Bill Laurance interview

Bill Laurance: “Snarky Puppy is a band of brothers” // Interview

“I want to break down as many barriers as possible.” An in-depth chat with Snarky Puppy co-founder and Grammy-winner Bill Laurance about struggling for succes with the Snarky family, carving out his own solo path, the state of jazz today and working with the legendary C of CSNY.

“That’s crazy,” emits Bill Laurance as he leans over the mindmap I made in preparation of our conversation. It’s a surprisingly supportive and amiable remark from someone whose sacrificing his precious pre-gig pastime to talk to a complete stranger. Less than two and a half hours later Bill would hit the stage with Snarky Puppy in Brussels, promoting Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’. And still, he seemed thrilled to sit and talk.

Over the sixty or so minutes that followed, Bill greeted every question with enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and genuine kindness, showing that behind the amazing musician of albums like Snarky’s ‘We Like It Here’ [released 2014] and his own ‘Aftersun’ [2016] is an equally wonderful person. Even in the midst of months of worldwide touring.

“Night after night
people in the band take
turns in having the heat”

Bill: “Whenever we play live, we try to be as much in the moment as we can. And to find something new to say every night. Night after night people in the band take turns in having the heat, you know. We’re learning all the time, we keep pushing other.”

A Snarky gig typically features tight interplay and blistering solo’s. How do you achieve that intensity every single night?

“Well, Michael is our musical director really. He’s giving the cues. But we’ve also got a great deal of freedom. Solo spots tend to change night after night. There are certain solo’s that are fixed, and then there are others that aren’t. The lengths are depending on the song. But if they’re really feeling great, they can keep going for quite a long time. As a musician in Snarky, you’re always open to that possibility.”

And yet, Snarky Puppy doesn’t have a fixed line-up.

“It’s quite a cool thing that. The rotating of musicians was born out of necessity. Members of the band would be booked for other shows early on. So Michael would have to find other people. That in itself has ended up in evolving the band to a cooperative. Right now there’s about 20 guys in regular rotation and an extra 10 who know the material and come in and out. Where now effectively on tour for about 2.5 months but our line-up changes 3 times. Generally there’s a core group that always remains the same. After Seattle, me and Marcello [Wolaski, percussion], Chris [McQueen, guitar] and Bob [Reynolds, saxophone] are leaving, being replaced by other people.”

[note: Bill was replaced by Bobby Sparks (Moog and Hammond) and Bob Lanzetti took on guitar duties. The horns department didn’t get a replacement for Reynolds. Instead, electric violinist Zack Brock was added to the line-up. I had the chance to attend two shows with different band, and wrote an account on how the sound changed.]

Family

For an outsider, Snarky Puppy and its related record label GroundUP seem like a tight community. Is that correct?

“Definitely. I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. We’re like a band of brothers. We’ve been in this together for about 14 years now. During that time we’ve toured the world several times and we all had to sleep on floors and share beds at some points. Snarky’s like a family. And that sense of community is always there. It even extends to our audience. After a show we always try to come out to do signings and have a chat. That’s not a very common thing among artists.”

You’re suggesting the early years in the band were no bed of roses.

“It’s been a real struggle. We toured the States tirelessly before we got our break, often playing in front of tiny audiences and hardly making any money. But I think one of the most important things is that somehow we always managed to turn any difficulty into an advantage. We never got too pulled down by troubles, even tough we had plenty. We were driven by this unwritten rule. We would always find a way to keep coming back.”

Snarky Puppy Bill Laurance interview

Democracy

In the meantime, you’ve won three Grammy Awards with Snarky Puppy, arguably the biggest music prize in the world. What’s the impact of that? Did those Grammy’s open new doors for you?

“There’s no question about the difference that it has made. When we received that first Grammy for the song Something [with soul singer Layla Hathaway, 2013], everything happened. It still can be tricky. But we’re lucky now to be able to develop our own solo projects and play in front of sold-out rooms. Those Grammy’s definitely make people raise their heads. We just sold out Brixton Academy in London, a 5000-capacity. Ticket-wise it was the biggest show we ever played. This tour really marks the point were we really are becoming well-known beyond our circles. People who aren’t jazz musicians themselves are finally noticing us.”

