Monday, April 22, 2019

Dance Craze (1981)


I recently had my attention brought to Dance Craze, a 1981 film depicting British ska bands on stage in the height of the second-wave 2 Tone revival. It's appropriate that I just saw The Specials live; the 2019 incarnation might not quite match the original 1981 version, but it got close. In any case, it's amazing to see the original lineup in full force, playing a bunch of their early classics.

Madness, still thickly steeped in ska, are also given a lot of screen time, and they earn it, particularly with their hilariously hyped rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". The Beat are also given a prominent place and perform at their peak.

The real highlights are The Bodysnatchers and The Selecter, two bands fronted by Black women that didn't last as long as some of the others. The Bodysnatchers are the only band in the film that are all women, and they only released two singles before dissolving. Considering the relative lack of available material from either band, the footage here is perhaps the best opportunity to experience them.

The only band that didn't speak to me was Bad Manners. Even they weren't particularly bad, but their stage antics and songwriting were conspicuously less refined. The film also inexplicably contains a six minute long interlude with old newsreel footage from 1959 about dance crazes. Presumably that segment is there to contextualize the wild youth of the day or to legitimize second-wave ska as the latest in a long string of ever-changing trends. Whatever the intention, it acts purely as a distraction and can safely be skipped entirely.

Other than the interlude, there is nothing to the film except the six bands performing on stage. Director Joe Massot made a solid choice to focus on the high-energy live acts and keep out (most of) the filler. The film is a blast, and almost every song and performer is solid. It reminds me of Urgh! A Music War from the same year, but it is far more focused and serves as a great document of a scene that splintered and shifted shortly soon thereafter.


Score: A-

Thanks to Slicing Up Eyeballs for their article!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Drenge / The Indian Queen - Live 2019.04.15 Kantine am Berghain, Berlin, Germany


I saw this concert more or less on a whim, knowing next to nothing about even the headliner.

Artist: Drenge
Venue: Kantine am Berghain
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 15 April 2019
Opening Act: The Indian Queen

The Indian Queen were a duo of just drums and guitar/vocals. Their style was hard, aggressive, and thrashy. The guitarist spent most of his time playing metal riffs with occasional breaks for strummed and/or muted sections with some shouted vocals. The drummer was propulsive and carefully followed the rhythmic breaks but offered few additional flairs. I could almost get into the intensity of it, but the vocals just weren't doing it for me. The guitarwork was impressive, but I can only get so much out of that technique, so most of what I appreciated was just the lock-in with the drums.

Drenge appeared in a more conventional rock format with a vocalist/guitarist, a lead guitarist/keyboardist, a bassist, and a drummer/vocalist. I was expecting something in the vein of garage rock or a bit of fun punk, and there were bits of both of those, but they started out by focusing on riffy hard rock and ended up going off in several directions. Most of these diversions were more interesting than their core rock sound. The large keyboard and effects rack was only used a few times, but always to good effect. Their mellower songs tended to be more expressive. One song could even have been categorized as sparse, and it was all the better for it. I again liked the energy they brought to the show, and the instrumental performances were good, but I still didn't find much to pull it together. The lyrics might've helped, but they were often drowned by guitars, and the sound system wasn't doing any favors. At least they could write some decent melodies, and the attempts at harmonies were pleasant when audible.

[Drenge.]

Scores:
The Indian Queen: C-
Drenge: C+

P.S. Thanks to Jochen and Matthew!

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Palais Schaumburg - Live 2019.04.05 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany


Palais Schaumburg came to my attention thanks to the excellent Verschwende deine Jugend oral history and compilation. Their two songs on the album, "Telephon" and "Wir bauen eine neue Stadt", are both unconventional, lyrically confusing, melodically simple, rhythmically creative, and full of weird sound effects and synthesizers. I bought their second album, Lupa (1982), while living in Frankfurt almost ten years ago, and I love its playful, funky, exploratory variety. Once I finally found a copy of their self-titled debut (1981), I was actually quite disappointed. The two tracks I already knew were as good as ever, but the rest felt like it was just second-rate material that was weird for the sake of being weird. Their third and final album, Parlez-Vous Schaumburg? (1984), is a third-rate excuse for dated synthpop. Despite the mixed track record, I thought it would be worth giving their show a chance.

Artist: Palais Schaumburg
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 05 April 2019

The current incarnation of Palais Schaumburg is the same as the quartet that recorded their debut album: vocalist/guitarist/synthesist Holger Hiller (who left shortly after the first album), synthesist/trumpeter Thomas Fehlmann (the only constant member), bassist/vocalist Timo Blunck, and drummer Ralf Hertwig. Despite their marketing language, this is not actually the original lineup; that would include drummer FM Einheit (who ultimately spent more time with Abwärts and Einstürzende Neubauten in particular).

