Concert Diary

Greg's Concert Diary

In the fall of 1999, the stars aligned and I went to a lot more concerts than normal. This inspired me to keep track of concerts I have seen, and write reviews for as many as possible. Hence this web page.

25 September, 2014: Owen Pallett
Théâtre Corona, Montreal

21 September, 2014: King Crimson
Best Buy Theater, New York

30 August, 2014: Arcade Fire
Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal

23 April, 2014: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan
Il Motore, Montreal

This show was badly marred by one bad opening act, then a terrible opening act, then a very late start by the headliner. Memo to bands playing small venues on weeknights: some of the people in the audience have to get up and go to work in the morning. And not everyone lives within walking distance of the venue; some of us need to catch the last metro home, and in Montreal on weeknights, that means finishing around midnight. So when you come on stage at almost midnight, people are going to have to leave! At least I did, because I didn't want to turn a $10 night out into a $50 night out with cab fare home.

As for the music: the one song I stuck around for was from their first album, which I love. It sounded great! I wish I could have stayed for more. It looked and sounded like they have a really interesting live show, at least from the first 10 minutes. Very disappointing that I couldn't stay for the whole thing.

After this experience, I decided no more small venues for me. I love professionally organized concerts by great bands, but waiting for 3 hours and 2 bad-to-awful opening acts to see 10 minutes of the band I came out for just pissed me off. That's actually the third time this has happened to me in the last couple of years: enough already.

7 December, 2013: Half Moon Run
Metropolis, Montreal

Odd: I didn't realize until writing this review that it was exactly one year since the first time I saw Half Moon Run. Musically, not much changed; they only have one album out, so all the songs were familiar. But they seemed a lot more comfortable on stage. I found the geeky, awkward, 2012 Half Moon Run endearing. The 2013 performance was just as good, but a little bit of their uniqueness has been replaced by polish. Hmmm.

23 October, 2013: Franz Ferdinand
Metropolis, Montreal

It's a tough call whether Muse or Franz Ferdinand is better at great big arena rock, twenty-first century style. Since we saw Franz Ferdinand in a nightclub rather, I guess Muse gets that prize on a technicality. But I liked Franz Ferdinand more. I like their music more, and they just seemed a lot more human. They had fun on stage, they interacted with the audience, and their drum-solo-by-the-whole-band shtick at the finale was awesome. I loved seeing them take the drum solo cliche to a new level.

13 June, 2013: The Barr Brothers; The National
Lachine Canal, Montreal

I'm definitely not cool enough to go see bands like this, but I did anyways. No regrets. The Barr Brothers were just good as when I first discovered them opening for Plants and Animals in 2010. I know it's selfish, but I love that they're small enough that they still open for bigger bands, so I don't have to sit through some boring opening act first.

As for The National, I'm kinda late to this party: I had heard of them a several years ago, and they really got my attention when I saw them at Osheaga in 2010. But I didn't start buying their albums until the last year or two, so I was still missing a couple when I saw this concert. Doesn't matter. Their music is just sublime, and their live performance is magical. At least this one was. The highlight of the evening was when Matt Berninger, the lead singer who looks more like a university prof than a rock star, did a walkabout through the audience with a wireless mic. Very much a rock star thing to do, but he made it feel like he was just coming to say hello to friends.

24 April, 2013: Muse
Bell Centre, Montreal

Roaring great fun. Great big arena rock is alive and well in the 21st centry, and Muse does a fantastic job. They had an elaborate upside-down pyramid thing above the stage with bazillions of video screens and blinkenlights. Very nifty. Oh yeah, the music was huge too. I'm really only familiar with one of their albums (Black Holes and Revelations, from 2006), so most of the material was new to me. It didn't make me want to rush out and buy more albums, but they're very entertaining live.

7 December, 2012: Half Moon Run
Le National, Montreal

21 November, 2012: Stars; Metric
Bell Centre, Montreal

7 July, 2012: Iron Maiden
Ottawa Bluesfest

Wow, it took me a long time to getting around to seeing Maiden. I've been a happy owner of their amazing live double album Live After Death since shortly after it was released in 1984, so I guess I waited almost 30 years to see them live. Yikes!

