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One week of musical adventures in San Francisco has taken us a bit longer than one week to share on these pages. But today we look at the final show from that week, featuring Faust at The Chapel.
So how exactly does one describe a band like Faust? As it says in the show description from The Chapel, ” Neither the habitus nor the music of this Hamburg group is easy to grasp.” The usual label of “krautrock” isn’t particularly descriptive, though it does orient them within the world of hard rock and experimental music coming out of Germany in the early 1970s. Many of the experimental elements around European and North American rock in that era can be found in their early albums like Faust IV. These elements were in abundance during the performance, with simple but meandering patterns mixed with a multitude of avant-garde elements. And it was all anchored by steady hands of original members Werner “Zappi” Diermaier and Jean-Hervé Péron.
There is a basic underlying hard-rock jam underpinning the music, which is then mixed with words, a variety of electronic sounds, and elements that were unique to the San Francisco show, including antiphonal vocals from the Cardew Choir and Lutra Lutra. (We have written about the Cardew Choir numerous times before on this site). The highlight of the collaborations was a final procession to the center of the crowd with large brass instruments dancing above the heads of the audience.
This was a contrast to the beginning of the set that featured soft vocals and percussion against a film playing in the background.
Another unusual feature of the set was the use of a graphical score, projected so that it could be seen by the audience as well as the musicians. Diermaier even turned his drum set around to face the projected score.
This photo also illustrates one other unique element to Faust’s performance: a “knitting lady” sat at the front of the stage calmly and silently knitting throughout the set.
I also spied friend and fellow Bay Area synthesizer player Benjamin Ethan Tinker sitting in with the band, which was a fun surprise.
The show was sold out to a very appreciative audience and they were well received by longtime fans and newcomers alike. It was definitely a unique and unusual experience, but still one that felt very musical. I would not describe it at all as an evening of “noise” (not that there is anything wrong with that). They lived up to their billing as legendary purveyors of experimental avant-garde rock.
Faust was preceded by two opening acts: a solo performance by Bill Orcutt on guitar. It was a softer, but quirky take on blues guitar. Orcutt was followed by Heron Oblivion. While coming out of the milieu of “cosmic guitar music”, they did have a darker, and sometimes frantic sound. They moved back and forth between more frenetic drum and guitar, and that soft plaintive sound in alternative pop. Overall, both acts fit with the theme of the evening, adding a bit of weirdness grounded in various conventions.
Last year we had the opportunity to see the acclaimed French band Magma on their first tour of the western US in well over a decade. But we didn’t have to wait that long for their second visit to San Francisco when they came to play the Great American Music Hall in mid March, less than a year later.
For those not familiar with Magma, the band is known for their unique combination of progressive rock, jazz fusion, and avant grade influences; and for having their own invented language for their songs: Kobaïan. Many of their classic songs tell the story of humans and aliens on a planet Kobaia and of the effort to save humankind from imminent self-destruction.
Bathed in changing monochromatic lights, the band moved through complex rhythms, odd meters, harmonies that almost but never quite resolve, and intricate vocal narratives, all with a ferocious energy that rarely let up during the entire show. Their intensity makes the quiet moments even stronger, and sometimes tense as it builds back up to the next climactic section. And the sections featuring vocal harmonies and the electronic piano can be quite luscious. And as always, drummer, founder and main composer Christian Vander held the center both geographically and musically.
In addition to Vander, there were long time band members including Stella Vander, Isabelle Feuillebois and Hervé Aknin on voice. The were two new band members on guitar and electric piano, respectively, and one could tell they were having a great time. The audience, which filled the main floor as well as the balcony section of the venue, was heavy with devoted followers of the band, who clearly knew some of the lyrics in Kobaïan and the characteristic complex rhythms. But there were captivated newcomers as well (I myself have only been following the band for a couple of years). Compared to last year’s show at Slims, this performance was heavier with classic Magma songs, and perhaps more a nostalgic vibe. There were newer songs as well, including parts of a newer epic narrative separate from the original Kabaia saga. Overall it was a great evening for musicians and fans alike. We leave with Vander’s own comments on the tour:
“Magma is happy to return to the United States to play for Americans,” says Vander. “We know you are passionate, respectful and curious about music. We find you to be generous and open. It will be a joy for us to see you this year.”