For whatever reason, the band only played songs from the first album, the preceding singles, and a few new compositions that sounded a lot like the old ones. This restricted their palette substantially, and other than the two aforementioned "hits", few of the songs lived up to that standard. Most were in the same vein of dada bizarreness, but lacked any compelling elements of substance. Some were played with an aggressive rhythm that worked up the energy of the crowd, but the primary musical content was just repetitive bass and drum parts. The only other highlights were some sparser, spookier elements and of course the delightful array of synthesizer noises. Oddly, for the second encore, they just repeated "Wir bauen eine neue Stadt" in the same arrangement.

I suppose I should've known that if I didn't like half of the band's recorded material, I might not like the live show. I'd hoped for something more in the style of their second album, but they steered completely clear of that. The charm of their obtuseness has a limit and they reached it quickly. It might've helped if I could've understood the vocals better, but the mix was subpar. It also didn't help that a photographer spent half the show wandering around the stage taking pictures with a bright flash. All that said, I'm curious to see what comes of their new material. If they do release a new album, I'd still give it a chance!


Score: C

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Specials / Swutscher - Live 2019.04.03 Max-Schmeling-Halle, Berlin, Germany


The Specials were yet another band that I was introduced to via Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again. Despite their popularity in the UK, they'd never crossed my radar in the US-American heartland before that. With an unexpectedly strong new album at #1 in the UK charts, they are apparently back in the spotlight. This show was originally scheduled for the Columbiahalle, which is already a decently-sized venue, but it was relocated to a large sports arena in Mauerpark.

Artist: The Specials
Venue: Max-Schmeling-Halle
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 3 April 2019
Opening Act: Swutscher

Setlist:
01. Man at C&A
02. Rat Race
03. Do Nothing
04. Vote for Me
05. Friday Night, Saturday Morning
06. Embarrassed by You
07. Blank Expression
08. Doesn't Make It Alright
09. The Lunatics [Fun Boy Three song]
10. Blam Blam Fever [The Valentines cover] →
11. A Message to You, Rudy [Dandy Livingstone cover]
12. Stereotype
13. 10 Commandments [with Saffiyah Khan]
14. Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys [The Equals cover]
15. Nite Klub
16. Do the Dog [Rufus Thomas cover] →
17. Concrete Jungle
18. Monkey Man [Toots & The Maytals cover]
19. Gangsters
20. Little Bitch
21. Too Much Too Young

First Encore:
22. Breaking Point
23. Ghost Town

Second Encore:
24. Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think) [Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra cover]
25. You're Wondering Now [The Skatalites cover, with Saffiyah Khan]

Despite the advertised start time of 8pm, German 7-piece Swutscher came on stage 15 minutes early. They brought a bro-heavy attitude and played generic and sloppy barroom rockabilly and 90s macho-rock. It seemed like the only reason they were opening for The Specials was because they had a saxophonist and a lot of members on stage. The vocals were so distractingly bad that any good elements were completely overshadowed. They even did a messy version of The Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" in German, but the vocals were so terribly yelled that I couldn't understand them.

Then the strangest thing happened: they started playing a motorik beat and went into a long, psychedelic, pseudo-Krautrock jam. The song had a totally different groove and feel. It would've been awesome but for the vocals. They followed that with another long jam in a more classic rock style done surprisingly well. Why weren't all the songs like that? The last two songs hardly seemed like the same band.

The Specials eventually arrived with eight members: guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, vocalist Terry Hall, bassist Horace Panter, lead guitarist Steve Cradock, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, drummer Kenrick Rowe, trombonist Tim Smart, and trumpeter Pablo Mendelssohn. Notably absent were Jerry Dammers (who has avoided all reunions), Neville Staple, Roddy Radiation, and John Bradbury (who died in 2015). Three original members still in the fold ain't too bad after forty years.

The band wasted no time getting down to business. They started with a few classic tracks and then "Vote for Me" from Encore (2019), which was given a bit of an extended dub treatment. They continued in the pattern of mixing early songs with the new ones, including several covers from both periods. The new album has a new version of "The Lunatics", originally performed by the splinter group Fun Boy Three, which was performed quite successfully. They even brought out Saffiyah Khan to reprise her role on Encore's "10 Commandments".

The Specials have always been quite upfront about their politics, and I was impressed by how relevant the old songs still are as well as the quality of the new work. Thankfully, the mix was great and the vocals were loud and clear, so I could hear almost every word. I was also impressed by how solid the performance was: if you ignored all of their socially-conscious lyrics and just focused on the grooves, it still would've been a great show. Panter's bass was the star, holding down the beat and carrying much of the musical structure. He was frequently locked in step with Rowe's drums but yet never felt tied down.