They did not disappoint. The music is still good, and the musicians in top form. More importantly, they put on a hell of a show. Bruce Dickinson in particular is a showman par excellence. This was theatre as much as it was music, with almost every song accompanied by at least a costume change on Dickinson's part. For wild over-the-top madness, you can't beat `The Number of the Beast', with its animatronic red-eyed Beast and jets of fire in the background. Great fun. The other highlight of the evening was `Seventh Son of a Seventh Son', title track to the 1988 album that for some reason I had never bought. Seeing it live was all it needed to make me rush out and buy it shortly thereafter. Great album, great song, and the 2012 live version was electrifying.

3 July, 2012: Van der Graaf Generator
Théâtre Maisonneuve, Montreal

After seeing VdGG once already at the same time of year in the same venue, I did have to think for almost a full second before deciding to go again. No regrets. I don't think there was any overlap in the setlists, and I even heard a great big epic Peter Hammill song I had never heard before: 'Flight' from A Black Box. Damn: yet another PH solo album I'm going to have to get. Anyways, this concert was similar to the one in 2009, although the bearded middle-aged male audience didn't scream quite as loudly this time. Different songs, same awesome power, and I still miss the sax. They're still an amazing band, but not quite the same without it.

15 April, 2012: Patrick Watson
Théâtre Corona, Montreal

I've been following this group -- which really is a great band, not just Patrick Watson and some accompanying players -- for several years and three albums now, so it's about time I saw them "for real": a dedicated indoor concert, just them playing music. It was a bit hard to get fully into it, since much of the show came from the just-released album Adventures in Your Own Backyard, which I didn't have yet. But the older stuff was great, and the new stuff convinced me to buy the CD that night. (Which I was planning to do anyways, but never mind.) Excellent sound, nice vibe, happy crowd, great music, and fine musicians: a great show all round.

7 October, 2011: Portishead
Quai Jacques-Cartier, Montreal

Seriously? Who schedules an outdoor concert in Montreal in October? I mean, chances are it'll be just fine, but it might be 10 degrees and raining. Well, never mind, the weather was just fine. And the concert was better than fine; it was awesome.

Portishead is one of those bands I missed out on the first time around, back in the mid-90s. But at least I was on top of things when they released their tour-de-force third album (the creatively titled Third). So when they came to town to play it live, I couldn't miss it. What really impressed me is that although Portishead on record sounds like a very electronic, studio band, their live show is just that: alive, played by superb musicians on real instruments (some which may have been MIDI-connected, but so what?). In an unusual twist, the old songs were nice, but it was the new stuff that blew me away. Third is an amazing album, but seeing much of it played live was just transcendent. Fantastic show.

22 September, 2011: Karkwa; Arcade Fire
Place des Festivals, Montreal

You know you might be a "left brainer" when you find yourself in a vast throng of people, all enjoying one of the best bands to come along in the last decade, and you find yourself thinking, "let's see... 100 m to the edge of the square... 250 m to the stage ... that's 25,000 square metres filled with people at probably 3-4 per square metre... yep, easily 75,000 people here, and that's not counting the additional crowd around the corner". Turns out my estimate is way off -- I just checked a map, and Place des Festivals is closer to 50 m by 200 m. Damn.

Anyways, seeing two of Montreal's finest outside, with good sound, for free, with many tens of thousands of other good-natured laid back people, was a treat. I'm not too familiar with Karkwa as I only have their most recent album, but I liked what I heard. My only complaint about their set was that it was too short -- only 35 minutes!

Seeing Arcade Fire again, after seeing them play Osheaga 2010 at the start of their tour, was a nice bookend. They have amazing energy on stage, not to mention being damned fine musicians. They played the obvious crowd-pleasers from The Suburbs and Funeral, but also some less-known songs. For a band with only three albums out, they already have an impressive catalog to choose from.