“We all try to serve
the greater good
of the song”

You’re all very advanced musicians. How do you avoid clashing ego’s?

“We are all very aware of the others musicians around us and are sensitive to what’s required within the context of a composition or arrangement. You have to. Especially since there’s so many people on stage. More often than not, for example, I’m playing melodies with one hand, because the bass part is covered by somebody else. We’re happy to show some restraint if it serves the greater good of the song. That’s what drives Snarky Puppy as a collective.”

Sound like real democracy.

“It is. 70% of the material is written by Michael. But as far as the more detailed arrangements go, they kind of evolve through playing them live with the band. It’s reflective of the way the band has grown. For years, we all invested our time in the band, and weren’t making any money. So now that it’s finally a sustainable undertaking, there’s this very strong sense of looking after the band.”

Right time, right place

Ever since you serendipitously met Michael League at a gig in Leeds, you’ve been the only British guy in the band. What did it take for Michael to convince you to come to the States and join Snarky on its first recording session?

“Me and Mike, you know, we hit it off and I loved his playing. And I think he liked mine. So he invited me out. And it was very much a right time, right place thing. It was looking to spread my wings. And he was looking for a keys player to record ‘The Only Constant’ [released 2006]. The rest is history, I guess.”

[About Michael League]:
“It was an opportunity to
travel with someone who
had a very creative vision”

What were your plans at the time of your first meeting?

“To be honest, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was an opportunity to play with better musicians than me and to travel with someone who had a very creative vision of what he wanted to do. I had just left university and was trying to develop a career in music and to immerse myself in as many opportunities as possible.

A record like ‘We Like It Here’ almost reached mythical status among fans. I suppose a lot of people wish they were actually there in Utrecht (Netherlands) to witness to recording, which was done in front of a small studio audience. Was that a one-off?

“From ‘Tell Your Friends’ [released 2010] onwards, it’s always been in the studio with an audience. ‘Culcha Vulcha’ was a different case, we did that one in the studio with overdubs, it wasn’t actually live. We recorded the backing tracks, came back and overdubbed. So we could really go to town on effecting the sounds and everything.”

“For ‘We Like It Here’ we performed the songs to three different audiences on three different nights. We might have played two sets a night. We had a lot of takes to choose from. So we picked the best. We didn’t piece bits of different performances together into a final song. I think we only used full takes.”

One song I find particularly interesting is Jambone, largely because of Mark Lettieri’s majestic guitar solo. Did he invent that one on the spot?

“I think he definitely thought about how he was going to pitch it. And we played it a few times already so you got a sense of were the peaks and troughs are. But if I remember correctly, the ideas he’s playing on the record are of the moment.”

Crazy, allow me to raise the level of nerdiness: did you use a mellotron on Semente (from ‘Culcha Vulcha’)? There’s a lot of real flute, but in the background there seems to be some flute toned mellotron as well.

“I don’t think we had a mellotron in the studio. And I’m not playing that part, that would be a question for Justin [Stanton]. I suppose he played it on a Prophet, but it does sound like a mellotron, you’re right. That said, I did use mellotron on my records ‘Swift’ [released 2015] and ‘Aftersun’.”

on page 2 of this article, Bill talks about his solo work. On page 3, you’ll finds his thoughts on jazz today and working with David Crosby.

Snarky_Puppy_Eindhoven_1

Snarky Puppy in Eindhoven: Grown Folks

Yesterday Snarky Puppy ended their ten-week tour of the world, showcasing Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’ and playing in three different line-ups along the way. I had the chance to watch two of them in action. And while the setlist and group partly remained the same, I left the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven with a entirely different feeling.

The circumstances of both shows could’nt have been further apart. The AB in Brussels is a revered rock hall in the center of Europe’s capital. A plain rectangular room, mostly for a standing crowd, painted bright red – the room, not the audience. There’s very little space outside of the actual concert hall, which gives way to a busy, electrifying atmosphere that reflects the vibrant metropole around the venue.

