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!