Most of the music kept close to the two-tone standard, but there were a few deviations into some deep and heady dub jams. In addition to "Vote for Me", "Stereotype" and "Ghost Town" (introduced with the single word "Brexit") were given a similar treatment. For these songs (and "10 Commandments"), Hall moved to a rack with some combination of keyboard, synthesizer, and/or reverb unit.

I was amused that the band only played songs from their first two albums, contemporaneous singles, and their new album. Admittedly, that is their best work, and most of albums in between were either all covers or recorded with substantially different lineups. But then why did they perform Dammers' "Little Bitch", one of their only songs with a conspicuously less progressive message?

This show felt like a party. It was high-energy and people were dancing enthusiastically. (There was even a crowdsurfer at one point!) The band played for almost two hours and almost exclusively played uptempo numbers. It's always cool when an old band can put out new work that almost matches their best and then back it up with a successful tour.

[The Specials with protest signs.]

Scores:
Swutscher: C
The Specials: A-

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Die Heiterkeit / Hans Unstern - Live 2019.03.30 Lido, Berlin, Germany


Die Heiterkeit came to my attention while I attended my last SXSW before I moved to Germany. I thoroughly enjoyed the brief set I saw. Since then, bandleader Stella Sommer put out an English-language solo album, 13 Kinds of Happiness, and just about a month ago, Die Heiterkeit released Was passiert ist. The new album is more condensed than their prior masterpiece, Pop & Tod I + II (2016), and may be even better.

Artist: Die Heiterkeit
Venue: Lido
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 30 March 2019
Opening Act: Hans Unstern

Hans Unstern appeared alone with a harp. His voice was high and thin but well-paired to his intricate instrumental prowess. He occasionally strummed the harp to reveal its traditional beauty, but mostly relied on a plucking style that was a match for any piano or classical guitar arrangement. The counterpoint of the repetitive higher parts against a more dynamic bass part was an inversion of typical popular music norms, but this clearly wasn't standard-issue pop music. I was mesmerized by the fingerwork, even if the songs themselves weren't especially captivating. Naturally, I also appreciated his unconventional fashion and appearance.

[Hans Unstern.]

Die Heiterkeit again performed as a four-piece, but from what I could tell, the entire band besides vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Stella Sommer has changed since the last time I saw them in 2017. Their sound and aesthetic were so similar that I didn't even notice at first. The other three members again filled the roles of keyboardist/vocalist, bassist, and drummer.

The band played songs from all four of their albums, unsurprisingly focusing on their latest. The new songs were almost across the board a delight, and the band seemed more engaged playing them. The bassist played a slightly more active role, filling much of the melodic space and even taking a solo in one song. Sommer mostly strummed a capoed guitar with clean and subdued tones, but also switched off with a keyboard, where she was able to show off a bit more dexterity.

The cold but grandiose tones of their albums came somewhat more alive on stage, but other than a couple small hiccups, they played with an impressive tightness and accuracy. Sommer's deep and stately voice remained the highlight of the show. Her style struck me as something uniquely well-suited for singing in German, in that what would otherwise seem like an exaggerated enunciation is instead an expression of emotional depth and proof of mastery of the voice.

[Die Heiterkeit.]

After closing the main set, the band almost immediately returned for a lengthy encore of four more songs. For the latter two, Hans Unstern joined the band on the side of the stage to provide some additional harmony vocals. These last two were somber numbers that seemed like a fitting end, but the crowd continued cheering for another encore. The house music had come on and I was fairly certain it was over, but to my surprise, after a few minutes they filtered back out. First, Sommer played a song on guitar accompanied only by the bassist, and then she played a brief lullaby in English. It was perhaps an even more appropriate conclusion than the first encore.

[Encore with Hans Unstern.]

Die Heiterkeit risk sounding depressive and restrained, but something in their dramatic energy has the opposite effect. They were still fairly rigid on stage, but their concentrated focus resulted in a solid performance, and they came across more human than on their studio recordings. At times, one is left wishing for a flourish or some greater cause for excitement. But if you can do without that, it is easy to get entranced by their darkly beautiful tones.

Scores:
Hans Unstern: B-
Die Heiterkeit: B+

[Edit 2019.04.17:] Die Heiterkeit have published a video of the second encore. The two songs were "Kapitän" and the English folk tune "Lavender's Blue".

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.

[Britta.]

Scores:
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+

References:

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

References:
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!