The energy that floats through the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven is more easy-going, more relaxed. The audience is waiting in line to get their tickets scanned – imagine that!

Situated in the middle of the Netherlands fifth-largest city, the Muziekgebouw is a rather luxurious venue, comprising a grand audiophile auditorium (mainly for jazz and classical) and a wealth of plush surroundings. While the audience in Brussels (9 May 2017) sang along to tunes and ooh’d and aah’d their way through every solo, the Eindhoven crowd (7 June 2017) seemed to be more focused on hearing every detail.

The difference is exemplary of the two hemispheres of Snarky’s universe: classy jazz and world music themes coupled with rock, funk and dance vibes. Melodic, harmonic and improvisational subtleties played in ecstacy-inducing manner.

Sonic hurricanes, then and now

With keys player Bill Laurance replaced by Bobby Sparks, guitarist Chris McQueen replaced by Bob Lanzetti, percussionist Marcelo Woloski (a lot of feeling) replaced by Nate Werth (a lot of power), a reduced horns section (sax player Bob Reynolds left) and Zack Brock on violin, we got introduced to a ‘new breed’.

I didn’t really have to analyze both shows – one month and two days apart from each other – in order to notice what’s changed. I listened a lot to the FLAC recording of the Brussels concert, so variations, both subtle and radical, revealed themselves right away. Let’s mention the big ones:

  • Chris McQueen played a wonderful rootsy guitar solo on Grown Folks in the AB. While in Eindhoven, Bob Lanzetti spiced things up with a big fat phaser effect. He also took the first solo of the night: a spiky, heavily harmonized improv on .
  • Solo interplay between keyboardists Justin Stanton and Bobby Sparks was limited in Eindhoven, unlike the chemistry between Stanton and Bill Laurance in Brussels. That’s just an observation. Both musicians played blistering solo’s, with Stanton ripping What About Me? to pieces and Bobby Sparks delivering the highlight of the evening with his volcanic Hammond-cum-Moog exploration on Gemini. Sparks later Mooged his way through fan favourite Thing of Gold, the oldest song on the setlist.

Snarky Puppy Bobby Sparks

  • Percussion had a predominantly supporting role in the AB, while Nate Werth and Larnell Lewis brought things to boiling point during Tio Macaco in Eindhoven. Great to hear that song, along with other songs that didn’t make the stage in Brussels: Semente, Thing of Gold and Shofukan.
  • Apparantly, the Brazilian-inspired Semente (which I mispronounced until Michael League announced it correctly als ‘Semenchi’) got a bass solo by Michael League for the first time ever.
  • The atmosphere of GØ changed dramatically when Zack Brock graced it with a near-perfect violin solo.

Who did I forget? Sax player Chris Bullock (see picture) and Mike ‘Maz’ Maher, of course. While they didn’t step into the spotlight like they did in Brussels, they played multiple imaginative solo’s. Maz is a great at playing fluid lines. Bullock specializes in more angular improvisation, taking small motifs and developing them into sonic hurricanes that make your hairline recede.

Snarky Puppy Chris Bullock

Close to tears

Being the last show of a ten-week worldwide tour, there was a sense of friendship and nostalgia in the air. Magda Giannikou (see picture), the brilliant Greek singer of GroundUP’s Banda Magda who was joined by the Snarky crew for the opening set of the evening, was both overjoyed and close to tears. During one of the solo’s Chris Bullock and Justin Stanton fist-bumped casually at stage left.

Snarky Puppy Banda Magda

Addressing the audience in between songs, Michael League seemed a bit tired (no wonder after such a mammoth run of show). After the show, he told me he was plagued by a sore throat. But that didn’t prevent him from delivering a passionate speech about the importance of supporting artists (not just streaming their music) – I previously transcribed his similar call to the Brussels crowd.

Danish dog

Over the last month, attending two very different shows and talking extensively to Bill Laurance (interview coming soon!), I enjoyed the opportunity to have an exceptional look into the DNA of this very special band: the inner dynamics, the brotherhood, the adventurous spirit and endless versatility, … What once started as Snarky Puppy is now a full-grown Danish dog. And still our favourite pet.

