoubt at Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT) on 03.02.19| Tool at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 11.12.19
— Attending the premiere of Redoubt (both the film and exhibit), along with attending an artist talk and getting to briefly meet Matthew Barney, was quite an experience. And then, months later, I learned that my boys are back. Great bookends to the year.
*Honorable Mention: Bon Iver at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 10.06.19

‘Einstein on the Beach’ on Video

I rarely publish such posts, but given this blog’s regular discussion of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs’s Einstein on the Beach over the last several years, I should mention that it is now, for the first time, available for purchase in full on video. It was released in the US on DVD and Blu-ray on October 28.

I’ve been watching my Blu-ray in surround sound this weekend and it is lovely. While I certainly don’t want to dilute my memory of seeing it live, the camerawork allows the viewer to see small nuances that are easily missed in the live spectacle.

The filmed performance is from January 2014 at the Théȃtre du Chȃtelet in Paris. (The same one that streamed online for a few months that year.)

Fervently recommended.

Change of Scenery, Me Time

A job and family needs have taken my family and I to Buffalo, NY. The moving process is far from done. Our house in East Lansing has yet to sell and we don’t yet have a permanent place in the Buffalo area. Things are in flux. Looking back, June through August are little more than a blur, between packing, moving, and teaching in Austria. Given that we’re still partially living out of boxes and suitcases under a roof that isn’t our own, the new routine has yet to really sink in. That said, it’s been nice to cut a lot of commitments and noise from our individual and collective schedules.

I’m certainly mourning the loss of our East Lansing house, home, and community, and I miss being in the same state as many of my friends, though this site isn’t the place to dwell on such things. At the same time, though, I definitely got in a bit of a rut the last 12-18 months. As someone who only recently (in the last year) learned to regularly say “no,” I had built up a cornucopia of commitments that left me almost no time for myself, my own pursuits, or to spend meaningfully with my family. Several of these commitments saw only lateral moves ahead which begged the question: how long can or should I keep _____ up? In several instances I found myself just going through the motions. Doing it just to do it, and often at the sacrifice of much-needed time. Now, in a sense, for many things I’ve just taken myself out of the equation. (I’m sure that in several situations I’m now just a memory, which is fine. Onto the next. Such is the cold crossfire, even with moving.) And though the dust has yet to really settle here in WNY, I’m enjoying the — at the moment — simpler routine. This was my first easy weekend in months, and on two occasions I laid on a couch and read a book. It was neat.

What’s especially nice is enjoyably listening to music again, also something I haven’t done with any regularity in months. I bought quite a haul of albums in Europe in July (thank you Ludwig Beck, once again) and since, most of which I haven’t listened to until this month. This led me to finally listening to the material Matt and I recorded in April for our next album. Until I listened back, I had little specific musical recollection of that date. What a nice and reassuring surprise it’s been to hear those recordings.

The mania of these last few months has kept things quiet on the blog front, though I did manage to provide my $0.02 on Franco Faccio’s Amleto at Bregenzer Festspiele. However, I have some new posts and other items already in the works, and I’m looking forward to getting those out in due time. Of course, the best part is that I should now have more time to actually put them together.

Last weekend I picked up Bob Berg‘s debut album New Birth at Record Theatre, my favorite Buffalo music haunt for years now. I listened to it right away, since I’m now in the mood for new music again. But it didn’t strike me until after I purchased it just how apt the title was.

Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash’ at 20

Dave Matthews Band’s Crash turned twenty on April 30, 2016.

dmb crash

I don’t have time to mark all such occasions for albums from ~1996 that I hold up as iconic, but I did so for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and must do so again here. Like that other entry, this won’t be a song-by-song novella, but I’d still like to log some thoughts to mark the occasion.

Depending on how you parse it, Crash is either the second or third album released by the band. I suppose it’s officially seen as the second major label release (after 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming) and studio album. However, this doesn’t count the band’s self-released debut Remember Two Things from 1993, a mix of live and studio recordings that was eventually given a wider, major label pressing and re-release. Be it second or third, Crash was a juggernaut. “Crash Into Me,” “So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” and “Tripping Billies” dominated the airwaves, and the album is currently 7X platinum. Stats aside, this album is a monumental one for me personally. Regular readers should know by now that DMB is a cornerstone of my musical DNA, and this album was my “patient zero” — my entry point.

