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Phone calls as performance … OK, how weird does this piece get?

The questions and puzzled looks continue to mount each day. “Do I really have to go alone?” “If I don’t like it, can I walk out?” “Are they really in India? Do I call them or do they call me?” “So what makes this a performance?” Our presentation of Call Cutta in Box in January […]

Credit: Cameron Wittig

Minneapolis's IDS tower is the site of "Call Cutta in a Box." Credit: Cameron Wittig

The questions and puzzled looks continue to mount each day.

“Do I really have to go alone?”

“If I don’t like it, can I walk out?”

“Are they really in India? Do I call them or do they call me?”

“So what makes this a performance?”

Our presentation of Call Cutta in Box in January has people intrigued and perhaps a bit anxious. Allow me to allay some fears. I caught the work last January in NYC but before I made my appointment, I waffled through my own slight suspicions … this sounds so odd ­­- how could this be entertaining? … there’s a real chance it could be dull or simply intrusive … maybe I’m not wanting to give anything of myself today. I chose to ignore my instincts and take the plunge. It proved to be one of the most memorable performance experiences I have had, and believe me, I’ve had a few.

Maybe it was the anonymity (if I felt inclined, I could tell this person anything I wanted, we would probably never meet), or being alone in a strange office, or perhaps it was the thousands of miles between us. Whatever it was, I was completely engaged in this piece and found it absorbing, subtly mysterious, and utterly charming. My call center agent, Alakananda, elegantly guided me along our increasingly interactive (and surprise-filled) conversation, and we freely exchanged ideas on geography, work, religion, art, family – not exactly soul-searching metaphysical stuff, but I felt that there was a deeper connection, like she was an old dear friend that I had just met.

IDS Tower Office

As this “phone play” is a connection between two people that shadows in and out between performance and real life, no two interactions will be exactly alike. So I’d suggest you make an appointment with a friend (we have set up the piece so that it runs in two offices simultaneously), then grab a pint or some palak paneer after the experience and talk it all over. Take a 60-minute chance – it may change the way you think about our weird wired world, who we are, and why on earth are we in Minnesota in January. This memorable experience (with great views from the IDS Tower!) is certain to spark contemplative smiles and a fresh set of questions.

Call Cutta in a Box: An Intercontinental Phone Play by proformance group Rimini Protokoll runs the entire month of January 2010. Click here for tickets and show information.

Daniel Foster on capturing L.A.’s Watts Towers on film

Writer, filmmaker, and visual artist Daniel Foster has created a film projection backdrop for The Watts Towers Project , the performance by Roger Guenveur Smith that comes to the Walker January 21-23, as part of the 2010 Out There series. Here, he shares his process and his personal experience with the Watts Towers, the Los […]

Writer, filmmaker, and visual artist Daniel Foster has created a film projection backdrop for The Watts Towers Project , the performance by Roger Guenveur Smith that comes to the Walker January 21-23, as part of the 2010 Out There series. Here, he shares his process and his personal experience with the Watts Towers, the Los Angeles “outsider” art landmark.

From Daniel Foster:

I had not seen the Watts Towers since 1984, and even then I viewed only the outside of the skeletal forms rising like sci-fi creatures from the bleakest of Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Like most Los Angeles residents, I didn’t understand the Towers, and I didn’t make much of an effort to do so. I knew they were a National Historic Landmark, a set of 17 interconnected sculptures, the tallest 99 feet, which took 33 years for Italian immigrant Simon Rodia to build. But leaving my cozy Los Feliz neighborhood to visit them . . . well, wouldn’t a visit to MOCA followed by a cappuccino at the museum café seem more sensible? And safe?

All this changed when I was introduced to Roger Guenveur Smith’s compelling vision of the Towers in his solo piece, The Watts Towers Project, which will be presented at the McGuire Theater January 21, 22 and 23, 2009. I was asked to create a 70 minute art film, projected on two screens that backdrop his trenchant, spoken jazz performance.

After visiting the Towers again, I decided to create a dreamscape film that reveals the eclectic details that Rodia had packed into his life’s work: the brilliant blue-violet bottom of a Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia bottle, a river of 7 Up bottles concretized in place, and Rodia’s ladder of hearts, embedded with tiles ascending to the sky, among other elements.