Unfortunately, the vast throng around me was a little too blasé about the whole thing, and I think we missed a chance to fire some of the band's energy back at them. So it was a great show, but could have been even better -- no fault of the band, but of the audience.

30 June, 2011: Champion
Metropolis, Montreal

31 July - 1 Aug, 2010: Pawa Up First; Frank Turner; Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros; Owen Pallet; Ariane Moffat; Stars; Sonic Youth; Devo; Metric; The National; Arcade Fire
Osheaga, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal

5 May, 2010: Caribou
La Tulipe, Montreal

29 April, 2010: Peter Gabriel
Bell Centre, Montreal

22 April, 2010: The Barr Brothers; Plants and Animals
La Tulipe, Montreal

Went to this one to hear Plants and Animals, as they had just released their second album. Ended up being totally blown away by the never-heard-of-'em opening act, The Barr Brothers. What a revelation: they don't do anything fancy, just rootsy blues/country/rock -- but boy do they do it well. Brilliant and beautiful music, and I'm hardly a big fan of the genre. If you are, you must hear The Barr Brothers now. Do not delay.

Plants and Animals were quite disappointing, mainly because their sound was too loud and distorted to hear what they were actually playing. They might have been spot on every note or wildly off, but I couldn't tell the difference. We left after 20 minutes or so.

28 January, 2010: Champion
Metropolis, Montreal

9 July, 2009: Van der Graaf Generator
Théâtre Maisonneuve, Montreal

Did you ever have one of those moments where you suddenly learned not only that one of your all-time favourite bands was back together after 30 years, but that they were playing live in your city in a week? That was me when I leafed through the schedule for the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2009: OMG! Van der Graaf Generator!!! Talk about excited.

But compared to the crowd of bearded middle-aged men, I was completely laid back about the whole thing. Wow. You've seen the footage of Beatlemania in 1964, right? Well, the reaction that night was a scaled back version, only a few thousand people, and they were middle-aged men rather than teenaged girls. But I swear to you, they were screaming.

The concert? Oh yeah, there was a band there. It was awesome, but how could it not be? It was Van der Graaf Generator, the very epitome of awesome. They played enough of their epic ear-benders from the 70s to keep everyone happy, as well as some tunes from Peter Hammill's solo records. And there was some stuff from their reunion album. One gripe: VdGG has always been based on the classic power trio, namely drums, organ, and saxophone. ("What? That's not the classic power trio?") But apparently they are now a sax-less band, and the hole in the lineup was very evident. Something just wasn't right hearing VdGG without one of their signature instruments.

12 June, 2008: Rush
Bell Centre, Montreal

15 May, 2008: British Sea Power; The Rosebuds
La Sala Rossa, Montreal

8 September, 2007: Stars; Patrick Watson; Feist
Osheaga, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal

30 March, 2007: Rheostatics
Massey Hall, Toronto

12 November, 2006: Queensrÿche
Metropolis, Montreal

3 July, 2006: Jesse Cook
Metropolis, Montreal

Man, he looks like a total wanker, but this guy can play the guitar like a god. And it turns out that he's actually quite warm and down-to-earth on stage. He just needs a better haircut. Anyways, the music's the important thing, and this band was smoking hot. There were 8-10 performers on stage for most of the show, most of them virtuosos (one backup guitarist and the bassist weren't given much of a chance to show off, but everyone else was). Most of the show was complex, high-energy, instrumental music: loads of rhythm and buckets of acoustic guitar. They brought in a couple of guest singers -- apparently semi-famous jazz singers -- whose names escape me. Also had a load of samba drummers (maybe 20 of them) on stage for the last couple of songs; the sheer volume (in both senses of the word) of drum was impressive. And the final encore was unamplified with yet another guest singer, who I have actually heard of: Ron Sexsmith. I didn't realize what a fine voice he had. Anyways, they had a phalanx of video cameras taping the whole thing (and three more shows over the next two days), and it's supposed to result in a DVD -- should be good viewing if you like mostly-acoustic instrumental, genre-busting music.