Even though “What Would You Say?” and “Ants Marching” had crossed my ears, I distinctly remember the time I first I knowingly heard “So Much to Say,” Crash‘s lead single. To date this then-adolescent, I was watching MTV and taken aback by seeing a saxophonist playing in such a quality, catchy song. I dug it and wanted more. Not long after, I purchased the CD and quickly seared every note and syllable into my brain. I listened to the full album constantly: at home, in the car, on my bike, doing yard work, walking around the neighborhood, etc. And I mean the full album — every last song. Often times I’d put in the CD and just select “repeat all” and let it go. I would of course go through spurts where I listened to some songs repetitively more than others, but in this album’s case every song got a turn. Nothing was glossed over.

Fast favorites for me were “#41,” “Two Step,” and “Let You Down,” but that studio recording of “#41” left a specific still-deep impression for several reasons. The instrumental jam, though short by the band’s live standards, particularly engaged this then-young saxophone student. By 1996, I had fallen down the rock rabbit hole. I made room for other styles, too, but as I wrote here I was under the spell of Smashing Pumpkins et al. That said, I also had a burgeoning interest in the saxophone, and there really no bands that I was aware of that included a fully-integrated saxophonist. I mean, I listened to a ton of oldies growing up. However, as I wrote here, much of the sax’s use then (and to a large extent now) was either a novelty or a cameo. Furthermore, those bands that did regularly use saxophone still preferred to exploit that honky rhythm & blues sound (e.g., Pink Floyd). So, to hear an album by a current band that both included sax and was good (great!) made quite an impression. And not only did it include saxophone, but the instrument was integral to the record’s — and, as I later learned, the band’s — sound, be it in the background, foreground, or just part of the overall texture.

Another thing about “#41” that was important for me at the time was the realization and understanding that some sort of improvising was occurring. At the time (I was 12 going on 13 — cut me some slack), I knew of jazz but wasn’t strongly interested in it, and the idea of full-blown improvising was something I knew happened, but not for extended periods of time in more “mainstream” solos and styles. Also, to focus to Crash, LeRoi Moore‘s brief riff-based solo on “Too Much” remains intact to this day, though it did go away for a few years. I heard the same thing on Letterman as I did on the album. “#41,” though, was another story. The violin and flute solos I liked, but they were short and bounced along with the rhythmic feel from the song proper. Roi’s sax solo, on the other hand…that was a whole different entity for me. In fact, I listened to that solo so much that I almost considered it a different song. Looking back, I think it was the first instrumental solo I committed to memory. I could sing or whistle it at the drop of a hat. Carter’s cymbal crash at 04:27 helps note the shift in feel, and Roi’s off to the races.

(Imagine my delight when, in 2010, Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross started playing an interlude horn line that used bits from Roi’s studio solo…)

In fact, I often thought of it as the “Moonlighting solo” to myself, as the rhythm section’s groove reminded me of the Moonlighting theme song. (A song that, when I heard it by the time I was 6, I really liked. Having recently listened back via YouTube, I don’t remain as sold on it, but in my mind there’s a connection. Ha!)

Even though “#41” remained a centerpiece (and to this day my favorite DMB song), it certainly wasn’t the only piece to make an impression. Instrumentally, Roi’s solo on the outro of “Proudest Monkey” was another improvisatory standout. That, and his soprano sax tone sounded magnificent to me. Even now, when I think of soprano tone, that’s one of the first things to come to mind along with Dave Liebman.

That’s enough shop talk, though. Back to the album at large.

Not only was the saxophone’s immersion in the band’s sound a game-changer, but so was the band’s overall sound of being a rock band with no lead guitar. (Well, at least at it’s core. I continue to contest that being the case these days.) Yes, Tim Reynolds is present throughout the album, but he’s felt more than explicitly heard. Instead, I was listening to a band that figured out how to rock with both a violin and saxophone (and flute!). Wild!

Also, Crash covers a fair amount of stylistic ground. The overall atmosphere of the album is cohesive, but the band covers a respectable range that includes rock/pop (“So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” “Tripping Billies”), more jam- and jazz-influenced fare (“#41,” “Say Goodbye,” and “Proudest Monkey”), ballads (“Crash Into Me,” “Let You Down,” “Cry Freedom”), the in-between (“Lie In Our Graves”), and a couple hard-driving selections (“Two Step,” “Drive In Drive Out”).

