Saturday, December 17, 2016

Black Fret Ball 2016

I only heard about Black Fret in the last few months from a colleague that is a member. The organization is a charity based in Austin in its third year whose primary purpose is to give money to promising local musicians. More detail can be found in the recent Pitchfork article or the Black Fret website. It's an intriguing model, and while I am not a member at present, I was lucky enough to be invited to this year's annual ball.

Event: Black Fret Ball
Venue: Paramount Theatre
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 10 December 2016

The format of the event was that over four hours, almost every band that was nominated for a grant this year and was able to attend played two songs, and in between sets the organization's founders talked to the audience, introduced other guests to help present the major grant winners, and displayed videos about the organization. Since the bands barely had enough time to make an impression, I won't be assigning scores, but I'll write a brief review of what I can remember.

The night started with Golden Dawn Arkestra in their typical fashion: just as at their regular concerts, they started from the back of the crowd and worked their way to the stage while playing whatever instruments they could carry. The appeared in the largest configuration I've seen yet with fifteen members, including four horns players and three dancers. They played "Sama Chaka" and "Stargazer" from their new album and did an awesome job of it. Their otherworldly psychedelic funk jams always bring a smile to my face.

Leopold and His Fiction: The weirdly dated look of the frontman put me off immediately, but I tried to withhold my judgment until I heard their music. The first song was a tolerable, low-key affair with a decent picked guitar part, but they went quickly downhill with the second number. It was a clichéd rock song with lots of wankery and grotesquely sexual maneuvers with guitars.

Magna Carda: A hip hop outfit featuring a sizeable live band. The combination of good lyrics, a strong frontwoman, solid beats, and proficient musicianship made for a winning combination. They won a major grant later in the evening.

Carson McHone: A country singer/songwriter with a good voice and a standard backing band. The music was decent and she was inventive enough to carefully avoid too much cliché. One of her two songs was "Dram Shop Girl", which appears to be getting some attention. She also won a major grant later in the evening.

Harvest Thieves: A weighty Americana or alt-country band. I particularly liked the keyboardist/mandolinist's contributions, but the group wasn't particularly exceptional otherwise. The other memorable aspect was that they had an incredibly tall extra electric guitarist that I could swear I've seen somewhere else before.

Ray Prim: A self-described "singer soulwriter", but in truth he and his band landed in a nebulous space between a variety of genres. I appreciated that I had a really hard time trying to figure out what labels were appropriate. Prim was a strong frontman, and his two backing vocalists were nice additions even if I'm not sure how much the second one added. (This may be the first time I've seen a band with any number of male backing vocalists that did not play instruments.) The musicianship was just as solid as the vocals, and I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution and energy of the keyboardist, the violinist, and the violist. The rhythm section was similarly on point. This was one of the strongest performances of the night, and I wasn't surprised at all when they won one of the major awards.

Calliope Musicals: I'd been meaning to see this band all year and I finally got my chance. They are a delightfully bizarre blend of indie rock, folk, psychedelia, an art project, and a party band. The B-52s might be the best reference point, but even that isn't a perfect comparison. There were multiple dancers in various costumes, and the primary lead instrument was an electric xylophone. (I didn't even know that existed.) Their extremely high energy was enchanting.

Daniel Eyes and the Vibes: A fairly generic rock man-band quartet that didn't impress me.

Wendy Colonna: A decent singer-songwriter with some soul vibes and a full band. She didn't particularly stand out to me, but she won one of the major grants.

Dana Falconberry: The frontwoman/guitarist/vocalist was backed by two further women on banjo and keyboards, both of whom also sang. I loved their ethereal folky sound, the well-crafted harmonies, and the complex layers produced by just three musicians.

Swimming with Bears: An indie/alt rock band that was somewhat promising although not quite a standout. They won a major grant, though.

Suzanna Choffel: Another singer-songwriter with a good voice and a basic band. She had some soul, but was a little bit more in an indie rock vein. She was joined by the xylophonist/keyboardist from the Golden Dawn Arkestra, which was a great addition. She won one of the first major awards of the night.

