Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Nancy Boys - Live 2019.03.16 Madonna, Berlin, Germany

Yes, it's St. Patrick's Day, and you've probably figured out what my first name is. Oddly, out of some sense of shyness or contrarianism, I've rarely celebrated the day in any particular fashion. I never went to any of the parades in any of the cities I've lived in. The most I can say is that in 2005, my parents took me to see The Elders, an Irish-American folk-rock band based in Kansas City. Well, this year, I for once had a reason to celebrate: a colleague invited me to see him play at a beloved whisky bar on the eve of the holiday.

Artist: The Nancy Boys
Venue: Madonna
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 16 March 2019

The Nancy Boys are in infrequently-performing Irish folk band. They appeared as a five-piece: a guitarist/vocalist, a mandolinist/vocalist, a cellist, saxophonist/flutist, and a percussionist. They were crammed on a small stage, unamplified, in a loud bar full of revelers, but I managed to squeeze right in front for the perfect position to hear every note.

For being a band that do not all inhabit the same city and that claim not to have performed together since the previous St. Patrick's Day, they played two solid sets of music. There were a few rough edges, but they just laughed it off and kept going. I doubt most people even noticed, and their high spirits and playful style meant that any such trivialities were easy to ignore.

Their repertoire consisted of a mix of traditional Irish folk songs and classic rock performed in a folk arrangements, including songs like "The Weight", "Dancing in the Moonlight", "A Rainy Night in Soho", "A Horse with No Name", "You Can't Always Get What You Want", and of course "Whiskey in the Jar". The band emphasized vocal harmonies and big sing-alongs, but gave the saxophone, flute, and cello room for the occasional solo.

I spent the hours leading up to midnight enjoying the best whisky I've ever tasted and mesmerized by the talents of performers that seemed to just pick up and play songs as if they were emblazoned into their subconscious. They joked frequently about not knowing how to play the songs, and often cursed bemusedly when looking at the next song on the setlist. But this was a farce: they performed the tunes with passion and got me singing along without me even realizing it.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin - Live 2019.02.23 Kino Babylon, Berlin, Germany

Just over ten years ago I wrote my second film review and first soundtrack review of the Moroder version of Metropolis. I loved the film, although I criticized that version and particularly the soundtrack. I'd already seen the 2001 restored version, but the Argentinian footage that led to the 2010 restoration hadn't been found yet. Thanks to the wonderful Webster University Film Series, I saw that version shortly after moving to St. Louis for a second time, which ended up reuniting me with several old friends. The same film series had introduced me to another concept a few years earlier, before I'd even started this blog: silent films with live musical accompaniment. While a student at Webster, I'd caught a few examples of this. The most notable was Text of Light, which paired experimental musicians with experimental silent films. Yesterday, I saw these two threads unite.

Event: Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin
Venue: Kino Babylon
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 23 February 2019

The Kino Babylon is a 90-year-old theater, apparently the last venue built specifically for silent film screenings in Germany. It's beautiful and comfortable, and it features an orchestra pit and a cinema organ. The pit is now inhabited by the Babylon Orchester Berlin, supposedly the first silent film orchestra to be founded in the 21st century. For their first project, they chose Metropolis, appropriately filmed primarily in Berlin and neighboring Potsdam.

I'll refrain from going into great detail into the plot of Metropolis or the backstory of its restoration, as others have done it better than I ever could. Nonetheless, there are a few points I'd like to mention. The many rounds of editing done to the film after its poorly-received debut is frustrating to consider, and the effort to reconstruct it was long and torturous to a degree that perhaps no other film has ever required. What is fascinating to me is that one of the keys to putting the pieces back together again (and figuring out what is still missing) was the original score by Gottfried Huppertz.