All of Snarky Puppy’s 2017 live shows are now available for download.
And they sound amazing!

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Unwrapping the new 2LP edition of Sgt. Pepper’s by The Beatles

1 June, as corroborated by Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn, will mark the 50th anniversary of the official release of  ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. And of course, the world is celebrating with a series of new editions. Let’s unwrap the new double LP version.

When I bought it yesterday, I was once again pleasantly surprised by the visual richness of the album, which goes extremely well with the music.

Front sleeve (older version in the back, more about that below):

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Inside sleeve:

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Rear cover:

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The set contains a new and shiny stereo mix by Giles Martin, who previously produced the labyrinthic soundtrack album ‘Love’ together with his more famous dad George, and a second record, which features about fourteen interesting session outtakes. Among them: an instrumental version of Within You Without You, all sitar and tablas, and an alternative ending to A Day In The Life. A bit underwhelming, but of course that’s why the Fab Four left if off and went for a more thunderous option.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

The labels, roughly the same as the original UK 1967 release (Parlophone ‎– PMC 7027):

The DIY cut-out insert:

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The red half-tone print on white ‘psychedelic’ inner sleeves, also included in the first UK 1967 release:

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The all-new bright yellow folder, containing short introductions by Paul McCartney and detailing the story about the legendary cover, the recording sessions and the outtakes – click pictures to enlarge:

The back of the new fategold sleeve:

20170527_152437

One thing I find interesting is comparing different versions of a certain release – go on, call me a nerd 😉 Of course I already had a copy of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’. Unfortunately not a first press of any kind, but still a rather neat French version of 1974 (Odeon/Apple Records‎– 2C 064 04177), which also had the cardboard cut-out insert, but not the ghost track you’ll hear when the needle slips into the run-out groove, right after the monumental end chord of A Day In The Life dies out. It also featured ‘Apple’ labels, instead of Parlophone labels. Of course, The Beatles only founded Apple Records in 1968.

A little comparison:

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

20170527_153828_001

That’s it, folks. What do you think about the new package and mix? Oh right, the ghost track …

 

The Necks at De Singer 2017, in pictures

On 8 May 2017, experimental jazz trio The Necks took the stage in charming jazz club de Singer, well-hidden behind a row of houses in the small town of Rijkevorsel.

For a good hour and a half, piano player Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer/percussionist Tony Buck showcased their improvised chemistry, building two massive, entrancing soundscapes from the ground up and adding tension in microscopic portions, mechanically precise and merciless like a tropical thunderstorm.

These are the stills of that riotous evening. Click to enlarge, enjoy and go check out The Necks whenever you get the chance! All pictures: ©Philip Hermans 2017.


You might also like my list of cinematic jazz albums.
Read ‘Machine Gun: a Rapid-fire History of Epic Jazz (1960-2015)’.

Snarky Puppy - Streaming isn't paying artists

Snarky Puppy’s Michael League: “Streaming doesn’t pay artists”

As much as I love Spotify for discovering new music, I’m fully aware of the fact that streaming isn’t paying the actual bands and musicians the way it should – luckily I’m also an avid record collector. At last week’s Snarky Puppy show in Brussels, bandleader Michael League had a few interesting to say on the subject. His sincere message left an impression on me. That’s why I’d like to present to you in full.

Right after a blistering version of Lingus and before launching into the encore What About Me, Michael League addressed the sold-out Ancienne Belgique:

“We’re fortunate because we are able to play in a room like this, and sell some tickets and survive playing music. But that’s not the case for many, many, many artists who are more talented than ourselves and I just wanna make you aware, very briefly, that as wonderful of a thing as streaming is – and Spotify and Pandora and YouTube – I wanna let you know that although those companies are doing very well and labels are doing very well, the only people that don’t get paid for streaming are [scream from the audience] … artists. You got it. So while we are fortunate, there are many incredible artists who deserve for their music to be heard and they can’t survive if you don’t support them. So I just wanna put a big shout out. If there any artists, Belgian or American of English or whatever, that you love and you want them to succeed, you want them go on, please buy their records and buy tickets cause streaming is not supporting them. It’s only listening. Ask any musician, they’ll tell you.”