29 June, 2006: The Dears
Metropolis, Montreal

The Dears are veterans of the booming Montreal indie scene (see next entry). I wish someone had told me about them a couple of years ago! Oh well, I'm in the loop now and quite mad for their 2003 album, No Cities Left. So naturally I was thrilled as heck at the chance to see them live before their next album (which, apparently, is already in the can) comes out. And a damn fine show it was. They started off with a couple of new songs, which sounded a bit pared-down compared to the big, epic sound I love from No Cities Left. Then they got the crowd going with a couple of those big epic songs from the album: glorious! They kept us on our toes, alternating more new stuff with older songs, all quite invigorating and loads of fun. I'm definitely looking forward to the new album (and I don't even have their first album yet!).

20 April, 2006: Wolf Parade
National Theatre, Montreal

In case you've been living under a rock for the last couple of years, there's been an explosion of great pop music in Canada, quite a lot of it in Montreal. Wolf Parade is of the many fine bands to emerge recently. They put on a good show: just the right amount of rock-star posturing to make it fun, but still quite tight musically. While they only have one full-length album out so far, it has a bunch of good songs and a couple of great ones, and they played the right ones live. Also played some new stuff which was immediately enjoyable. Looking forward to more from these guys in the future.

26 March, 2006: Värttinä
Kola Note, Montreal

Apparently a famous Finnish folk band. I quite like most of the Nordic folk music I've heard, and intrigued by the Lord of the Rings connection (they did the music for the currently-failing-to-wow-'em-in-Toronto LotR musical), so this sounded like it could be interesting. Turned out they're not really a folk band anymore -- this was competent but uninspiring pop music with strong folk influences, in Finnish.

13 July, 2005: Miriodor and Present
Lion d'Or, Montreal

Two concerts for the price of one! Miriodor is a Montreal band that lives somewhere in the shadowy realm between weird contemporary art music and progressive rock, but they pull it off well. The concert was mostly unfamiliar to me, since (at the time) I didn't have any of their albums more recent than Jongleries Élastiques (1995). But their intricate instrumental chamber rock (oh, you know, the usual lineup: guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, violin, saxophone) kept my attention all the same. A good band if you like interesting modern music that's not too brain-bendingly weird.

As for Present: this is where you go if you want it weird. Brain-bending, mind-numbing, eardrum-shattering weird. These guys are so weird I've never really gotten too heavily into their recorded music, unlike the better-known and vaguely-related Univers Zero (who are also deeply strange, but not quite so eardrum-shatteringly so). But I could hardly pass up the chance to see an obscure Belgian band, could I? As for the concert, it was every bit as dark, screechy, off-the-wall, and out-and-out dissonant as one could hope for -- a ripping good time had by all, I think. The biggest problem was that it was TOO DAMN LOUD -- the soundcheck was a bad sign, since each musician just kept turning up his own level. I think they kept it up throughout the concert; by the end, the finale was nothing more than a solid wall of white noise... which may have been the intent all along. Still, a little respect for the audience (which couldn't have been more than 100 -- the Lion d'Or is a small venue) would have been nice.

12 April, 2005: The Tannahill Weavers
La Sala Rosa, Montreal
My second date with this hard-core traditional Scottish band, and their first visit to Montreal in something like 20 years. Much like the two best-of albums of theirs in my collection, they alternated between balls-to-the-wall tunes (jigs and reels and so forth) and more leisurely songs. Call me a philistine, but I prefer the high-energy instrumental stuff -- especially the bagpipe-heavy tunes. Good fun, but I get the impression these guys have done it all a bit too often -- it all seemed a little too pat and rehearsed.