My original impression of seeing the 2001 version of the film was that the plot was convoluted. Several characters and plot points had been almost completely removed from most edited versions, and even when those points were explained with title cards, it just didn't entirely make sense. The tempo and flow were also a mess. When I reviewed Moroder's version from 1984, I claimed that "most of plot essentials remain". But after seeing the 2010 version, that statement just doesn't hold up. Now that the film can be seen with almost all the original footage (and properly sequenced to boot), it's an entirely different experience. The plot is much more cohesive and there are fewer obvious holes. However, that doesn't mean that plot is particularly good. The confused combination of Marxism, expressionism, horror movie cliché, heavy-handed religious symbolism, anachronistic 1920s fashion, and sci-fi futurism doesn't always come together well. That said, it looks fantastic and I love the acting.

Seeing the movie with live orchestral accompaniment made the experience all the more engrossing. The emotional movement driven by the score was made substantially more dramatic. For most of the screening, I was so captivated that I ceased paying critical attention to the performance and just enjoyed and absorbed it. Since that happens to me so rarely, I can only credit the musicians with doing their job quite successfully. There were a few points at which the timing seemed just barely off, but considering the incongruities between the original score and the available film version, that's probably inevitable. The only other criticism was that the original cinema organ was out of commission and under repair, so we instead just got an electronic keyboard, which was a conspicuous downgrade. On the whole, though, the thrill of surging crescendos at the peak of the action and the percussive punches matching the characters' movements more than made up for it.

For the modern movie-goer, this event is certainly the most ideal environment for experiencing Metropolis in its full glory. The footage is probably about as good as it will ever get, the musicians are well-versed in the score, and the venue is a delight. What more could you want?

Score: A

P.S. It is pure coincidence that just last week I reviewed another film with a complicated backstory, Amazing Grace!

P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Britta / Barbara Morgenstern / Mint Mind - Live 2019.02.18 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany

I was only recently tuned into Barbara Morgenstern, and when I learned she'd be playing a show with Britta at a great venue in my neighborhood, I was sold. Britta, oddly enough, entered my awareness many years ago at the height of my Smiths fandom thanks to their delightful "Wie ein Smith-Song" [sic].

Artists: Britta / Barbara Morgenstern
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 18 February 2019
Opening Act: Mint Mind

As if the co-headliners weren't enough, they still had an opening act: Mint Mind. Fronted by guitarist/vocalist Rick McPhail (perhaps better known as part of Tocotronic), they played a slightly scuzzy blend of old-school garage rock and punk. They reminded me a bit of 80s Sonic Youth but with less of a political angle. The lyrics I could follow were mostly about motorcycles and similar rock 'n' roll fare with only mildly wry deviations. I liked the vaguely psychedelic drone of the guitar fuzz, but I found it a bit odd that in lieu of a bassist, they had a second guitarist that almost exclusively played bass riffs. The cover of Billy Bragg's "A New England" was pleasant if unexciting, and the closing number was an amusing take on the Sesame Street tune "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon".

[Mint Mind.]

Barbara Morgenstern appeared on stage accompanied by Christian Biegai on baritone sax. She played a keyboard to the beat of a drum machine, but also added some effects, loops, and processing to build up the sound. (Biegai did some of the same as well.) She focused on songs from her latest album, Unschuld und Verwüstung, but whereas the studio recordings are heavily electronic and a bit cold, the live renditions felt a bit warmer and more human, perhaps closer to the sound of her earlier albums. This impression was emphasized by her animated and excited demeanor. I appreciated the lyrics I could understand and I liked the subtle (and occasionally unsubtle) touches that Beigai's bari sax added. Some of the instrumental passages went on a bit long, but Morgenstern's keyboard skills and vocals were impressive and well-matched with her electronic production.

[Barbara Morgenstern with Christian Biegai.]