What’s even more laudable is that Michael isn’t just talking about Snarky, or about his own magnificent label GroudUp Music (David Crosby, Becca Stevens, House of Waters, Forq, Bill Laurance, …) – check it out! His message concerns all recording artists and deserves to be shared. Have fun buying cool stuff on vinyl, tape, cd or online!

R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner 'Make It Be' Album Cover

‘Make It Be’ by R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner – Deranged radio show // Review

Nashville lo-fi legend and “godfather of home recording” R. Stevie Moore (RSM) puts out albums and nutty pop songs with remarkable ease, most of them self-released as tapes and cd-r’s. From time to time indie labels have shown interest in Stevie’s recordings too and at the turn of the century he won a zealous supporter in Ariel Pink, who introduced the bedroom work aesthetic of his mentor to an entire new generation. ‘Make It Be’, the latest in a series of over 400 DIY releases, now marks a new milestone in that wonderfully peculiar 50 year career.  

On ‘Make It Be’, R. Stevie Moore – usually a lone wolf, occasionally a keen collaborator – seeks assistance from power pop stalwart Jason Falkner. The result is a delightful album, destined to one day become some sort of lost, overlooked classic.

R Stevie Moore Jason Falkner Bar None Records

Credit: Bar None Records

Not some random dude

I knew RSM, but Falkner I didn’t. So I did some research and found he’s not just some random dude either. Falkner’s career immediately took off on a high note with well-established band The Three O’Clock, in the latter part of the eighties. Later he joined Jellyfish and The Grays and contributed to music by Air, Beck and even Paul McCartney. Recently Falkner produced albums by Syd Arthur (‘Apricity’) and Emitt ‘The One Man Beatles’ Rhodes (‘Rainbow Ends’). Like I said, not some random dude.

From Fab Four to Phonow Wow

Falkner and Moore share a passion for The Beatles – in typical absurdist fashion, Stevie once referred to them as The Beatlegs. ‘Stevie Does The Beatles’, a Fab Four cover album, dates back to 1975 and when years later Cherry Red Records launched an RSM compilation, it was accompanied by an ironic twist on the sleeve of ‘Meet The Beatles’.

In the introduction to that concise career overview Nuno Monteiro and Richard Anderson wrote about Stevie’s early output: “The albums flow in a simultaneously fluid and fragmented fashion, taking on the guise of a deranged, experimental and highly creative radio show.” That is precisely the feeling you get when you put on ‘Make It Be’.

Meet The R. Stevie Moore mirrors Meet The Beatles

‘Meet The R. Stevie Moore’ mirrors ‘Meet The Beatles’

The first three tracks (I H8 People, Another Day Slips Away and I Love Us We Love Me), all rock solid pop songs, flow into each other seamlessly. What follows is a peculiar mix of hilarious spoken word pieces (Prohibited Permissions), guitar interludes and more addictive pop songs (Stamps, Sincero Amore, Play Myself Some Music).

You’re also treated to a cover of Don’t You Just Know It by Huey Piano Smith & Clowns, breezy meditative synth track Passed Away Today and finally, a rough idea for a blues shuffle dedicated to Falkner (Falkner’s Walk, or more accurately Phonow Wow).

Like a dream. Like a vapor

Most tracks are (co-)written by RSM – some were even fully conceived and recorded decades ago. Those revisited tracks offer the key to what Falkner, a prodigious arranger, is bringing to the table. Falkner gives Stevie’s progressive pop melodies a polish and a more texturized sound, without impacting the uniqueness of the material. If anything, Falkner adds an accessible layer and a Byrds-like sparkle to a body of work that has been underground, unknown and largely unloved for way too long.

Another Day Slips Awayfirst released in 2006, is the one song that will probably occupy a spot in your long-term memory. That’s because of its infectious beat, vertigo-like melodies and telegraph-style lyrics: “Sleep and eat, love, work and play. Another day slips away. Days rushing by. Moving at the speed of light like a dream. Like a vapor.”