I wanted these images to move, and to move you. Moreover, I wanted to reflect Simon Rodia’s genius for haphazard beauty.

I was granted permission to photograph the Towers, inside and out – on a February day with a fortuitous light rain. The moisture leant a gleam to the black spires and the artful bottles, dishes, shells, tiles and crockery that lay hidden at its heart.

I set up my equipment and began shooting, feeling like a kid in a playground built for my solo enjoyment. (Normally, the Towers can only be viewed by group tour.) Being alone in those interior mazes, peering through a tunnel lens aimed at delight after delight, was akin to being on a drug trip. Seven hundred and eighty-two photos later I went home.

For the art film, I narrowed the images down to fifty, then thirty. I cut out details in Photoshop – green bottles, a mother-of-pearl tile, a deep crack across a rose-patterned crockery tile – then layered on blurred, black-and-white backgrounds. I stacked and then composited the images in an editing program, isolating various elements.

In the final film, objects appear and disappear and cracks in the tiles grow and recede over nine minute intervals, with each screen showing different, yet paired images.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqrWmS-TeK8[/youtube]

The effect produced nearly imperceptible alterations in the images, allowing the audience to absorb both performer and the film. (The speed of the accompanying video is greatly accelerated.) While most of the film is shot tight, revealing intimate details of the Towers’ interior, I wanted the film to finally breathe at the end, to soften into space, much as Smith does in his performance. So I shot the end images from beneath the Towers, looking up toward the sky, as if peering through black cages. The Los Angeles Times termed the premiere “one of the most original theatrical performances of the season.”

In the end I wanted to create a successful projection design, but more than that, I wanted to honor Simon Rodia. I wanted to discover and touch the essence of his work, lift it into high relief and present it bathed in the ineffable. Where it belonged.

Maybe even more than all of that, I simply wanted to do this: I wanted to show you The Towers — in the way that I finally could see them.

Click here for tickets and information on The Watts Towers Project.

Click here for more views of the Watts Towers from the Flickr pool.

Erik Friedlander and This American Life On the Road

As the applause started at the McGuire theater, its curtain revealed a disarmingly simple set-up for Erik Friedlander, just a cello and a laptop controlled with a tap of his foot. The evening’s performance of Block Ice and Propane was a mix of performance and storytelling, giving the audience a glimpse into not only the […]

Erik Friedlander, Erik Friedlander

Erik Friedlander, Photo by Emiliano Neri

As the applause started at the McGuire theater, its curtain revealed a disarmingly simple set-up for Erik Friedlander, just a cello and a laptop controlled with a tap of his foot. The evening’s performance of Block Ice and Propane was a mix of performance and storytelling, giving the audience a glimpse into not only the genesis of individual songs’ composition, but the experiences that inspired Friedlander to write them in the first place.

Rather than just a nostalgic look back at a by-gone era of family road trips, Block Ice and Propane explored many of the complex, and often contradictory, emotions that occur with any kind of journey, not just one on Route 66. Two in particular captured these emotions, “Homesick Melody” and the “Night White.” The first, a sadness for home countered by the excitement of the new, while the second, the melancholy of having a journey come to an end, buoyed by the comfort and happiness of coming home to the familiar. Friedlander’s music matched these moods perfectly, especially in conjunction with the images of the second piece, consisting mostly of dividing lines superimposed on each other, as Friedlander played elastically with time through melodies both melancholic and fulfilled.

The metaphor of the highway dividing line functions equally well for the pictures Friedlander chose from his father’s collection. These ranged from some of his well-known photos to intimate family shots in tents and campgrounds. So much of these pieces blurred the lines between familiar, rarefied, mundane, and surreal, the result not only of Friedlander’s eye, but also his ingenious usage of reflection, shadow, and perspective. There was the subtle reflective shot of a couple viewing Mt. Rushmore through binoculars, while the faces presented themselves in the window behind them; elsewhere in the performance, Friedlander displayed a double-exposed photograph, with the background a shot of clouds and the foreground a shot from the passenger seat out through the driver’s side now gloriously-illuminated window. If Friedlander’s photos captured moments in the journey, Bill Morrison’s video captured the movement of the journey itself, as clouds, scenery, and headlights whooshed past the camera.