I'm still not entirely sure what I like so much about Britta, but they strike some sort of chord that works for me. They're a bit simple and unrefined, yet they have a subtle charm. Their music is approachable and instantly familiar. Maybe I just like their style of social commentary. At any rate, they were a bit loose on stage, but they seemed to be having fun with it, and musically it still worked. Vocalist/guitarist Christiane Rösinger was humorous but unapologetic. Barbara Wagner mostly played rhythm guitar, which left enough room for Julie Miess' bass (and occasional keyboards) to fill a lot of harmonic space, and thankfully she was up to the task. The core trio was rounded out by the energetic and precise Sebastian Vogel on drums. They didn't offer "Wie ein Smith-Song", but of course they played their signature tune, "Lichtjahre voraus", which is still just as relevant today as it was in 2003. I didn't catch any new songs, but if this reunion is for real, I wonder where it will lead them. It might not be Rock am Ring or Rock am See, but I hope they stay an active unit.


Mint Mind: C+
Barbara Morgenstern: A-
Britta: B

P.S. Thanks to Jochen!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Amazing Grace (2018)

One of the many joys of living in Berlin is being able to see films premiering at one of the most important film festivals of world, the Berlinale (officially the "Berlin International Film Festival"), with hardly any effort. However, if you stay clear of Potsdamer Platz (as most locals do), the festival is actually easy to overlook as a resident. That's what happened to me last year. This year, I almost suffered the same fate, but I at last came to my senses and managed to get tickets for Amazing Grace.

The backstory is already gripping without knowing much about the actual content. A young Sydney Pollack was given the opportunity to film a young Aretha Franklin at her commercial peak, recording a hugely successful gospel double album live in a baptist church in Los Angeles. However, he didn't do anything to note which cameras were recording which songs on which reel, and the effort of synchronizing the audio to the video was such a tedious and challenging chore that everyone involved gave up.

Sydney Pollack kept the idea alive, though, and right before he died in 2008, he passed the project over to Alan Elliott. Elliott, aided by modern computing, was finally able to get the synchronization job done, only to be blocked from releasing the film by Aretha Franklin herself. She was apparently upset about money, a missing contract, or permission, but after her death last year, her estate finally assented to the distribution of the film. Almost 47 years after the two nights of the performance, the film started making the festival rounds.

The film has almost the same running time as the original album (just under an hour and a half). There are no unreleased songs, almost no rehearsal footage, and very little in the way of framing the performances. The choir marches in in full silver-vested glory, the Reverend James Cleveland introduces Aretha, and about half of the songs from the first night at shown. It switches to the second night for the rest of the songs plus a scene introducing Clara Ward, who alternates between sitting awkwardly and dancing frantically, and Aretha's father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, who delivers a speech about Aretha's gospel roots.

Regardless of how one feels about gospel, the music is stirring, and Aretha's performance is stellar. She doesn't say a lot (Cleveland handles most of the hyping), and the only apparent emotion she shows is deep passion for the music. It is that very intensity that makes her entrancing. She plays piano on a couple songs and she does it without even looking or seeming to notice the effort; her voice doesn't even register the distraction. The rest of the band is similarly talented, although they are generally overwhelmed (or at least overshadowed) by the handclapping and vocals of Aretha and the powerful and enthusiastic Southern California Community Choir.

There is some irony that the weakest song of the set is the title track itself, "Amazing Grace". Aretha's version is overlong, melodramatic, and exaggerated. However, the rest of the material is great. Even for the non-religious, the lyrics are inspirational, and the impassioned spirituality of the performers and the highly responsive audience make the whole thing feel like an overdue celebration. It's easy to get carried along. Everyone appears to be having a good time. The audience is incredibly thrilled to be there and they show it.

I'll admit that I might not have sought out this movie if I hadn't stumbled across it on the Berlinale schedule and gotten taken in by the story. I'm glad I went, though; it was uplifting and insightful. I could've done without cameos by the Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, and I would've appreciated some more footage of the rehearsals, but there wasn't much chaff in what did make the cut. It was a strong performance and a significant moment in musical history, so it's our luck that someone had the bright idea of filming it all.