5 December, 2003: The Musical Box
Spectrum, Montreal
I finally indulged my not-very-secret love of Genesis' golden years (1970-74) by going to see this well-known cover band. Thing is, The Musical Box is way more than just a cover band; they duplicate every aspect of Genesis' 1973 stage show (the Selling England by the Pound tour) in painstaking detail, right down to the light show. And they are also very good musicians in their own right who sound eerily similar to the originals. Anyways, The Musical Box did not disappoint -- this was a hell of a show, highly recommended to anyone who still loves Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, and those other great early Genesis albums.

December 2003: King Crimson
Théâtre St-Denis, Montreal
Enjoyable enough, but somehow not up to the standards one has come to expect of live Crimson after all the live albums we have been treated to since the early 90s. I suspect that Crimson belong in nightclubs, not theatres: see my previous Crim concert, below. Or listen to Absent Lovers, the smoking hot 1984 live album recorded at the Spectrum in Montreal (which is bigger than the 9:30 Club in DC where I saw them in 2000, but still not that big).

July 2002: Eric Ross
Musée d'art contemporain, Montreal
Probably the worst concert I have ever been to. I was initially attracted by the idea of a solo theremin performance, but Eric Ross appears to be a middle-aged music professor gripped by the notion that he has talent and should be performing in public. He does not and should not. Nor should he allow his wife to perpetrate her video "art" in public. What a pretentious load of utter codswallop.

10 November, 2000: King Crimson
9:30 Club, Washington, DC
Fantastic; Crimson in top form. Definitely a small club is the right venue for this band -- both times I've seen them in Montreal were in a theatre, and both times were rather lackluster. Hmmm, I wonder if there's a connection.

30 September, 2000: National Symphony Orchestra (overture to some Mozart opera; Brecht & Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins; Stravinsky's The Firebird)
Kennedy Center, Washington, DC
This was actually the first time I ever saw a live performance of a classical piece that I knew well (The Firebird in this case). I don't remember much else about this concert, but seeing a real live early Stravinsky piece done live was electrifying. Now if only someone would do The Rite of Spring for me, I could die happy.

23 September, 2000: City of Washington Pipe Band w/ Bonnie Rideout
Masonic Temple, Alexandria, VA
Ahh, so this is what it takes to be a prize-winning pipe band: incredible precision, immaculate uniforms, and robot-like performance. Technically very impressive, but a bit, well, artificial. I had never seen a full pipe band blasting away, so it was certainly interesting -- nice contrast to classical gigs where people glare at you for scratching your head too loudly; I don't think anyone would have heard anything less than a 747 crashing on the lawn over the glorious cacophony of all those bagpipes in full swing.

The reason I went to the concert, though, was not to see the pipe band piping away, but rather to see them piping away together with Bonnie Rideout, a local fiddler of some renown. In fact, there were hardly two numbers with the same instrumentation, which was fun. The musical highlight of the evening was completely spontaneous: during a lull in the proceedings, when a solo piper who was expected on stage had not yet appeared, Rideout jumped up and did an impromptu and wildly fun performance of `The Mason's Apron', a fitting tune considering the venue (and the enormous portrait behind the stage of George Washington sporting just such an apron).

The other highlight of the evening was the building itself: if you've ever wondered just what the Freemasons do, I suspect they raise money to build Masonic temples. This one, which is a memorial to George Washington (one of the better-known Freemasons), is spectacular, the auditorium especially. The stonework is flawless, naturally, and the acoustics are great too. Wonder why it doesn't get used for more concerts -- probably a Masonic conspiracy (sigh).

9 May, 2000: Natalie MacMaster
Ram's Head Tavern, Annapolis, MD
One of several fine young fiddlers to emerge from Cape Breton Island in the last couple of years; I find this school of traditional music a bit austere (typically all you get is fiddle, guitar, and piano -- no bagpipes or other fun stuff), but when played well it's lots of fun. I'm not too familiar with MacMaster's playing, as I only have one album (No Boundaries, which is mostly competent with a few shining moments) -- so I had the pleasure of not knowing what to expect. Turns out she's a lot more fun live than on record, both musically and personally. (Memo to MacMaster's record label's marketing department: the air-brushed, soft-focus album cover shots have got to go! she is way too warm and down-to-earth for such silliness.)