The show verged on the predictable at times, with the music solidly illuminating the narrative and the images. For instance, “Cold Chicken,” a piece inspired by the elder Friedlander storming into a restaurant kitchen to forcefully return the dish that gives the piece its title, was appropriately chaotic and angry. “Pressure Cooking” featured long, sustained notes punctuated by jerks of the bow across the strings, while the easy-going, jaunty melody of “Yakima” deftly portrayed the personality of his Uncle Neil.

Sometimes, the visual dimension created a dissonance with the music accompanying it: on “Big Rig,” Friedlander’s bouncy, jig-like melody perfectly matched the scenery flying by in Morrison’s film, yet the clouds above that scenery had a strange, almost elongated and independent motion to them, a remarkable moment of visual disjunction, like seeing hubcaps mistakenly spinning backwards.

Such predictability, however, never really lessened my enjoyment of the performance. Part of this is due to Friedlander’s complete mastery of the instrument. At times, his cello sounded like a cross between a guitar and harp. Other times, using more extended techniques, it could sound equal parts scratchy and eerie, with a tuning fork used to haunting effect. The fact that this multitude of sounds was accomplished without digital processing makes it all the more remarkable.

Unfortunately, the concert ended far too soon, barely breaking an hour, which was more of a disappointment than anything within the concert itself. There wasn’t much more to be played from the CD, but especially for a show that cost more then $20, there could’ve been a bit more given to the audience, either in the form of playing the rest of the CD or playing other works as encores.

$13 Student Tix Still Available for Erik Friedlander

We’re all looking forward to Erik Friedlander’s performance this Saturday evening in the McGuire Theater (8 pm), and a limited amount of student tickets are still available for $13. Check out this video: [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmZU4CV3mgc[/youtube] Friedlander’s fellow musicians have already been raving about Block Ice & Propane. John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats said, “There’s a […]

We’re all looking forward to Erik Friedlander’s performance this Saturday evening in the McGuire Theater (8 pm), and a limited amount of student tickets are still available for $13.

Check out this video:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmZU4CV3mgc[/youtube]

Friedlander’s fellow musicians have already been raving about Block Ice & Propane. John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats said, “There’s a breathtaking lyricism at work in these new tunes, but it’s infused with an almost breezy touch: like swirling dust in beams of light, the melodies dazzle and hypnotize and float along on their own currents. Emotional but never sentimental, profound but without pretension — these songs wordlessly communicate more easily and openly than a dozen singer-songwriters furiously scribbling in notebooks.”

Q & A with 2 Performers from Choreographers’ Evening

Ryan Underbakke and Emily King were two of the intrepid performers at this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. Both graduates from the University of Minnesota, they have performed collaborations in London in addition to their work here. Ryan has a background in theater and has performed with Son of Semele and City Garage Theater companies in L.A., […]

Ryan and Emily

Ryan and Emily

Ryan Underbakke and Emily King were two of the intrepid performers at this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. Both graduates from the University of Minnesota, they have performed collaborations in London in addition to their work here. Ryan has a background in theater and has performed with Son of Semele and City Garage Theater companies in L.A., in addition to being a founding member of Giant Bird theater group. Emily’s background is in dance, and she just finished performing in Jon Ferguson’s Super Monkey in October at the Guthrie, and worked this past summer with choreographer Morgan Thorson on her piece Heaven, which will be shown at the Walker in March. I asked their opinions on the state of the local dance and theater communities and picked their brains on some of the separations between audiences and the arts. If only I had space herewith to chronicle all the dots that we connected! Here are some selections from an interview with them last week.

Jesse Leaneagh: Emily, I think we’ve talked about Morgan Thorson before, her Heaven piece that’s coming [to the Walker]…but I was interested in the extent you’ve worked with her in the past, your experiences with her?

Emily King: I met Morgan—I was working with Karen Sherman, her partner, two years ago, on a piece, that Karen did last fall at the Southern Theater, called Copperhead, kind of based on aggressor-victim violence/Manson family connections. Part one of Copperhead was a piece she did in her basement about mainly the Manson family and the Manson women. So I did that, and that’s kind of how I met Morgan. And they collaborated on a piece at the [University of Minnesota] that I was in, called Double Rainbow; it was because I worked with Karen, and then I worked with them together, and then for Heaven, I came on as an understudy and personal assistant to Morgan.