Score: B+


P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Hans-Joachim Roedelius - Live 2019.01.27 Auster-Club, Berlin, Germany

Artist: Hans-Joachim Roedelius
Venue: Auster-Club
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 27 January 2019

Hans-Joachim Roedelius opened the show by talking about his autobiography and then playing a recording of a classical composition by an 18th century ancestor named Johann Christian Roedelius. He cited a contemporaneous review of this ancestral Roedelius that described his music as light, agreeable, and entertaining. I can't recall or convey the poetry of the original German as effectively as I'd like, but the somewhat condescending implication was that the music was not particularly arty or serious. The modern Roedelius delighted in the description and said that he hoped his own work could be described similarly.

Despite being surrounded by a keyboard, two laptops, and assorted other electronics, he spent most of the evening DJing CDs. I'm not even sure that everything he spun for us was by him! Most of the tunes were ambient or at least soothing and peaceful. However, one had a more sprightly drum machine that reminded me of Harmonia or Sowiesoso, and as the night drew on, more of his picks had pop and jazz rhythms and occasionally even vocals (from other performers). A couple tracks would've been called chillwave if they had been made today by someone a quarter of his age. The biggest surprise was a song with a hip-hop beat that featured German rapping from Roedelius! It was just a recording, but still: it was well executed and somehow not embarrassing.

When he wasn't working his walkmen, he read excerpts from his autobiography, played a few numbers on his keyboard, and shared some of his favorite poems (including at least one from himself). The texts varied from the existential and almost spiritual to a thorough run-down of every health problem he has suffered and an extended ode to his wife in honor of a birthday. Instead of an encore, he closed the show with a plea to create not just for oneself but for the betterment of each other and nature.

Over the course of the night, I gradually started to understand what Roedelius meant about living up the quote about his ancestor's music. Cluster and Harmonia were always more about mood and texture than any specific message or medium. I was also hardly surprised to learn that Roedelius worked as a masseur and physiotherapist before starting his musical career. He's well trained in relaxing people and putting them at ease. If one bit of meaning does escape from his music, it's the encouragement of connection to fellow humans and to the natural world.

Roedelius's show was unusual and yet a pleasure. I would've preferred a more active performance, but I can't blame an 84-year-old for taking it easy and telling stories. Besides, the show was cheap and the venue rather unintimidating. I liked the warm and positive tone he set, and his words carried depth and meaning (to the extent I could keep up with the German). I feel like I learned something from him. He said people often ask him if he feels old or whatever, but he said feels like he's been around forever, and he hoped we'd get to feel that, too!

Score: B-

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Girls - Live 2019.01.26 ORWOhaus, Berlin, Germany

Artist: Girls
Venue: ORWOhaus
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 26 January 2019

Admittedly, this show came up in my radar via Facebook. The tagline was "GIRLS - the reincarnation of a forgotten all-female-proto-Krautrock-showband from Southern Germany (1967-71). GIRLS - die experimentelle Tanzkapelle (1967/2019). GIRLS - the female source of Krautrock?" This is the power of well-targeted marketing: I was hooked immediately. I barely looked into the details beyond noticing that information about the original incarnation of the band was extremely scarce and that the show would be taking place in Marzahn, an outlying part of Berlin mostly known for its drab Plattenbau.

Finding the venue was a challenge in itself. After a seemingly endless tram ride, I exited into a massive yet deserted street in the rain and set off in what seemed like the right direction. A well-placed sign guided me to the rear of a building (on Frank-Zappa-Straße), but upon entering, I was left to wander the halls and stairs until I found the commotion and a person taking money.

When the band came on stage after an uncharacteristic 35-minute delay from the scheduled start time, I was given my first surprise: only one of the members was a woman, and none of them looked to be old enough to have been performing in 1967. However, as they lurched into their first song, "Nicht anfassen" ("Don't Touch"), I stopped worrying about the backstory and just got sucked in.

Of all the words in the tagline, the only one that was inarguably true was "experimentelle". The music was disassociative, noisy, and heavily influenced by dada. There were some bits of early Can-like Krautrock, although very little of the steady driving rhythm á la Kraftwerk or Neu! that one might expect when hearing that term thrown around. (Whether it counts as "proto" anything is debatable.)