Bee Caves: This band has been on my radar for a bit, and I was pleased to find their live set was actually better than my impression had been from their recordings. They made a decent mix of Americana, rock, and psych. Their sound was a bit hazy and transcendent, but fairly well grounded. They also won a major grant.

The Peterson Brothers: They won a major grant right before they started their set. The two brothers played guitar and bass and were backed by a drummer and a percussionist. The four of them put down some great grooves. The bassist had incredible skill and the guitarist was surprisingly creative with his solos. The two of them managed to keep me interested despite their lengthy jams that could've easily bored me. For their second song, a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child", they brought out two additional guitarists: Eric Tessmer, who played in a rather generic style, and Jackie Venson, who was a welcome change of pace. As they played, various other musicians from throughout the night (along with the founders) gradually found their way on stage and it turned into something of an all-star jam.

Final Thoughts: I wasn't really sure what to expect from the evening, and I had some concern that so many bands in so little time would result in lengthy delays and bad sound. However, the night only ran about fifteen minutes past the scheduled four hours, and the sound quality was superb. While I know standards are high in Austin, and the Paramount is a particularly well-regarded venue, I'm still mightily impressed that the sound was that good for every single band. There were a couple bands in which the keyboards were too low in the mix, but that's literally the only complaint I could level on that front.

At first, the banter of the two founders between the sets annoyed me. There was a lot of self-congratulating and general hyping that in normal circumstances would really put me off. However, as the night wore on, I started to see the incredibly heartfelt and thankful responses of the musicians, and I realized that there's a reason why everyone is proud and excited about the organization. Furthermore, I gradually realized that the two co-founders were probably just nervous and under pressure, and they were simply trying to entertain a sizeable crowd while keeping things moving smoothly and speedily. Ultimately, I think they did good job of balancing humor, excitement, success, ambition, and a whole bunch of diverse personalities.

Hearing the major grant winners give short speeches of gratitude was occasionally highly illuminating. Several winners spoke of finally being able to release an album they'd been sitting on for a while but were unable to afford pressing. Others mentioned being able to record on more than a shoestring budget. Swimming with Bears were the most honest and memorable when they said they could finally afford hotels instead of sleeping in cars and showering at Planet Fitness. Their award was presented by Austin mayor Steve Adler, which was in itself a surprise. He claimed that he came to Austin in 1978 because the law school was the cheapest, but he stayed in town because of the music.

Each of those major grants is worth $17000, up from the $12000 awarded to the winners last year. In addition to the winners mentioned above, three further artists received awards but did not perform: Dan Dyer, Walker Lukens, and Nakia. The rest of the nominees still receive minor awards of $5000 each and remain eligible to be nominated again next year. (Winners have to sit a year out.) Three further bands were nominated but did not perform nor win a major award: Brownout, Sweet Spirit, and Name Sayers.

I left the night feeling overwhelmingly positive. I'm considering becoming a member. However, I was struck by one thing: some parts of this world have real public sponsorship of the arts. Musicians have access to grants, subsidized work and living space, publicly sponsored performance opportunities, and official networking systems directly from various levels of government. In a country or a state that valued such creation on a fundamental level, we wouldn't require membership-based organizations to fund the arts. Black Fret is an inherently classist institution in that the $1500 annual membership fee is prohibitive to working-class people. Undoubtedly, if Black Fret allows more artists to sustain productive careers in music, that means more music is more easily available to everyone, but the issue of privilege rears its head when you consider that only members can nominate and vote on the grant recipients, meaning the power of distribution is vested in the wealthy few. It's an odd microcosm of capitalism. While I obviously would prefer a true public solution, Black Fret bridges the gap and represents a clever middle ground of working within the capitalist system and doing the right thing with the means available to them.

P.S. Other reviews can be found at the austin360 music blog (including a compilation video of each of the performances) and AMFM Magazine. The Austin Chronicle has a write-up alongside some other local music-related nonprofits.