Get stamps!

There’s brilliant guitar work throughout. Check out that one-off riff in the middle of I Love Us, We Love Me and the lead playing on Horror Show. That last song took shape in Falkner’s head, hence the Three O’Clock/Dukes of Stratosphear neo-psychedelic atmosphere.

Play Myself Some Music, originally recorded in 1986, sounds like it ran away at an ‘Oddessey And Oracle’ recording session and tripped over ‘Mummer’ by XTC. That’s Fine What Time on the other hand, seems to channel both Barry White and Giorgio Moroder.

‘Make it Be’ – the title another nod to the Beatles? – is full of great influences like that. And Moore and Falkner never fail to paint their own little universe. Moore’s trademark oddball humor is never far away. Stamps, for example, is a high-powered punk song about someone desperately in need of, well, stamps. If You See Kay makes use of cheeky wordplay. And I Am The Best For You features Stevie doing his best impression of Lemmy of Motörhead.

Elsewhere there are genuine heartfelt moments, like Stevie singing “Baby it’s true” in I Love Us, We Love Me and Jason delivering the wonderful Sincero Amore.

Eclectricity

At 18 songs, ‘Make It Be’ is a lot to digest. But if you like your music eccentric and your albums eclectic, chances are you’ll be hooked for weeks. At last, it seems, RSM succeeds in bringing his pop craftsmanship to a wider audience – and rightfully so. With a little help of his friend, Jason Falkner.

Poppel, 'Alright', Sounds Tilburg

Meet Poppel, Lo-fi Janglegazers from the Lo Countries

Poppel is the name of a small and quiet town in the north of Belgium. Nothing much ever happens there. Since a few months, its name got hijacked by a promising four-piece band, comprising more or less local rock aces. Poppel likes to refer to their style as lo-fi janglegaze. Say what? Time to check out Poppel’s first cd release, ‘Alright’.

Poppel Alright 2017 Album Gazer Tapes

The general feeling of ‘Alright’ is one of deliberate brevity and sparseness. Listeners are being to treated to four cool, unpretentious songs, taking cues from Sonic Youth, Ducktails and Real Estate. Rhythmically drummer Lars Baeyens and singer/bassist Fik Dries take a straightforward approach, laying a solid foundation for the twin guitar work by Dries Hermans and Bram Van Gorp.  There’s not an ounce of fat to be seen, musically nor lyrically.

Some lines prove hard to get out of your head. And although words like “I was at your house today // You were not home you were away” may look simplistic, they’re really effective coming out of Fik Dries’ mouth. A craft he perfected with his previous band Believo!, which made some waves in Belgium and The Netherlands.

I’m going to resist the urge to review every song in detail. Just listen for yourself and find out what Northern-Belgian janglegaze is all about.

‘Alright’ is released on Hermans’ own label Gazer Tapes. Earlier, Poppel released a tape called ‘Couldn’t Care Less’, which included modest instant classic I Like You:

On Record Story Day, Poppel played in-store at Sound in Tilburg. Here’s a snippet of I Like You. Come closer!

Poppel share a YouTube channel with Fik Dries’ former band Believo! and Pastel Ruins by Believo! guitarist Dirk Thielemans. Go check it!

King Crimson Antwerp Live Review banner

Volcanic! // King Crimson (Antwerp, 3 Nov 2016) // Live Review

King Crimson, Stadsschouwburg Antwerp (Belgium), 3 November 2016

In 1969, King Crimson shook the world with a radically new sound, firing off the manic 21st Century Schizoid Man at a time when the familiar sounds of The Beatles and The Stones ruled the airwaves. Now, well into that 21st century, Robert Fripp and his gang of master musicians continue to undertake radical action. I witnessed the second of their Antwerp concerts – a nearly two-and-a-half hour onslaught. And I’m still recuperating.