Instead, drummer "Moon de Marzan" (Maurice de Martin) was fierce and dynamic. The bass of "Stella Mars" (Susanne Sachsse) was minimal and primarily purely rhythmic. Her vocals were mostly spoken or shouted with bilingual lyrics confronting commodification, societal norms, and gender roles. She competed for space with the trombone, trumpet, melodica, recorders, and various effects of "Vally Cloud" (Hilary Jeffery). These same effects often merged with the guitar effects of "Ida van Selbst" (Dirk Dresselhaus) to build a pulsing wall of sound. At other times, the music became sparse and scattered, with bursts of percussion or noise punctuating the tense silence. One song was basically doom. Another was a funk rip. Some bordered on free jazz. Their playfulness and unconventionality recalled Kleenex/Lilliput, and I was also reminded of the noise scene I used to see all the time when I lived in St. Louis.

[With the "Man with the Gin" on guest vocals. Note Sachsse's plastic bag on her microphone, used to simulate a shaker.]

I thoroughly enjoyed the music I was presented with, and yet part of me also felt duped. On one hand, if they hadn't promoted themselves so deftly, I would've missed a delightful and unique concert experience. On the other, their presentation is a farce. Apparently Maurice de Martin is the son of the original band's drummer, and when she died at age 23, the band disintegrated. Their legacy supposedly consists of a badly damaged 20-minute cassette, a few reviews in local papers, some notes and journals, and the drumset that de Martin played on. While de Martin claims to have been heavily influenced by those remnants and the stories of his family, the rest of the contemporary band has no such connection. In fact, Sachsse claimed to know nothing about the original band's music except for what de Martin has told her. While I'm impressed that the band wanted to keep alive the memory of a fascinating historical oddity, their claim to be a "reincarnation" of the same band is rather tenuous. Myth-making is no joke, and the only reason I can't be mad about it is because it worked.

Score: B

Local promotion of the band with most of the same information (German)
A taz article that actually digs quite a bit deeper and includes a photo of the original band (German)

P.S. Thanks to John!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg / Can Tribute - Live 2018.12.16 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany

Of the four "core" or (loosely speaking) "original" members of the legendary Can, only one is still alive: Irmin Schmidt. Best known as the dramatic keyboardist, he now is mostly busy with film soundtracks. In recognition of his talents and legacy, this concert paired Schmidt the composer with Schmidt the influential sound synthesist. It seemed like an odd concept, but well worth the chance.

Event: Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg / Can Tribute
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 16 December 2018

Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg setlist:
01. Filmmusiken I
02. Filmmusiken II
03. Filmmusiken III
04. Can Dialog: Halleluhwah
05. Can Dialog: One More Night
06. Can Dialog: Spoon

Can Tribute setlist:
01. Vitamin C [featuring Peaches]
02. Bel Air [featuring Bettina Köster]
03. Don't Say No [featuring Tikiman]
04. Deadlock [featuring Gemma Ray]
05. I Want More [featuring Gemma Ray]
06. She Brings the Rain [featuring Bettina Köster]
07. Mother Sky [featuring Tikiman]
08. Halleluhwah [featuring Peaches]
09. ...and More [with everyone]

The night began with Irmin Schmidt conducting the Deutsche Filmorchester Babelsberg, based in nearby Potsdam. They performed about 45 minutes worth of symphonic music apparently gathered from Schmidt's various soundtrack works and arranged by Gregor Schwellenbach. Without the intended film accompaniment, the music was disembodied and abstract. I (unsurprisingly) didn't recognize any of the compositional elements. The instrumentation was rarely particularly technically challenging and instead focused more on mood and atmosphere. Many sections relied on tension and heavy suspense. Unusual percussion abruptly interrupted the quiet moments. The one extended section of serenity and melody was followed by an equally long section of dissonance and uncomfortable tone clusters. The effect was a bit disconcerting as the jumbled themes jumped from scene to scene.

