Concert Review: Laurie Anderson (Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York, September 22, 1998)

So how does one label Laurie Anderson? The sprightly performer with the distinctive tousled hairdo first gained acclaim in the ’70s as a visual artist, exhibiting in New York City’s better galleries while honing her performance skills in the cities alternative clubs and performance spaces. In the late ’70s, Anderson began integrating spoken word, found sounds, tape manipulations, synthetic sounds, organic instrumentation and visual imagery into both her performances and her exhibitions (which became increasingly hard to tell apart), ultimately “crossing over” into the pop world with her unexpected 1982 hit “O Superman.” Since that time, Anderson has graced the world with an increasingly eclectic and challenging collection of musical recordings, films, videos, books, installations and CD-ROM’s, while continuing to develop her unique live performance style.

Ultimately, then, it would seem that Laurie Anderson is the human being for whom the phrase “performance artist” should most rightly have been coined. But during the performance of her original work, Speed of Darkness, at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall last week, Anderson explored the ramifications of a new label that has emerged as a buzz-word of these crazy digital times: she has found herself more frequently being dubbed a “content provider” than anything else these days. “I hated the phrase at first,” Anderson noted midway through her set. “But I’ve gotten used to it now as it just seems so functional and so . . . inevitable.”

Speed of Darkness is one of Anderson’s most low-tech creations, which is apt given her dissection of the contemporary computer cult and the unprecedented sundering of form from content that has been spawned by that cult’s zealous on-line devotees. Standing before two banks of keyboards with a pair of microphones, a guitar and a digital violin that produced sounds akin to a symphony orchestra playing traffic sounds, Anderson declaimed in her engaging, sing-song voice for nearly 90 minutes Tuesday night, sometimes even singing, sometimes even offering something that was almost a song.

Subject matter oscillated giddily around Speed of Darkness‘ basic technological core, with recipes for hotel hot dogs, beaver trapping instructions and stories about Dolly the sheep, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Thomas Aquinas and an old Cree Indian illuminating points through inference that would have been difficult to approach directly. Anderson’s language remains as rich as ever, her gift for stunning phrases seemingly never-ending. “When my father died, it was like a whole library burned down,” as an example. Or “Technology is taking the human race on a reckless ride to nowhere.” Or “What do you with something really big and powerful that you don’t understand? You worship it.” Or even “Current moves through bodies, then it doesn’t. That’s digital.”

Anderson’s most powerful music was made during a recurrent theme played on her violin-cum-orchestra-cum-highway-sound-generator, with the remnant of Speed of Darkness being soundtracked by gentle, Jean-Michel Jarre-like bubbly synthesizer noises. Taken alone, this music would have been quickly forgotten. Taken as part of a greater whole, however, where mood and nuance and thought and expression were as important as sound, Anderson’s mastery of the synthesizer was sublime, demonstrating just how truly evocative atmospheric music can be when crafted by a creative master. Let’s just hope the Muzak people don’t ever get a hold of someone like that.

Interview with Annie Wenz (1998)

Record store clerk, waiter, guitar salesman, bartender. These are the sorts of day jobs that most typical musicians hold while waiting for their proverbial commercial boats to come in. Annie Wenz, however, is not a typical musician.

“I worked for a year and a half after college as an obstetrical nurse at the Harlan County [Kentucky] Appalachian Regional Hospital,” Wenz notes during a recent phone interview. “So I got to deliver the babies when the doctors got stuck on the other side of the coal tracks.”

Despite having brought any number of coal miners’ daughters into this world, Wenz herself is not one: she was born in New York City’s rough-and-tumble Queens borough, spent her teen years in Long Island’s melting pot suburbs and now claims pastoral Western Massachusetts as a base of operations from which she can launch regional, national and international musical forays. One such regional foray will bring the singing multi-instrumentalist to the Eighth Step Friday night for an evening of both new compositions and songs culled from her albums Gypsy Moon (1993) and Time is Magic (1996).

Wenz’ diverse upbringing is mirrored in both her records and her concert performances, where she deftly incorporates elements of the jazz and folk styles that have touched her over the years, be they from American, European or African traditions. “My grandmother could have been an opera singer in Poland, but instead came to the United States and worked in sweatshops,” she recalls. “But she loved to sing and would sing at all the family gatherings. So I listened to her and my parents’ big-band, Lawrence Welk kind of stuff growing up and I also used to go to the Rub-a-Dub Pub in Queens with my grandfather to listen to jazz trios there with him.