So I was with them all summer through the creation process…I would do whatever she needed; I would dance if somebody was gone, or I would videotape if she needed some rehearsal footage, or I would talk to her as an outside eye.

JL: Where did that all happen, was that in town here?

EK: That was here [in Minneapolis], and then she did a residency at the Walker for two weeks in August.

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JL: These are bigger questions, but they’re things the Walker is thinking about lately…I was wondering for the both of you, if you feel there’s a better way to connect our generation [twentysomethings] to dance, or a way to connect new audiences to dance, people who are unfamiliar with the medium?

EK: Well, we can both answer, but I think Ryan should answer first, because I’m curious to hear what would bring him into dance, as someone who is theater-trained, and coming into dance-based work….

Ryan Underbakke: I have to openly admit that, being trained in theater—different kinds of theater, realism, naturalism, Lecoq and abstraction—dance was always something that was frowned upon. In all of the training, it was even kind of a deterrent: it’s too dance-y, it looks like a dance piece—it was a bad thing. So meeting Emily and having conversations about what she thought was important in dance and what she saw in dance kind of trained my eye as well…I want to tell a story Emily told me—we saw quite a bit of dance in London and talked a lot about dance—Emily explained there’s this move called the arabesque, a ballet position, and it originated from this idea that seems very theatrical and very physical-theater, if I do say so myself, of trying to point to the moon—

EK: of trying to reach the moon—

RU: to reach the moon to the best of your ability, and it slowly became you tried to reach so high that your leg went up a little bit and higher and higher until it’s become this movement of just the leg going up without the connection to the moon necessarily, it’s become quite codified. I think that for me, as somebody who is just taking their first baby steps into a world that is much more recognizable to you [Emily], it’s that kind of codified work that keeps us out, and I think that goes across a lot of art, it’s a matter of—

JL: of seeing the meanings that were there in the beginning?

RU: exactly, and also what I mean by codified, there’s a code that an audience might not understand, and that’s very alienating. At LISPA (the London International School of Performing Arts) they always used this great term which is “the innocent audience”…so how can you connect with an innocent audience? I think that’s it, how do we get someone who’s been watching dance for 20 years, and someone who’s never seen dance, how does the innocent audience and the understood audience both enjoy it for the same reason?

EK: And it’s interesting too, the Walker is such a great place, there’s been so many amazing performances here, historically, I think about Trisha Brown who did some of her first experimental pieces in Loring Park… but so much dance occurs, almost in a way, behind closed doors, in these inaccessible places, and I think for kids our age that’s not appealing to put on a suit and go see that, or it’s just not a reality for a lot of people.

I’m curious about bringing art, and movement-based art, a little bit closer to people and having it be something they can interact with on a tangible level rather than something they have to seek out. I think for a place like the Walker, that brings in so many different movement and theater artists, as artists ourselves we can say we think this kind of piece connects better with people. But it’s interesting to think about how do you just bring a range of things to people?

Neither of us are on Twitter, but we talk to our friends about it, because we’re curious, but you can search for a subject, and everything that everybody all over the world has said about that subject that day will come up, so I’ve been thinking about that lately in terms of art, and getting it to more people, is that any little subject that this art deals with can easily be accessed by all these people, everywhere, and not just your facebook friends—

JL: like a global broadcast…

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My last question is I was wondering if you could share a current piece of inspiration. It could be connected to Choreographers’ Evening or something unrelated?

EK: Something that inspires us? Or that is meant to be inspirational for other people? [laughter]

RU: Like a cat poster…of a cat hanging, something like that?

EK: Hang in there!

RU: What’s actually inspiring us? Or what would inspire the masses, is that what you’re saying? [laughter]

JL: I need you to come up with a maxim, that I can publish, I’m making a book of inspirational quotes… No, I guess I just meant a piece of music, or art, or you can share something that would inspire others, [laughter] I’ll change that wording for the next interview: cut inspiration

RU: No, I love it, it’s way more inspirational, I’m inspired by people asking me about inspiration.