What went before …

It’s fair to say I’ve had a European affair with King Crimson. I bought my first album, ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’, in Tuscany – along with Gentle Giant’s eponymous debut album, ‘H to He Who Am the Only One’ by Van Der Graaf Generator and – perhaps surprisingly – Springsteen’s ‘The Rising’, which had just been released. So it must have been 2002.

A year later I climbed the narrow alleys that lead towards the Galata Tower in Istanbul to find ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ in a tiny record shop. Unlike my first encounter with ‘In The Court’, I didn’t immediately get ‘Larks’. The spark caught fire months later, during a bus ride to Prague.

The irony of this KC-inspired travelogue is that Robert Fripp himself has been unwilling to play Europe after his 2003 tour of the continent. I can’t retrace why exactly, but Fripp had experienced some serious issues with the conditions of European concert venues. Thank god he reopened the case and found a way to tour this chunk of the old world again in 2015 and again 2016. On 3 November, Antwerp unfolded the red carpet for the Crimson King …

Polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzles

From the first part of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic on, it was clear we were going to be treated to a rock sound of volcanic proportions. The frontline consisted of Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison and their personalized ‘cyclops’ drumkits. An impressive, ehrm, sight. Together they produced an almost terrifying sound. I was seated in row three, at eye (and ear) level with the kick-drums. And boy, it felt like being trapped in a thunder cloud.

Whether it was justified to enlist three drummers? No doubt about that. Each one brought his own strengths to the table. Harrison proved to be the conductor and metronome of the drum department, while bowler hatted Jeremy Stacey crafted a more sober counterweight and played mean mellotron, and Mastelotto reshaped the percussive inventions of ex-KC maestro’s Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford. The result? A highly musical polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzle.
King Crimson European Tour 2016 Antwerp

The unmoved mover

Meanwhile, Robert Fripp sat quietly in the background. Mastermind of all this tricky music. Personification of Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’. Guitar innovator in every conceivable way.

He recalled old cohorts Mel Collins (flute and saxophones) and bass player Tony Levin to duty. And lent the singer/guitarist spot to lifelong zealot Jakko Jakszyk, who played a PRS guitar with a striking ‘ITCOTCK’-print.

The combined careers of all these players reeds like a who’s who in rock music. Fripp famously played guitar on Bowie’s Heroes, Mel Collins provided the sax solo on Miss You by the Rolling Stones and featured on Dire Straits’ live album ‘Alchemy’, Tony Levin seems to have played with everyone but Elvis, … But there’s probably no bigger challenge for them than playing King Crimson.

King Crimson 2016

The Antwerp setlist was like a wet dream (see below). There were quite a few songs from the earliest incarnations of the band, which frankly I hadn’t heard in ages. Jakko Jakszyk did a terrific job interpreting the original vocals by Greg Lake and Gordon Haskell, and even John Wetton (Easy Money and Starless).

The lack of eighties material was remarkable. It’s not unlikely that Adrian Belew’s jerky voice stylings were too much of a stretch. Even more since Jakko replaced the spoken word sections of Indiscipline with a vocal melody, which worked astonishingly well.

King Kong Crimson

The new material – there’s quite a lot of it, including two drum-only instrumentals – blended in nicely with the rest of the set. 60’s, turn-of-the-century or present-day Crimson? It all shared the same forward-thinking spirit, delicacy and King Kong-like power. At times it felt like the earth trembled underneath the Antwerp Stadsschouwburg. It reminded me of the thundering intensity of a Swans gig.

In fact, the first half of the show was a bit much to take – can’t tell you why – and I felt like I needed a pause as much as the band did. Somehow the Crimson machine ran smoother in the second half. Or was it my ears, that had ultimately surrendered to the onstage gunfire? I clearly wasn’t prepared for this. And that’s probably why the concert keeps ringing in my brain.

I don’t really feel like analyzing every player’s virtues. What would be the point? The most important thing is that this seven-headed King Crimson is a force of extreme unity. And unity makes strength. All hail the mighty King Crimson!