This was followed by "Can Dialog", a "composition for a large orchestra" in three parts by Schmidt and Schwellenbach. In total, the work lasted about 30 minutes. Each of the three parts seemed to primarily revolve around one of Can's most famous songs. In each case, it wasn't initially obvious what was what, and there seemed to be elements of other songs mixed in as well. The composers freely reinterpreted the original works and let them grow into new directions with logical extensions. The performance was more aggressive, upbeat, and physically challenging than the film soundtrack sections. The orchestra was not always as tight as they could've been, but they brought a delightful energy that I'd rarely seen before in a symphonic setting. Similarly, there was far more fast-paced repetition and propulsive percussion than I was used to. The unpredictability made it quite enjoyable despite any faults.

[Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg.]

After a break to reconfigure the stage, the second half of the night commenced with a Can Tribute led by Automat, a Berlin-based band featuring Jochen Arbeit (of Einstürzende Neubauten) on guitar, Achim Färber on drums, and Georg Zeitblom on bass. They were augmented by Max Loderbauer on keyboards and synthesizer and Andrew Zammit on percussion and more keyboards. Vocals were handled by trading off between four Berlin-based performers: Peaches, Bettina Köster, Tikiman, and Gemma Ray.

Peaches started off with an aggressive take on "Vitamin C". It was a good way to get things going, but the music didn't quite gel. This was followed by an abbreviated but formless version of "Bel Air" led by Bettina Köster, perhaps best known for fronting Malaria!. Unfortunately, the band wasn't able to capture the beauty of the original, and Köster's raw energy only seemed to throw it off. Tikiman's rendition of the latter-day "Don't Say No" managed to get a bit funkier, but his mic was initially inaudible and he seemed to have trouble getting into it.

[Can Tribute with Bettina Köster.]

Much to my surprise, it was Gemma Ray's versions of "Deadlock" and "I Want More" that finally convinced me that the show was going somewhere. I barely knew her beforehand, and considering her background in retro-noir blues, I wasn't exactly expecting her to fit into the right vibe. However, her voice was the most powerful and effective of the four, and her guitar added just the right touch of additional melody to the blend. Arbeit spent most of the night playing in the same effects-heavy style as he does with Neubauten, again often with an ebow, which meant that he was building more of a soundbed than taking the lead. Ray finally took that role. Her parts were generally fairly simple, but they were exactly what was needed. She also wasn't afraid to experiment: she kept a large knife wedged behind her instrument's neck that she occasionally wielded against the strings.

After that, Ray stuck around on guitar for the rest of the night. Köster came back out to sing "She Brings the Rain", and this time, her vocal performance suitably matched the band's restraint and it came off beautifully. Similarly, when Tikiman came out for a truncated "Mother Sky", he seemed in his element and the band worked up a powerful groove. Peaches came back for "Halleluhwah", which initially seemed like an odd choice after the orchestra had already done a version of it. The tribute band's version was another shortened take, but it's hard to complain about anything when given a convincing performance of that irresistible rhythm. Färber and Zeitblom held it down with fluid skill and Peaches had fun invoking the spirit of Suzuki.

For the final number, all four vocalists came out to do "...and More", the simplistic b-side version of "I Want More". It still jammed and they clearly had fun with it, but it made me wonder why that was the song they chose to close on. Of all the idiosyncratic, unique, and influential songs from Can, they chose the one that was a deliberately derivative alternate version of a song they'd already done. And that was it! The tribute didn't even last a full hour.

[Can Tribute with Peaches, Tikiman, Gemma Ray, and Bettina Köster. Note Ray's knife!]

The concept of the evening was a bit ill-defined, but it was cool to see so many famous figures united in their Can fandom, and the juxtaposition of modern orchestra against a backwards-looking rock tribute was amusing. While Schmidt's film music was only mildly pleasant, his reimagining of Can's classics was perhaps the highlight of the night. The tribute took some time to get its footing, but they largely lived up to the premise. They were never going to best the originals, but they got to play around and experiment with the themes, and if they were halfway successful, then they reached their goal. My only real disappointment was that Schmidt didn't stick around to play the keyboards in the tribute band!

Irmin Schmidt & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg: B
Can Tribute: B-