I think to be completely honest, Lost, the TV show, is an amazing inspiration. And by that I mean, it’s a primetime TV show, but what it does that I think is inspiring is that it lives in the question, I don’t think it’s afraid of the question, and the entire show is a great deal of questions, and I feel like it inspires a great deal of discussion and feedback, negative or positive, but it’s a good example of something that exists in kind of this global market that we talk about, this overarching thing that everyone can see, that’s not didactic, that’s not out to tell us anything, it’s out to ask us questions, and I think that’s extremely inspiring for me, to be honest.

Choreographers’ Evening 2009

(on behalf of Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, BodyCartography Project) Welcome to the Choreographers’ Evening blog! We love the lively conversation this blog has hosted for past Choreographers’ Evenings. It gives audiences room to voice their experiences and ask questions of the artists. This is a rare gift for choreographers to hear all kinds of […]

(on behalf of Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, BodyCartography Project)

BodyCartography Project

BodyCartography Project

Welcome to the Choreographers’ Evening blog!

We love the lively conversation this blog has hosted for past Choreographers’ Evenings.

It gives audiences room to voice their experiences and ask questions of the artists. This is a rare gift for choreographers to hear all kinds of feedback in a forum where they have an opportunity to respond. We think of it as a way for us all to share a stage together and a way of seeing inside of a dance.

So lets begin our conversation between audience, choreographers, dancers, dance docents and curators of the 37th annual Choreographers’ Evening.

Everyone’s experiences, opinions and questions are welcome! We hope that you will all contribute as writers or readers.

Charles Campbell has generously offered to moderate the blog.

Some ways to begin:

What do you remember?

What work did you empathize with?

Consider your physical sensations/feelings as a feedback tool and a way to begin crafting your response.

Exploratory and Infectious: Dafnis Prieto

Co-presented with the Northrop’s jazz series, last night’s concert marked the Minnesota debut of Cuban percussionist Dafnis Prieto. Prieto’s music revels in the fertile middle ground between free jazz and the straight-ahead jazz rooted in 1950s hard bop. The songs that made up the more than 80-minute set, many of which were from his recent […]

Dafnis Prieto

Dafnis Prieto

Co-presented with the Northrop’s jazz series, last night’s concert marked the Minnesota debut of Cuban percussionist Dafnis Prieto. Prieto’s music revels in the fertile middle ground between free jazz and the straight-ahead jazz rooted in 1950s hard bop. The songs that made up the more than 80-minute set, many of which were from his recent album Taking the Soul for a Walk, fluidly moved between composed and improvised. Surrounding Prieto were the other members of the sextet: Peter Apfelbaum (Tenor and Soprano Sax, Melodic, and Hand Percussion), Felipe Lamoglia (Alto and Soprano Sax), Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Manual Valera (piano), Charles Flores (bass), and, on one piece, dancer Judith Sanchez Ruiz.

As good as these musicians were, Prieto was obviously the star. Watching him move effortless across the drum set brought about not only the “How is one person can making all those sounds?” cliché, but rather that the sounds and polyrhythms he’s coaxing from his set somehow all fit together into a composite groove that’s as exploratory as it is infectious. At times Prieto looked like he was barely holding his sticks as he lightly struck the rims and edges of his cymbals, producing a sound like a collection of skittering bugs. At other moments, including a bit of boom-bap during a duet with pianist Valera, he was as loud as the most aggressive amateur banging away at the “Integrity of the Insider” exhibit of Haegue Yang in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery. A favorite technique for Prieto was to turn the snare off, thus making it another tom, resulting in a palette of four closely-pitched drums that he played like melodically rolling waves.

All that being said, the intimacy and tightness of the sextet made Prieto that much better. One of the best things about seeing good jazz live is to witness the subtle micro-interactions that make up a song, most of which are done on the spot. These are more than just smiles and nods, but rather the bounced back-and-forth of melodic and rhythmic fragments between soloists and members of the rhythmic section that show just how good a group is and how much they’re enjoying their work; this sextet had all of these characteristics in spades.

Before the night’s final song, Prieto grabbed a pair of claves and, after doing a bit of cheeky self-advertisement for Taking the Soul for a Walk, proceeded to wow the crowd one more time with an incredible display of mouth percussion, double- and triple-tonguing his way through myriad sounds and patterns. In a return to the most elemental of musical relationships—the hand and the voice—Prieto produced unbelievable music with the simplest of means, making what he creates with a full drum set and locked-in sextet that much more astonishing.