P.P.S. Thanks to Greg, Sana, and Alyssa!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dolly Parton - Live 2016.12.06 Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas

Artist: Dolly Parton
Venue: Frank Erwin Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 6 December 2016

Setlist (with some help from here):
01. Train, Train (Blackfoot cover)
02. Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That
03. Jolene
04. Pure & Simple
05. Precious Memories (John Wright cover)
06. My Tennessee Mountain Home
07. Coat of Many Colors
08. Smokey Mountain Memories
09. Applejack
10. Rocky Top (Osborne Brothers cover) → Yakety Sax (Boots Randolph cover)
11. Banks of the Ohio (traditional adaptation)
12. American Pie (Don McLean cover) → If I Had a Hammer (The Weavers cover) → Blowin' in the Wind (Bob Dylan cover) → Dust in the Wind (Kansas cover) → The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band cover)
13. The Seeker
14. I'll Fly Away (Albert E. Brumley cover)

Second Set:
15. Baby I'm Burnin' → Burning Love (Arthur Alexander cover) → Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis) → Girl on Fire (Alicia Keys cover)
16. Outside Your Door
17. The Grass Is Blue
18. Those Memories of You (Alan O'Bryant cover)
19. Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
20. Little Sparrow→ If I Had Wings
21. Two Doors Down
22. Here You Come Again
23. Islands in the Stream
24. 9 to 5

25. I Will Always Love You
26. Farther Along (W. A. Fletcher/J. R. Baxter cover)

Dolly was scheduled to begin her performance at 7:30pm on a Tuesday night with no opening band. As my spouse and I both work office jobs with fairly typical hours, it was actually something of a challenge to get to the venue on time. We didn't quite manage it, but mercifully she started a few minutes late and we made it inside the building right as she was coming on stage. From that point on, though, the night was hers: she performed for over two and a half hours, not counting a half-hour intermission.

I was immediately surprised to find no drummer on stage (despite that a percussion track was audible). However, Dolly explained early in the set that since the name of the tour and her latest album is "Pure & Simple", she wanted to play simpler arrangements of her songs. I appreciated that she had no hesitation to admit the use of backing tracks – she even asked guitarist Kent Wells to demonstrate the operation of his drum machine! She also claimed that a drummer she had considered bringing along was rejected after asking if the theme of the tour would mean that Dolly would appear without make-up, her hair done up, and her usual flamboyant outfits. Obviously, that was not a direction that she was willing to consider. ("But that's just who I am!") In addition to Wells, Dolly was backed by bassist Tom Rutledge and Richard Dennison on piano and percussion. All three provided backing vocals, but Dennison's role was often so critical that on a few songs he was essentially dueting.

Much of the first set was done in the style of a variety show, where Dolly would take her time, tell long stories about her life and her songs, and interact with the audience. For example, she explained "Jolene" in great detail by first announcing that she'd been married for fifty years. However, early in the relationship, while her husband was working at an asphalt company, she got suspicious of the amount of time he spent at the bank, and one day she went herself to find that he appeared to be spending a lot of time at the counter with a particular clerk. She admitted to the crowd that her jealousy may have been unfounded, but nonetheless, that clerk was the Jolene that inspired the song.

A substantial amount of time was spent discussing her childhood in Appalachian Tennessee. While she occasionally went on a bit too long, her stories were generally interesting and appeared to match up with official accounts of her biography. Meanwhile, she frequently swapped instruments. During the course of the night, she played acoustic and electric guitar, hammered dulcimer, autoharp, banjo, pennywhistle, and during "Rocky Top", violin and saxophone. After her cowboy stage hand gave her the violin, she commanded him to dance while she played, which he naturally obliged. Then, after playing a sax solo, she asked if the audience wanted to hear her play it in reverse, which of course they did, and so she did it.

While the prospect of a performer just talking for something like a third of the evening probably sounds a boring prospect for most, Dolly managed to keep things genuinely entertaining. Her style was both engaging and endearing, and her life certainly comes off as a genuine story of hard work and determination to be successful on her own terms. One of her stories was that she was asked if Elvis Presley could cover "I Will Always Love You" in the days before it became the standard it is now. She agreed until she was told that when Elvis covered a song, it was expected that the songwriter would assign half the songwriting royalties over to him. She then declined, which was obviously a prescient decision. She also made me laugh out loud when someone shouted, "I love you, Dolly!", and she immediately shouted back without skipping a beat, "I told you to wait in the trailer!" I'm sure it wasn't her first time using that line or telling any of these stories, but it's hard not to enjoy it all. I was a little annoyed by the lengths she went in describing some her religious sentiments, but I also greatly appreciated that she explicitly spoke in favor of everyone practicing their own religion, including atheism.