The only downside was the completely gratuitious presence of a drummer. In principle, I have nothing against drummers in traditional Celtic groups; I like them in rock and jazz, so why not in folk? However, they're not really traditional and certainly not necessary to provide a sense of rhythm -- so they should only be present when they really add something, such as interesting and compelling playing. This guy did not. What's worse, he was allowed to perpetrate a drum solo, which should not be permitted of any drummer of such mediocre calibre. Leave soloing to the likes of Neil Peart and Tony Williams, please. Why doesn't some Celtic band hook up with Mickey Hart, who has been doing such interesting work since the Dead died?

15 April, 2000: Mother Mallard & Keith Emerson
(American Museum of Natural History(?), Washington, DC)
Despite my reasonable familiarity with early electronic music, I had never heard of Mother Mallard -- supposedly the first all-synthesizer ensemble. So when they were lined up to appear as part of a Smithsonian Institution program marking X (200?) years of the piano, I was intrigued. I was even more interested since Keith Emerson was on the bill: Emerson, Lake & Palmer have long been a "guilty pleasure" for me, and I still get a kick out of their classic bombastic over-performances.

The show started out with promise; the current incarnation of Mother Mallard includes electric guitar, clarinet, and a few other goodies alongside all the synths and piano. They did a great job of Philip Glass' 1000 Airplanes on the Roof; I'm not familiar with this one, but based on that performance I'm guessing it's one of Glass' better compositions, and I really like his good stuff. Why nobody else has thought to play Glass on electric guitar mystifies me: it was fantastic.

Alas, things went downhill from there. I don't really remember much of the middle material; it wasn't terribly bad and it wasn't terribly good. Things went disastrously downhill at the end of the show, though. The last piece before Emerson came on was something by John Cage -- prepared piano played according to completely novel musical conventions with no apparent rhyme or reason to which notes are played when. I have a pretty open mind about music, but I guess Cage is just too weird for me. However, the towering ego of David Borden -- Mother Mallard's führer -- managed to make it even worse by playing "accompaniment" to it, i.e. playing some swishy synthesizer piece on top of the Cage. In theory, this is perfectly in tune with Cage's philosophy of music -- but Borden's conventional synth piece completely overpowered the Cage piece, rendering it more of "David Borden with bits of John Cage randomly sprinkled throughout".

Finally, the depths were truly plumbed when Keith Emerson came on: back in the 70s, he was a wildly over-the-top performer who could play keyboards like nobody's business. In my view, musical talent excuses a fair amount of on-stage silliness, so I can forgive ELP's excesses of yesteryear. However, Emerson struck me that night as a washed-up vaudevillian: precious little talent left, and not much showmanship either. The rendering of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (which ELP used to do with great gusto) was beyond embarassing; it was pathetic. It's hard to imagine a worse pairing of musicians than Mother Mallard -- for the most part university professors or college instructors of music -- with Keith Emerson, who was probably the greatest prog-rock vaudevillian of the 70s and today is a sad echo of his former self.

1 April, 2000: Kopecky; Dark Water Transit; Krakatoa
(Orion Sound Studios, Baltimore, MD)
Woo-hoo! Three bands for eight bucks! Even though I arrived late and missed most of Kopecky's set, and left early, it was still cheap. However, interesting it was not. Kopecky are three brothers from Wisconsin; give them credit for driving all the way from Wisconsin to Baltimore for one gig. The music, unfortunately, was unremarkable -- fairly competent instrumental power-trio rock, but that's about all I remember now. Dark Water Transit was even less interesting, so I left after a few numbers. Oh well.

11 November, 1999: Battlefield Band
(Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA)
One of the mainstays of the traditional Scottish scene for the last couple of decades, Battlefield Band have been on my "really must look into" list for some time. Finally got my chance when they appeared at Wolf Trap (a very posh venue -- the indoor stage, "The Barns at Wolf Trap" being a couple of nicely reconstructed 18th century barns) for the third time this year. I shouldn't have procrastinated so long; these guys are fantastic.