Reggie Wilson and Andreya Ouamba’s The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn

If anyone wants to discuss Reggie Wilson and Andréya Ouamba’s The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn, I think I’ll start things off with a question: What do you go to dance for—and to what extent did this dance give you that? And I’ll give a partial answer. One of the things I go to dance for is […]

If anyone wants to discuss Reggie Wilson and Andréya Ouamba’s The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn, I think I’ll start things off with a question:

What do you go to dance for—and to what extent did this dance give you that?

And I’ll give a partial answer. One of the things I go to dance for is kinesthetic pleasure—the feeling of the imagined body, the mental map of the body, moving along with the performers on stage. You’d think after five years of being a dance critic, not to mention twenty-five years of dancing, my system would be jaded, responsive only to the most unusual or extreme movements. But as far as I can tell, the kinesthetic sense doesn’t work like that. It’s one of the basic, inexhaustible pleasures of life, like sex or eating. Any time I see an arm reaching to the sky, urge spreading out through the ribcage, I feel the same thrill. Even the minute, waving permutations of a hand are magic.

The Good Dance definitely gave me that—all those sweeps and reaches, plus tiny engines of fine-grained coordination. But the pleasure wasn’t unadulterated. Wilson and Ouamba intentionally (I believe) cut through that pleasure in order to find another aspect of the dance.

I’ll stop there. But what other aspects were you looking for? And what did you find?

“The Good Dance” lives up to its name

Where to begin with the sublime Good Dance? Before the performance began, I was comparing the stage to that of another Walker dance performance this season, Bolero Variations. Whereas the stage for Raimund Hoghe was more mysterious, undefined, and open, the stage for The Good Dance is something circumscribed, bare, and exposed. There are no […]

Where to begin with the sublime Good Dance?

The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn

The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn

Before the performance began, I was comparing the stage to that of another Walker dance performance this season, Bolero Variations. Whereas the stage for Raimund Hoghe was more mysterious, undefined, and open, the stage for The Good Dance is something circumscribed, bare, and exposed. There are no curtains to hide behind like there were in Bolero. But The Good Dance is free from the heavy movements of Bolero, and it exists in a state of play with none of Bolero’s austerity.

Red lights and industrial beats open the show, and the music turns out to be a remix of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” the most jaw-dropping of the tracks on Aretha Franklin’s 1972 live album, Amazing Grace. The track is the most exceptional example I know of both the genre and improvisational genius found in gospel music—the gospel song to send to space—and The Good Dance moves within these rituals and improvisations. The music in Good Dance is so strong, so emotive, from the trance of R.L. Burnside-like blues to the guitar wizardry of Congolese musician Franco.

The Good Dance shifts into a state of play, with disposable water bottles half-empty/half-full kicked and thrown all over the stage. As the bottles are assembled, bowled over, and reassembled on the stage, they create the boundaries within which the dancers move. Since disposable water bottles seem to signify a disconnect from the natural world as much as being a vessel for the life-giving substance of water, it’s tempting to see the dancers moving between this dichotomy throughout the performance. And the water bottles seem to signify many non-literal things as well.

Reggie Wilson asks us to think about what a Good Dance would be in light of the many adherents to the “Good Book”(s). Evoking both the pleasure and pain of rituals, The Good Dance confronts us with the sacrifices necessary for transcendence. It also shows us that it’s only the performer—not the audience member—who can be the most passionate spectator, to both watch and be watched, and it is only the performer who is free to both move and be moved.

The Good Dance is a seduction, the performances of marionettes who are stringless for the first time. Ouamba himself is a tour-de-force. Two nights left; go see The Good Dance.