I hope we met his expectations.
Magma was preceded by Helen Money, a one-woman rock performance featuring cello, voice and electronics. Her music is described as “doom metal”, a genre not usually associated with the cello, but it is a phrase that Helen Money (aka Alison Chesley) lives up to in her performance. The overall tone was dark and aggressive, but with some interesting moments combining her adept technique on the instrument with complex electronics. She did make use of looping to support the rhythm and harmony in several songs. While she shares Magma’s intensity and energy on stage, the two acts were quite contrasting, and thus this was a well selected opening act.
This was the second of three great shows we saw in the span of one week in mid March. You can read my article of the first show, featuring Esperanza Spalding here. In the coming days we will close with a report from Faust’s San Francisco show.
Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding is currently on tour presenting her new album Emily’s D+Evolution, and we were there to see her when she performed at the Mezzanine in San Francisco.
With the rhythm section laying down a driving pattern, Spalding emerged into a cloud of fog, immediately launching into one of her complex syncopated never-quite-resolving melodies. Her colorful costume with glasses and crown seemed a bit baffling at first, but it made sense in the context of the album’s “protagonist” Emily D, a fanciful alter ego. The songs weave together a non-linear narrative, but each work well individually. Many had her characteristic fast runs of notes running in counterpoint to the rhythm section; but perhaps the ones that spoke to me most strongly were the ballads like Unconditional Love and Judas. In some ways, the ballads are just slowed down and more mellifluous interpretations of her fast style.
Theatrical elements played an important part of the performance, and not only stage presence, lighting and sets. The supporting singers had roles as soloists and characters in various songs. And one in particular featured a unique element for a live jazz+rock show: puppets. A small puppet stage was rolled out for one song, with one puppet a miniature Esperanza Spalding / Emily D and the other a male character who appeared to be a figure of authority.
Books were a recurring theme, in the piece with the puppet show and as live props throughout. A bookshelf sat behind the singers, and at one point early in the set Spalding hoists one into the air.
The energy level never let up, even for the slowest, quietest songs in the performance. It thus flew by quickly. It was a sensory whirlwind, but as a jazz geek I found myself most focused on her bass playing and the rhythms and harmonies from the group as a whole.
Both levels of Mezzanine (yes, the club does match its name) were packed, which added to the dizzying effect of the performance’s theater. And one could tell most of the audience must have been as pleased to be there as we were.
This was the first of three big shows we saw over the course of a single week, and was a great start. We hope to bring reviews from the other two shortly.
We at CatSynth have had quite a few unique musical experiences this season. Today we look back at another of them. In early February, the duo Martha and Monica (Hadley McCarrol on piano and Monica Scott on cello) performed Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field in its entirety.
“In it’s entirety” is no small thing, as the piece consists of a single continuous 90-minute movement. It’s a feat of endurance for both the listeners and performers. But McCarrol and Scott made it seem straightforward and effortless. The performance began with very sparse but unsettled harmonies, with the texture increasing but then returning to sparseness again. It was only the final third that the texture and intensity grew towards a bolder and thicker sound. All the while, the music was constantly changing, repeating a few times, leaving a bit of space, and then going on to something else. This is consistent with Feldman’s interest in sound as something ephemeral and lost, and in creating a sonic space where memory is subverted or “disoriented.” The spaces in between the sounds are important as well, given moments of reflection and mental echoes.
All of this might make the piece seem daunting to listen to, especially at the length of a typical feature film. But the combination of space and disorientation were helpful, making it more like thoughts passing in a meditative space. The anxiety in a passage builds, but then dissipates – one acknowledges it and moves on. The passage of time itself became background noise and the sounds became more spatial than temporal. This effect might be more pronounced for someone like myself who sees shapes when listening to music, but I suspect other deep listeners had analogous experiences.
Unlike Feldman’s earlier pieces, this one was fully notated using common practice notation. This would both facilitate and make more challenging the process and playing and learning such a piece, where every note makes a difference. It was overall an impressive feat of musical performance, and glad I got to spend an afternoon hearing and seeing it.