“Later on, I belonged to this folk mass group and in the early ’70s we were doing all these great protest songs . . . at church! It was amazing, we’d be wearing black arm-bands in church, doing all these Pete Seeger numbers; I always loved that whole folk protest tradition. And another big influence was when the great African percussionist Baba Olatunji came to my school; I was just blown out of my shoes by what I heard. So there have just been so many types of music that I’ve been exposed to–and I’ve loved and learned from them all.

“Unfortunately, however, when a lot of folks see the instrumentation I use now to draw from all of those traditions, they think that what I’m offering is going to be ‘world-beat’ or ‘new age’ music–and those terms really tend to freak them out,” Wenz concludes with a sigh. “But I just look at what I do as being a folklorist who builds on tradition; it’s just that I just don’t see anything odd or weird about having a chorus in Polish here and then a native American flute there. ”

Wenz’s eclectic folklorist’s vision wasn’t conceived full-grown. After sporadic gigging for friends, neighbors and patients during her nursing tour in Kentucky’s mountain country, Wenz relocated to Western Massachusetts and immersed herself in that region’s rich folk scene before shifting gears again and setting off to study jazz piano for five years at the Hartford Conservatory. “After studying piano, I started playing jazz and pop standards in more club-oriented settings for awhile, which led to me getting a great gig playing for a summer over in Sweden, where they love jazz,” Wenz recollects. “I brought my guitar over there with me and it was there that I finally realized that I really missed playing originals–so that’s when I came home and decided to record my first solo record.”

After releasing the extraordinarily eclectic jazz-folk fusion disc, Gypsy Moon, Wenz attempted to tour with the extensive band she had used in crafting her first record. While difficult logistics and plain bad luck kept that tour from becoming a reality, its failure indirectly contributed to Wenz discovering a place and purpose that have come to serve as catalysts not only for her music, but for the rest of her life as well.

“I was headed over to Berlin with my band when my contact there lost his job,” Wenz explains. “So it was February and I was stuck with this non-refundable plane ticket. I called the travel agent and said ‘I don’t want to go to Berlin anymore, I want to go to somewhere warm and I’ve heard it’s pretty safe to go to Belize or Costa Rica alone.’ Costa Rica was cheaper, so there I went. And I had read about a little village in Costa Rica called Montezuma and a woman who lived there named Karen Mogensen, who had started the national park system in Costa Rica. So the whole place just sounded really interesting to me with the emphasis there on the environment and nature.

“When I got to Costa Rica, I told someone I met on my first day there that I was looking for work and he saw my backpacking guitar and offered me a barter deal where I would play in swap for staying and eating at his place on the East Coast. After that I auditioned at a big-ass touristy hotel in San Jose and they offered me work right then and there for decent pay, by Costa Rican standards. But I got to thinking that I could play in a hotel anytime and I was just feeling very called to Montezuma.

“So I got up at the crack of dawn, took a bus, took a ferry, rode in the back of a pickup truck to Montezuma,” Wenz continues. “It turned out to be really a special, powerful place. Lots of old volcanic rock and strong elements, the wind, the water, everything; it’s actually hard for me to write there because the waves crash and made this white noise all the time, but I can practice and take notes and write things from there. So I just fell in love with that village and its people and have since gone back several times and have gotten very involved with the Karen Mogensen Reserve; I do a lot of fund-raising for it and I may even be going there in December to record a therapeutic tape I’m doing.”

So . . . obstetric nurse, jazz pianist in Sweden, fund-raiser for the Costa Rican national park system. These are the sorts of day jobs that Annie Wenz has held while waiting for her proverbial commercial boat to come in–which almost literally happened a few years back when one of Wenz’s compositions was used in ESPN’s television coverage of the America’s Cup.

“My brother was the skipper of the tender that accompanied Stars and Stripes when it won the America’s Cup back from Australia in Perth,” Wenz explains. “He was over in Hawaii and I was missing him so I wrote this song for him and for some reason I was talking to someone at a radio station around that time and I mentioned my brother and the song I’d written and the guy said ‘Send it to me!’ So I did . . . and he sent it to a friend at ESPN and they made this incredible video out of it.