Jesse Leaneagh is a Performing Arts Intern for the 2009-2010 season

Life, Death, and Boisterous Joy with the Mountain Goats

I remember a quote from somewhere or someone that the best concerts should make you feel like you’ll never die. Whoever’s responsible for such wisdom is a kindred spirit of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. This is more than just the feeling of seeing an amazing show, which everyone at the Cedar was treated to. […]

I remember a quote from somewhere or someone that the best concerts should make you feel like you’ll never die. Whoever’s responsible for such wisdom is a kindred spirit of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.
Mountain_Goats_10_PP
This is more than just the feeling of seeing an amazing show, which everyone at the Cedar was treated to. Darnielle’s stage presence goes beyond the usual clichés of intense, high-energy, playful, exuberant. There is a happiness and comfort on-stage for him, it seems, a sense that he’d be the same way performing in front of 10 people as he’d be 10,000. His frequent shouts to band members, singing off-mic or moving away from the mic before finishing a line, and playful interactions with boisterous audience members exudes an unabashed joy that is neither forced nor presented as a mask.

Darnielle’s voice, a combination of singing, shouting, and preacherly oratory, is the Mountain Goats most recognizable elements, and it cut through the band even at its loudest moments. The group performed songs from a wide range of albums, many from their most recent record, The Life of the World to Come, but also older albums such as Heretic Pride, The Sunset Tree, and even more obscure albums such as Isopanisad Radio Hour and Full Force Galesburg.

Given his more recent exploration of religious themes and imagery—all of the songs on the most recent record take their cues and titles from specific Bible verses—Darnielle is well aware that we all die, and doesn’t shy away from this fact of life. One of the best lyrics of the entire concert is from “Isaiah 45:23,” from the perspective of a terminal cancer patient: “I won’t get better/but someday I’ll be free.” Others take a less individual perspective, referencing an apocalyptic “burning fuselage of my days” on “Psalms 40:2”

Most of the music that serves as these lyrics’ bed, though, didn’t match the morose, grotesque, even violent character of these and other lyrics. Much of it is bright folk-rock-pop that had the tightly-packed crowd moving as much as it could, exuding an optimism that not even the darkest lyrical subjects can overwhelm. And the band can flat-out rock. There were even some moments that I forgot this was a Walker show, like their encore performance of the raucously positive “This Year,” caring little for how aesthetically innovative the words or music might have been and simply the enjoying the abandon that comes with the best rock ‘n’ roll.

One of the things Darnielle and the Mountain Goats are best known for is their lo-fi sound, at least until his more recent albums. There was a nod to that, it seemed, with the choice of keyboard Darnielle used for songs like the darkly ponderous “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” another apocalyptic tale about the necessity of moving forward as the world ends around you. While on The Life of the World to Come, the piano parts are played on what sounds like your standard grand piano, the digital piano sounded slightly thin and tinny, the synthesized equivalent of a spinet. Whether a choice of economy over aesthetics, it just seemed to fit.
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Although lo-fi has become its own category of experimentation, the more traditionally experimental side of the night was presented by its opener, Final Fantasy (aka Owen Pallett). I’m a complete sucker for real-time digital looping, and Pallett uses the technique masterfully, recording highly intricate melody lines on keyboard and violin that danced polyphonically through the Cedar’s sound system. Pallett employed much more than loops, with octave transformations, distortions, delays, and other processing effects that heightened the power of his violin. Using a slight delay, he created the illusion of double-time pizzicato, while another time, he made a col legno intro (playing with the wood of the bow instead of the string) even more eerie through the use of a jittery echo. As opposed to Darnielle, Pallett’s warm, rich tenor voice often got lost in the swirling cascades of sound, becoming another instrumental voice. (Comparisons to Andrew Bird are unavoidable, and the two worked together on Pallett’s Pays to Please EP.) Pallett also joined Darnielle for a number of songs, including “Genesis 30:3,” about the “alternative living arrangements” of making a family with three instead of two, and “Orange Ball of Hate.” Before playing this last song, off  of 1994’s Zopilote Machine, Darnielle happily remarked that its gray hair had been shed with the infusion of Pallett’s musical voice.

In the midst of Darnielle’s solo set, a voice from the crowd called for him to do a backflip. Not missing a beat, Darnielle launched into a childhood story about trying to execute the maneuver on his parents bed when no one was looking. For him, not seeing it is the key: unseen, its perfection can never be questioned. The devoted fans who stayed and sang through Darnielle’s second encore, a communal re-telling of the Hold Steady’s “Positive Jam,” could’ve cared less about perfection; they were overjoyed simply to have seen.

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