Highlights

  • Easy Money
  • Indiscipline
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
  • Starless
  • the finale of Banshee Legs Bell Hassle and 21st Century Schizoid Man
  • and Mel Collins cheekily citing St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins during one of his solos

Full setlist – King Crimson, Antwerp 3 Nov. 2016

Set 1

  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Pictures of a City (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Lizard (The Battle of Glass Tears – Dawn Song) (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • VROOOM (‘Thrak’, 1995)
  • Cirkus (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • Hell Hounds of Krim (new)
  • Peace: An End (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) (new)
  • Meltdown (new)
  • Epitaph (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • Easy Money (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Radical Action II (new)
  • Level Five (‘The Power to Believe’, 2002)

Set 2

  • Indiscipline (‘Discipline’, 1981)
  • The ConstruKction of Light (‘The ConstuKction on Light’, 2000)
  • The Court of the Crimson King (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • The Letters (‘Islands’, 1971)
  • Red (‘Red’, 1974)
  • A Scarcity of Miracles (‘A Scarcity of Miracles’, 2011)
  • The Talking Drum (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Starless (‘Red’, 1974)

Encore

  • Banshee Legs Bell Hassle (new)
  • 21st Century Schizoid Man (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)

Fripp frenzy

It’s been Fripp frenzy here at Unearthing Music HQ since the show. Here’s the evidence:

Fripp frenzy after King Crimson show Antwerp Nov 2016

David Bowie – Can You Hear Me (Gouster Version) // Song Review

I always had a soft spot for ‘Young Americans’, Bowie’s 1975 blue-eyed soul album. An early version of that album – called ‘The Gouster’ – is now included in box set ‘Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976]’. While most of the tracks already appeared elsewhere, I had never heard the slightly rougher take on Can You Hear Me before. So there I sat, during my early train ride to work. With eyes all watery from the sensitive phrasing of the very first line: “Once we were lovers.”

bowie_can-you-hear-me-gouster

Overall, the delicacies of Bowie’s vocal performance seem to be invented on the spot. Especially when compared to the delivery he later greenlighted for ‘Young Americans’. There’s a bit of hiss in the background. And even on Bowie’s voice, hoarse from cocaine addiction. Moreover, the a capella ending, strings and timpani of the final version are missing, … And yet, it all adds to the emotional radiance of the song.

“Life has surface noise”

The triumph of this rendition is that it’s NOT crystal-clear. There is some surface noise. Which makes me think of that great quote by the legendary John Peel: “Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.'”

From Carlos to Cass

On a side note, Carlos Alomar’s classy guitar fill right after the line “closer than others, I was your…” was already in place. Now, I don’t know whether that melodic trick was a trope he found in the records that influenced him. But the fact is that it lives on. The other day, I discovered a similar figure in the chorus of Opposite House, a mellotron-heavy song on the excellent ‘Mangy Love’ (2016) by Cass McCombs. Check it out!

How Can You Hear Me was born

Further reading: this wonderful account on the genesis of Can You Hear Me, originally titled Take It In Right.

And just before you go, enjoy the ‘Young Americans’ version of Can You Hear Me:

bowie_can-you-hear-me-young-americans

Snarky Puppy – Jambone // Song review

Song: Jambone
Band:
Snarky Puppy
Album: ‘We Like It Here’ (2014)
Why: Jambone is graced with one the most exciting guitar solos in recent years.

It all begins with an infectious afrobeat rhythm, paired with bright horns. But what’s most amazing, brilliant in fact, is Mark Lettieri’s guitar solo. It starts at 2:22 with quick successions of slightly dampened notes. As the drums gain momentum, so does Lettieri’s Strat. He launches a series of highly melodious, edgy phrases. Every single one a direct hit.

At 3:26, after exploring some rocky territory, comes the real apotheosis: an exciting composition-within-the-composition which you wish would last forever. The band at its tightest transports Lettieri through 4 bar runs filled with jawdropping licks. Look out for that massive whammy bar divebomb!

It’s a magical few minutes, topped off by a seamless salute to Jimi Hendrix, quoting directly from his Third Stone from the Sun*.

Earlier this year, Lettieri released his third solo album ‘Spark and Echo’. Watch his spectacular take on Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World:

*Thanks Mark, for clarifying that on Twitter!