The first half of the show was about what you'd expect from any competent traditional Scottish band: reels and jigs and ballads and just-plain-songs played on guitar, fiddle, bagpipes, and keyboards. (The keyboards were usually used for synthesized piano, which wasn't too bad; occasionally, the keyboard player veered dangerously close to swooshy, vapid, New-Age-y sounds, but the rest of the band made up for it.) The band was engaging, amusing, and played very well, but didn't quite arouse the audience--I blame the audience (the bland, middle-aged Americans who seem to be the mainstay of Wolf Trap's audience do not know how to appreciate good music). The second half picked up quite a bit; the musicians' energy level ratcheted up several notches, and they even got a measurable response from the audience. Terrific performance by the band, but it verified the importance of a responsive audience to a good show.

6 November, 1999: Peter Hammill
(Phantasmagoria, Wheaton, MD)
Peter Hammill was lead singer, main composer, guitarist, and keyboardist for Van der Graaff Generator, one of my all-time favourite bands for their frantic, intense energy, amazing ability to play in a state of controlled chaos for extended periods, dark and sprawling compositions, and Hammill's intense and dramatic singing. He's been putting out solo records at a fair clip since the early 1970s, so his solo career far outweighs the VdGG output--but for some reason I haven't explored that career too deeply; all I have are couple of compilations and two of his albums from the 1990s. (Note: since writing this reviewer, I have started to correct this situation.)

So I was unfamiliar with most of the material Hammill played when he appeared at Phantasmagoria (an odd little combination of record shop and nightclub in the suburban wasteland north of Washington, DC) in November 1999. That didn't matter a whit: with a musician this good, it doesn't matter if you're familiar with the material or not, the intensity of the performance nails you to the wall regardless. And the intensity that Hammill wrung out of his voice (accompanied by his own playing on either keyboards or guitar, and Stuart Gordon on violin) was formidable. Before this concert, I would not have thought it possible to play flat-out, kick-ass, no-holds-barred rock 'n roll on acoustic guitar and violin, but Hammill and Gordon proved otherwise. And that was only one highlight; most of the songs would seem relatively sedate on a superficial listening, but in actuality carry a deep, dark emotional load delivered with quiet intensity. A masterful performance (and well appreciated by the tiny audience of 40 or 50).

4 November, 1999: Bill Frisell's New Quartet
(Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA)
I know very little about Bill Frisell apart from what I read in the program before the concert--and the fact that I always used to confuse him with Bill Laswell due to the similar names. Now that I have seen Bill Frisell in concert (I already have some Bill Laswell recordings, with Massacre and Material), I will not make that mistake again.

Frisell's New Quartet (at least the one performance I saw) is delicately balanced between lighthearted and serious; the music is best characterized as supremely pleasant--an odd juxtaposition of extreme and moderate, but that's really how the music struck me. In other words, the composition and playing were top-notch, and the ambience created by the artists was warm and welcoming, but the mood and energy level throughout were always subdued. It's not quite up my alley, but was so well done that I didn't really mind.

30 October, 1999: Dark Aether Project and Iluvatar
(Phantasmagoria, Wheaton, MD)
Two modern American "progressive" bands that I've read a bit about on the 'net, but had never heard a note of music from. So when they had a concert nearby, I figured $10 was a small price to pay to explore a bit of the local scene.

The price of admission was worth it for The Dark Aether Project; in a nutshell, they play mostly instrumental, extended rock music. It wasn't clear how much of the performance was improvised, but that hardly matters when you don't have familiarity with the recordings to prejudice you. All in all quite well done; I got the impression that this particular lineup has not been together very long (no, I can't read musicians like a book--the keyboardist and apparent bandleader, Adam Levin, said as much in one of his remarks), but they played well enough for an hour and a half that they kept my attention almost the whole time. The closest comparison I can think of is Djarm Karet, another contemporary American band into extended instrumental rock music. Dark Aether seemed a lot more lively than Djam Karet, but that's probably an unfair comparison of live performance to recording; perhaps Djam Karet is less cool and cerebral in concert than on record, but I don't know.