“And when Stars and Stripes won, ESPN played some Billy Joel song first and then they showed the video they had made of my song, so it was just amazing. But, of course, they only got the song right before the final race so they said ‘Y’know we don’t have time to go through all the paper-work and everything so if you want us to just do this to do it, that’s fine but we’re not going to be able to get anything set up with royalties or anything.’ So I said fine because I was just excited to get it out there. But I never made any money on it or anything, even though it has been shown internationally many times. Oh well. Maybe next time.”

Concert Review: Hanson (Pepsi Arena, Albany, New York, September 11, 1998)

It’s getting increasingly difficult to be a look-down-my-nose style music critic these days when (so-called) low-brow music is getting to be more likable than the stuff that I’m supposed to be shoving down the masses’ throats because it’s good for them. Case in point? Last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, where the critically-disdained Backstreet Boys offered a performance that demonstrated a far higher level of musical competence than the songs tossed off by Madonna (once low-brow, now feigning high-brow with her faux English accent and Eastern/electronica shtick), Hole and the Beastie Boys, among others.

Bongwater’s Ann Magnuson once sang “Frankly, at this point I’d rather see ‘Brigadoon’ than ‘Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer'” and while watching the rest of the Video Music Awards I realized exactly what she meant, as I found myself more engaged by the pathologically cute Hanson brothers and Jennifer Love Hewitt than I was by the just plain pathological Old Dirty Bastard and Courtney Love. And I actually viewed this as a good thing that night, since I was scheduled to review Hanson in concert 24 hours later with my seven-year old daughter Katelin in tow and felt that for her sake, at least, I should try to avoid oozing the sort of disapproval that I normally exude at such concerts.

But guess what? I didn’t need to use any of that paternal self-restraint, because young Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson put on the most entertaining and engaging show I’ve seen at the Pepsi Arena in at least a year, maybe longer. Hanson had better songs and more musical common-sense than Phish. They had far fewer anonymous supporting musicians making them sound good than did Fleetwood Mac. They worked harder than Aerosmith. They were more mature than AC/DC. They had better hair than Metallica. And they sang far better than any of those bands, sounding far less Chipmunky in concert than they did on either their multi-mega-platinum breakthrough album, Middle of Nowhere, or their recently re-issued early singles collection Three Car Garage.

Midway through their set Friday, Hanson recreated those early garage days by dismissing their three supporting players and playing a half-a-dozen semi-unplugged style songs while all piled up on top of each other and their instruments at the front of the stage. It was during that mid-show mini-set that they finally won me over completely as Zac laid down some great rock-steady Ringo beats, Isaac played a series of credible Neil Young-style one-string guitar solos and Taylor did the best young Stevie Winwood impressions imaginable as he throttled his wheezy organ and sang sweet soul as well as any skinny white kid’s ever gonna sing it.

After Isaac took a solo turn on a sweet piano ballad, Hanson’s hired hands returned to the stage and the fully-fortified six-piece band ripped through another dozen tunes, including an impressive interpretation of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and (of course) that most infectious and audience-lathering of singles, “MMMBop.” And despite their tender years, less-than-muscular builds and generally too-nice demeanors, the brothers Hanson played extremely hard and loud throughout their set, which was probably necessary given the volume of the audience as their shrieks collectively coalesced into a sound akin to what you might experience if you had all of your teeth drilled at once.

At the show’s sonic crescendo, Katelin tapped me on the arm, looked up with a marvelously wide-eyed expression and said “Dad, something’s making my chest feel all funny inside!” I told her I felt that way too, although I didn’t divulge whether it was because of Hanson’s ferocious beat or because I was just simply moved at seeing kids young enough to be my own living and playing what I can only write about. Remind me why it is that I’m supposed to be in a position to look down my nose at acts like this one?

Interview with Jason Martin (1998)

Jason R. Martin is on a mission, maybe to your basement.

“I just know there’s groups of 16-year old kids out in the suburbs somewhere doing cool shows and recordings and stuff in their basements or dens or wherever,” the ebullient new music impresario explained over a recent hot chocolate and soup lunch at Lulu’s on Lark Street. “But I’m not quite sure how to reach them in the ways that other people reached me nine or ten years ago, since they did it via this network of independent spaces and shows that doesn’t exist anymore. Which is sad, because as a teenage weirdo with a basement band and some video cameras back then, I could go to these shows and meet people who were a bit older than I was and could teach me or guide me or give me the encouragement that I needed. And I think that was important in my growth as a musician and a performer.”