Most people consider the follow-up, 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, to be the band’s best album, and it’s a consistent favorite among much of the hardcore fan base. I definitely see where BTCS devotees are coming from (and, in some respects, I agree that it’s DMB’s best): it’s an epic album with superb songs. That said, its grandiosity is something that gets in the way when I’m thinking of what makes an album my favorite when it comes to DMB (or most any band, I suppose). BTCS features Alanis Morissette, Béla Fleck, Kronos Quartet, and many more. It’s a big studio undertaking whereas Crash, still a big studio album, features the core five (plus Tim Reynolds) and, for the most part, features a pretty “live” sound. One drawback I always saw with Under the Table and Dreaming was the production — maybe it was the time and technology, but the album has much less of a “live” presence than Crash.)

At the end of the day, Crash is my personal favorite. Admittedly, it may partially be for nostalgic reasons, as it’s where it all started for me. Even so, it’s the band’s studio album I listen to the most, and it’s the one I keep handy in case I need a fix. For example, I use my iPod Classic when I’m on the move, but I do keep select albums on my iPhone and iPad, and Crash is always the first DMB one to get thrown on there. Its song selection, live sound, and lack of guests (beyond Reynolds) combine to offer a great distillation of a band that’s become a real piece of my life over these last two decades.

And with that, here’s to many more with Crash and the band…

Ivory Towers of Glass II

Continuing along with this post, I’d like to touch on another sweeping generalization about pop music. And, much like last time (and in general on this blog), by “pop music” I mean the overly-broad designation referring to commercially successful styles and their satellites, however remote, ranging from Stephen Foster to Tom Jones to Radiohead to White Zombie to Gwen Stefani and everything in between. The last post touched upon misconceptions over pop music’s substance and content, relating to Mr. Arepo’s post on the topic on Think Classical. Here, I’d like to engage with his other post, that of pop music’s economic and social context.

Mr. Arepo lays it all out in the title of this post (“Pop Music: the Most Insidious Form of Capitalist Brainwashing“), going on to rename pop music as “commodity music.” I certainly agree to a point – commodity musics abound in Western society, though such trends aren’t isolated to rhythm sections and lead guitars alone – yes, André Rieu and Kenny G, I’m looking at you. While I don’t completely buy into the “brainwashing” aspect of the argument, I believe that money is the ultimate goal instead of art in most cases. Much like there’s ultimately no overarching liberal or conservative media, but rather a money-making media more concerned for its financial interests than anything else. Selling itself is what what matters, not necessarily what is being sold. And in many cases, consumers are happy to buy in. As much as we don’t want to, we must accept that many folks just don’t want art, they just want “something nice/fun.” I’ve learned that truth by playing a few too many wallpaper gigs in a variety of styles over the years. And, personally, I don’t fear the word “entertainment” itself. But that’s another topic for another day. (Further reading: My dear friend Pat Harris does this argument justice in his 06.05.14 blog post.)

So, I agree to a point. However, one can’t throw pop music at large under the bus of financial greed. Yes, there’s a capitalist context concerned with financial gain. But the mixing of money and music – and art in general – is not a new phenomenon. Musicians have been trying to make a living off of selling their music for hundreds of years, be it through publishing or subscription concerts. Yes, we now have capitalism and its ugly sibling advertising. But what about the centuries-long tradition of religious patronage? The are myriad examples from the Catholic Church (Palestrina, de Lassus, Gabrieli), Protestants (J.S. Bach, Buxtehude, Sweelinck), and more. And how about aristocratic patronage? Louis XIV employed Lully, and Haydn enjoyed a lush post at the Esterházy court for decades. Yes, Mozart and Beethoven fought against aristocratic patronage via a variety of means, but rich friends and public concertizing helped subsidize along the way. Should such performances, be it for the public or for private subscription concerts, be considered too different than a rock band playing a club in the city – or, for that matter, a house party? Even Wagner – a shared love of Mr. Arepo and myself – owed money throughout Europe and in part relied on King Ludwig II for financial stability. Musicians, including yours truly, have long relied on teaching as supplemental income, and the university has created a modern-day patronage system, albeit one whose bubble is starting to burst and will likely implode in the near future.