Iluvator was supposedly the evening's main event, but they were quite disappointing compared to the Dark Aether Project. I suppose if they too had been a purely instrumental outfit, the $10 would have been an amazing bargain, as the musicians were quite competent, seemed familiar with the material, and exhibited a few brief, shining moments of exhilarating interplay that almost made it worth enduring the rest of the performance. Unfortunately, the "standard" guitar/bass/drums/keyboards lineup was ruined by the addition of a singer--not that I have anything against vocals, mind you, just that I have something against hystrionics, wailing, and generally carrying on like Freddie Mercury by someone who is a long, long way from being Freddie Mercury. And, oh yeah, when the singer had the sense to shut up and let the band play (which they did a fine job of), he had an annoying tendency to play air guitar, air keyboards, or just make stupid arena rock gestures that don't work too well in front of an audience of 40 or 50. Yet another potentially fine progressive rock band ruined by an unremittingly awful singer.

12 September, 1999: Thinking Plague
(Orion Sound Studios, Baltimore, MD)
Speaking of contemporary American progressive rock, there is a much more interesting and worthwhile strain of that species centred around bands like 5uu's and Thinking Plague. Plague dates back to the mid-1980s, but they only have two albums out on CD: In This Life (Recommended Records, 1989) and In Extremis (Cuneiform, 1998). Both are wonderfully weird, with wildy off-kilter (and constantly shifting) time signatures, deeply strange (but at the same time ethereally beautiful) vocals, and fantastically precise musicianship. The concert lived up wonderfully to the recordings, with a good mix of old and new material. There was also an interlude of material from the closely-related band Hamster Theatre, which is odd in its own special way (I liked it enough that I picked up their album Siege on Hamburger City at the Plague concert, and haven't regretted it yet).

Definitely one of the best performances I've seen in a while. Thinking Plague lay in hiatus for too damn long after In This Life came out, and it's a wonderfully great news to see them recording and touring again. Apparently they have a new album due out sometime in 2000--I can hardly wait for it.

13 June, 1999: Tannahill Weavers
(Potomac Celtic Festival, Leesburg, VA)

22 May, 1999: Kronos Quartet
(Kennedy Center, Washington, DC)

18 March, 1999: Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill
(Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA)

December, 1998: Great Big Sea
(IOTA, Arlington, VA)

September, 1998: Philip Glass Ensemble
(Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA)

8 July, 1998: ProjecKt Two
(Metropolis, Montreal)

8 July, 1998: Painkiller
(Place des Arts, Montreal)

3 July, 1998: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
(Spectrum, Montreal)

June, 1998: Leahy and La Bottine Souriante
(Old Port of Montreal)

January, 1998: Robert Fripp
(Club Soda, Montreal)

November, 1997: Great Big Sea
(Spectrum, Montreal)

(beyond this point, my memory gets fuzzy--I have probably omitted a few shows)

3 March, 1996: Gong
(Club Soda, Montreal)

July, 1995 (?): Phish
(Théâtre St-Denis, Montreal)

28 May, 1995: King Crimson
(Théâtre St-Denis, Montreal)

2 October, 1994: Steve Howe
(Café Campus, Montreal)

5 April, 1994: Phish
(Metropolis, Montreal)

November, 1993 (?): Primus
(Metropolis, Montreal)

May, 1993 (?): Phish
(Spectrum, Montreal)

25 January, 1993: Emerson, Lake & Palmer
(Théâtre St-Denis, Montreal)

9 November, 1992: Jethro Tull
(Théâtre St-Denis, Montreal)

19 September, 1992: Steve Hackett
(Club Soda, Montreal)

August, 1992: They Might Be Giants (w/ Moxy Fruvous)
(Spectrum, Montreal)

28 November, 1991: Rush
(Forum, Montreal)