Martin obviously learned those lessons from his teen years in Niskayuna well, since he’s grown up to be one of the Capital Region’s most unique musicians and performers. Over the past decade, Martin has made his mark with Brown Cuts Neighbors (both the band and the television show), as a solo performer (garnering Metroland’s best male acoustic artist honors this year) and as a collaborator with an eclectic mix of regional and national talent. For perspective, recent Martin efforts have included: composing a soundtrack of dialog and original music for choreographer Vanessa Paige; producing a segment for WAMC on a local inventor; co-creating the Lettuce Little and RRR 500 multimedia packages with illustrator/musician Steven Cerio (the second item features a vinyl record with 500 bands in 500 locked grooves); and performing on the Horseback Solids’ collection of freeform soundtrack music, Five Hopes. (For additional information on the last three releases, see Martin’s website).

Martin also has new solo and Brown Cuts Neighbors’ records ready for release and recently took a job at Schenectady’s Public Access Television, where he holds the ominous title of Master Controller. On top of all this, he and a handful of collaborators have also begun to make waves on the area’s concert scene as event promoters, cultural propagandists and media terrorists via the mysteriously named Department of Experimental Services artists’ collective.

“The whole Department of Experimental Services thing just kinda came together really organically over a period of time,” Martin explains. “It’s definitely a collective: I came up with name but it’s not like I’m the guy that’s in charge of it or anything. It’s just a group of friends doing their own thing with this title in the background as a way of making us see something other than what’s right in front of us. We’ve tried to come up with a structure that can grow and change, so if one of us in come capacity gets more professional at what he or she is doing, it kinda helps everyone else in the group.”

While the Departments’ cast of characters expands and contracts based on the needs of each project, core contributors include Martin, Cerio, Brown Cuts Neighbors players/writers Jim Kopta and Roger Koslow, web-site designer/comic book distributor/musician Marc Arsenault, promoter/drummer Mike Lopez, image and technology specialist Pete Barvoets and conceptualist Amy Francis. While the collective has worked well together in successfully planning and executing performances to date, Martin is the first to admit that the team’s odd composition and unusual name may be off-putting to some potential patrons.

“It’s the word ‘experimental’ that gets to them,” Martin explains, laughing. “And I just put that word in there because I think it’s kind of a funny, almost satiric thing. It’s a joke, a play on words. But since a lot of our stuff doesn’t fall into traditional categories people see ‘experimental’ and they think ‘oh, it’s the weird stuff’ or ‘look, a bunch of guys making noise’ or ‘yuk, art stuff’ or ‘yeah, those are the ones who can’t play in a real band’. And that reaction is strange to me, because the rock and pop and jazz and folk scenes around here are really interconnected and supportive of each other while the so-called ‘experimental’ stuff is just really neglected these days.”

“I really become aware of that fact when I play out of the area,” Martin continues. “I did a show in a record store in Easthampton, Mass. recently that was so cool. There was this guy with a saxophone and a bunch of electronics and it wasn’t all wacky sounds, ‘look at me, I’m a crazy experimental dude’ stuff. It just wasn’t like that at all: he was a serious player who did a really beautiful piece with what he had. And then there was this other younger guy who did a solo acoustic piece that was in the same genre that I’m doing, although I didn’t know it was a genre until I heard him do it! So it was really beautiful, and I didn’t feel like I had to translate anything for this very learned subculture of kids and young adults who knew this sort of stuff and didn’t look at anyone who was performing as an oddity. Or as a genius, for that matter.”

Martin is currently working to cross-pollinate the local new music scene with sounds from both Easthampton and the thriving free jazz scene based in Amherst, Mass. “I hope that the Department of Experimental Services can get people out of their basements by bringing in some people from those other communities to play here,” he concludes. “We recently had trumpeter Raphe Malik, who’s just amazing, in town and we’re putting on an exhibition of some of the people from Easthampton soon. So to me, it’s all like saying ‘Look what’s going on, right next door! C’mon, we can do that here, too!'”

As Martin and I finish our hot chocolates, our waitress (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Icelandic pop star Bjork) approaches our table and asks Martin if he would consider bringing her favorite Midwestern noise ensemble to town to help allay her weariness with the usual local pop and rock club fare. After a stimulating conversation about the pros and cons of a variety of experimental musicians and bands, she signs up on the Department of Experimental Services mailing list and expresses great enthusiasm and gratitude for the group’s efforts in the community.

Mission accomplished, returning to basement. Over.