Review and photograph by Mike Hotter Additional photographs by Timothy Reidy
The Upstate Artists Guild in Albany was privy to a rare visitation from Baltimore’s Daniel Higgs on the last night of last month. A semi-legendary figure who has made a conspicuous mark in the arcane worlds of both underground music and tattooing, Higgs, playing his banjo in a style reminiscent of the Japanese koto, was joined by Fumie Ishii for a set of intensely meditative music.
Songs seemed structured yet free-form, eventually giving way to Higgs’ poetic/bordering on the shamanic intimations of mortality, cosmos and the hereafter (A sample line: “Human beings are the best vessels in the universe”).
While there were no new albums I felt very passionate about this year (besides the Dylan reissue), here are some that I admired and listened to quite a bit – in alphabetical order:
Neko Case’sThe Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: Gorgeous voice delivering gorgeous tunes about unsettling matters.
Bob Dylan’sAnother Self Portrait (1969-1971): A couple of self-professed Dylan fans I know scoffed when I told them how much I loved this two-disc set – such is the stigma attached to anything having to do with this era. But if you sit down with this objectively, I promise that your conception of Dylan will be enlivened, enriched and rejuvenated. Filled with some of his finest singing ever captured on tape, you also hear a person deeply in love with song. And the demo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” that closes, with its slightly different lyrics, is so much better than the one we are familiar with. My favorite release of 2013.
The Knife’sShaking the Habitual: As forbidding as an electronica version of “Finnegan’s Wake,” this 96-minute-long behemoth may not be really “enjoyable” at some points, but it seems important in an almost historical way – the first bonafide hybrid human-computer classic, as chilling as it sounds.
These aren’t necessarily what I consider the “best albums” of the last year, just the ones I listened to the most:
10. J Mascis’ “Several Shades of Why”
9. Richard Buckner’s “Our Blood”
8. St. Vincent’s “Strange Mercy”
7. Girls’ “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”
6. Wild Flag (self-titled)
5. Radiohead’s “King of Limbs”
4. Low’s “C’mon”
3. Atlas Sound’s “Parallax”
2. Megafaun (self-titled)
1. Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring for My Halo”
The Kurt Vile is far from a perfect album – some of the songs tend to be very similar and can blend in together. But I like the over-all mood and the subtle production choices throughout. It’s a fairly straight-forward album with rock and folk instrumentation; it just fit my mood, especially in the first part of this year – resigned and confident exhaustion.
So goes a line in “Black Hole Sun,” probably the most well-known composition by the hard rocking singer-songwriter Chris Cornell, otherwise known as He of the Thousand Yard Yowl. That voice was in spectacular form during last week’s sold-out show in The Egg’s Hart Theatre, making for a heady, if somewhat overlong, night of dark, acoustic rock that at its best harkened back to the days when giants like Zeppelin walked the Earth.
Pre-show, I was expecting a pretty dour time – I mean, whenever I was feeling a bit fed up with things as a youngster of the ’90s, there was nothing (outside of Nirvana) that was better than blasting “Rusty Cage” or “Blow up the Outside World.” But in concert last week Cornell’s sense of humor was ever-present between songs, whether it was self-deprecations about his bad posture, or a somewhat embarrassing tale of running into the surviving members of Lynryd Skynyrd at the airport on the way to a gig (Cornell whines to them how he doesn’t like air travel, only to remember later about the band’s tragic history in that regard).
The Hudson River Coffee House in Albany marks its first anniversary in business later this month, and a big anniversary bash is slated to take place on Friday, December 2 featuring the Lucky Jukebox Brigade, the Sunny Side of the Street Band and Olivia Quillio. Admission is free. It’s no easy feat to keep a new venue in operation for a year – especially in the current economic climate. So congratulations go out to owner-operator Anton Pasquill and everybody else who has made HRCH such a cool new venue for live music. Happy birthday, and here’s to many more!
Known for his cuttingly ribald lyrics and his no-holds-barred take on rock and roll, Tom McWatters has upped the ante with a stunning collection of exceedingly well-written rockers, ballads and classic pop tunes on “A Beast Among the Civilized”, his second release as a solo artist.
Backed by some of the very best local musicians going – Bob Buckley of the Kamikaze Hearts on bass and piano; Charmboy’s Eric Halder on lead guitar; and man about town Steve Candlen on the Bonham-esque backbeats – McWatters has never sounded better as a vocalist, the Seger/Springsteen bellow of his Sense Offender days maturing into a more versatile and expressive instrument that sees him as possibly the area’s reigning king of blue-eyed soul, now that Sean Rowe has signed to Anti-.
After reading a glowing profile in The New Yorker last spring and hearing about her guest spots with Prince and Joe Lovano, I admit I expected to be blown away last Sunday night at The Egg, when the Grammy-nominated singer and double bassist Esperanza Spalding graced us with her unique vision of classic jazz tempered with classical music. What I took away was an abundance of ambition which often overshadowed this artist’s still maturing compositional skills.
Things started promisingly, with Spalding taking a seat stage left to take her shoes off and sip a bit of red wine, proffering a toast to the audience afterwards – one of the more charming ways to open a performance by such a ballyhooed performer. The curtains then opened to reveal her band, the Chamber Music Society, built around the string section of Sara Caswell (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and Jody Redhage (cello). The group launched into a sinuous and wordless melodic excursion named “Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which featured plenty of scatting from the band leader. Spalding’s range and timbre is reminiscent of the constrained mezzo soprano of Diana Ross, a not so compelling voice to feature on such convoluted melodic flights. Things continued in much the same vein with “Little Fly” and “Really Very Small”, with Spalding using imagery of wind, leaves and insects to convey some sort of wind-blown motif, appropriate for one of the coldest nights this region has ever seen (outside the comfy confines of The Egg, temps were reaching down to -15F.)
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