All of the aforementioned contexts are simply to say that if today’s pop music is nothing more than a tool of the corporate machine, then should Haydn’s output be rejected en masse as aristocratic brainwashing? Are Perotin and Bach simply religious pawns? Gesualdo, widely and rightly considered a radical composer, was himself an Italian noble, and yet he exemplified the  “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle as much as Marilyn Manson, although perhaps not as much as Varg Vikernes and a few other elite scumbags.

Mr. Arepo hangs much of this post’s hat on quotes by Theodor Adorno and Noam Chomsky – two intellectual heavyweights who provide much insight on a host of topics. They are good quotes and thoughts in and of themselves. However, the curated and annotated quotes are undermined by red herrings: some sensational pictures of Marilyn Manson, Katy Perry, and a Suicide Girl-esque model in kitschy Nazi regalia. I won’t go into my full-throated defense of Marilyn Manson here (though I could). Yes, he’s at times silly, but overall there’s arguably more meat than on Gaga’s dress. And I’m no fan of Ms. Perry, even if I live in the next neighborhood over from a landmark. As for the “hotsy-totsy Nazi,” I thought he’d at least include Michelle “Bombshell” McGee – and her supposed white power tattoos – if going that route, but my guess is that he opted for the random swastika-clad totty for effect. If so, how is that so different from Lady Gaga’s meat dress? Aside from actual white power music, there’s a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the inclusion of the swastika in punk rock artwork and fashion, but I doubt that Mr. Arepo had that in mind, though I could be wrong. (Speaking for myself, I consider using the swastika for shock value by punks to be an empty and pointless gesture. Sorry, Sid.)

The real dilemma here – and it’s indeed a dire one – is that of the corporate machine versus the grassroots. Wall St. vs. Main St., canon vs. the avant-garde. It’s not the musical style but rather the commercial context. Bob Shingleton polices this trend in classical music wonderfully at Overgrown Path. Orchestra halls, opera houses, radio programs, and universities worldwide obsess over classical music’s Top 40 at the expense of artistically equal but much lesser known figures. But, rightly or wrongly, executives keep programming the same few dozen composers and their works season after season, hoping (and often failing to maintain) financial stability. As someone who teaches music appreciation to non-musicians, one of my fondest memories was seeing such positive reaction to a performance of Harry Partch’s “U.S. Highball” from The Wayward. How is this much different than radio, television, and record executives misappropriating and exploiting various styles of popular music until said style burns out and the next is grabbed off of the conveyor belt? For example, the grunge sub-genre began as rock’s grassroots reaction to 80s mainstream excess until grunge itself was (mis)appropriated and run into the ground in the early 90s via Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and more, and distressed flannel and denim entered high fashion. (For a musician’s perspective, hear Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell discuss this in a recent interview with Marc Maron on WTF.) Wash, rinse, and repeat for every mainstream style of the past several decades.

But the misappropriation of a style is just that: a misappropriation. Do we then throw out the baby with the bathwater? Again, I turn to Mr. Arepo’s nuanced and beautifully-written posts on the Third Reich’s misappropriation of Wagner that led to the fairy tales and conspiracy theories that Wagner was himself the Führer. Therein lies the rub for me with these posts: to go from such thoughtful writing to a wholesale dismissal of valid music based on some preconceived notions and some well-placed, self-fulfilling quotations. Speaking for myself, a musician who is in the trenches with various styles of music, I’m fortunate enough to have a number of very talented friends and colleagues who create some truly moving art in myriad styles: rock, electronic, Americana, experimental, jazz, contemporary classical, and more. And yet, because of the corporatist leviathan that is the music business, many of them are relatively little-known and under-heard, yet they admirably continue to press on regardless. It’s such a crime because many of them are as talented – if not more so – than many of the “name” musicians you’ve heard of in _____ style(s). You can of course argue that I’m just playing favorites with my friends, but I really don’t believe that I am. (With the proper time, I’d like to perhaps start a “spotlight series” on this blog so that interested readers may judge for themselves.) If all of these little- or semi-known practitioners quit today simply because of bad apples and bad behavior at the financial top of their respective style or genre, how would the music continue to grow, or continue at all?