Dolly approached her setlist with what seemed to be a certain amount of whimsy, joking that her manager told her she needed to play another song from the new album. She played a mix of her big hits, a few back-catalog choices, a handful of covers, and a couple medleys of material from various sources. While introducing the medley of older classic folk material (plus a few lines of "Dust in the Wind"), Dolly ventured into post-election political territory, but walked a fine line and shied away from making explicit statements. At face value, the medley was rather cheesy baby boomer bait, and the audience ate it up, but the irony is of course that the songs in question were all progressive anthems of their era.

While some parts of the show may have been a bit over the top or completely ridiculous, Dolly provided a legitimately entertaining evening, and a lengthy one at that. The band was sharp, Dolly's instrumental talents are not insignificant, and her voice is still in great form. Not every song was a winner, but many were, and she went a long way to make the show memorable and fun.

Score: B

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

P.P.S. I am aware that there are doubts about the authenticity of Dolly's saxophone performances. Certainly the miniature size of her instrument was suspect. However, I was seated too far aware to observe carefully, and she did appear to be rather winded afterwards (although naturally that too can be faked).

Monday, December 12, 2016

Ballet Folklórico - Live 2016.11.23 Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, Mexico

[The stained-glass curtain depicting the valley of Mexico.]

Event: Ballet Folklórico
Venue: Palacio de Bellas Artes
Location: Mexico City, Mexico
Date: 23 November 2016

Founded in 1952 by Amalia Hernández, the Ballet Folklórico has become a cultural institution that has performed twice a week in the capital city since 1963. The group underscores traditional dance and music with historical narratives that succeed in being both instructive and captivating. On one level, the performance is a colorful presentation of national culture, with brilliant costumes, elaborate choreography, upbeat mariachi tunes, and constant motion. However, all of this action serves to examine elements of Mexican history and regional diversity. It's easy to simply watch and be transfixed, but at the least one might find it curious to see a group of women dancing with rifles. That particular dance honors the soldaderas that fought in the Mexican revolution alongside the better-recognized men. Other dances originate in pre-Columbian traditions, street parades with huge papier-mâché figures, village festivals, and ranching activities.

The physical movement is artfully paired with accompanying music from a sizable mariachi band. The night I attended opened with a loud, propulsive drum performance. The drummers continued to strike their battery as the dancers gradually appeared on stage. Most of the rest of the night, the musicians played string instruments and horns loosely corresponding to the region and era being also represented in dance and costume. This typically consisted of several classical guitars, including a Mexican vihuela and a guitarrón, in addition to violins, trumpet, trombone, and mellophone. The musicians sang infrequently, and even when they performed without the dancers (presumably while they were changing outfits), they primarily played instrumentals. On one occasion, they surprised me by appearing in two of the venue's seating boxes to play marimbas.

[Note the marimbas in the second-level boxes on stage left. Photo by Alyssa Hammons.]

When I first heard of this group, I was skeptical of falling into a tourist trap. However, the performance understandably made few concessions to the non-Spanish-speaking portion of the their audience, and judging by the crowd's participation in a few of the songs, most of the audience did indeed speak Spanish. (I did not find my rudimentary familiarity with Spanish to be hindrance to my enjoyment.) One could perhaps criticize the embedded heteronormativity of some of the dances, but I nonetheless appreciated the ambiguity and lack of detailed over-explanation inherent in a performance without many spoken or sung words. There were a couple sections based around hunting themes that I could do without, but I could acknowledge the historical relevance of even those narratives.

The performance more than exceeded my expectations. The quality of the musicianship, the beauty of the costumes, and the fluidity of the dancers won me over immediately. Every component was exceptional and the physical dexterity of the dancers and musicians was astounding.

The venue specifically requests no photography during the performance, and while plenty of people obviously disobeyed that request, I did not. Hence, I can only leave you with another picture of the venue, but a quick internet search should satisfy any further visual curiosity.

[The exterior of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.]

Score: A-

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!