Mike Gordon & Stick Men, Live

29 05 2011

Two bassists with muscular, melodic styles who don’t mind improvising in front of an audience. Tony Levin’s a permanent sideman, even in his own band, Stick Men; he’ll soon gravitate to different players and it’ll still sound like he’s the architect. Mike Gordon’s consistent pleasure in playing live with Phish is evident from the fall 2010 tour with his own band.

Here are two fresh and vigorous live performances available as a free  download or to stream. This is music worth buying.

There’s not a duff musician in the bunch and as bands they’re not afraid to stretch out.

Download Mike Gordon, live, 11-16-10, Minneapolis, here. It’s well played jammy rock fusion. Not necessarily in that order. It’s a happy performance that sounds loosely familiar with twists. The mp3 soundboard has enough bass to hold down the bottom. You don’t know most of the songs; it won’t matter. In the best jam band tradition, the party continues if you leave the room and it’s still bubbling when you walk back in and notice the band’s ripping through Alanis Morissette’s Hand in Pocket or Little Feat’s Sailing Shoes. The Any Griffith Show theme has a did-I-really-just-hear-that cameo. It’s not a mood breaker but a mood enhancer. Yes, humor belongs in music if it’s done right. The production is a warehouse-y echo with just enough slapback to make it shimmer. The performance never lags, always leans ahead, and refuses to go flat.

Stream the Stick Men show, or buy a download, here. It’s a night on Stick Men’s 2011 South American tour, a 2-track recording straight from the mixing board.

Pat Mastelotto is predictably rock solid. He was one of King Crimson’s cleanest and leanest drummers. HIs work on the early 2000s Crimson tours is some of the most enjoyable performances that band ever produced.

It’s always a pleasure to hear Tony Levin play bass. Or Stick. Or whatever’s at hand. He brings a willingness to experiment at a solid gait. This Buenos Aires show never drifts too far from Crimson’s shadow. That says much about Tony Levin’s influence on Robert Fripp.

Yes, That’s Indiscipline in Spanish. Nice changeup. The 14+ minutes of Slow Glide sound like early ’80s Talking Heads. That’s a compliment. There is never enough Westernized African-trance rock to go around.

There’s another live Stick Men show to stream here, an audience bootleg from the same South American tour. Monte Video is another crafted and unrestrained performance and the audio quality is just fine.

All these recordings are free to listen to now. Enjoy this embarrassment of riches while driving, or with headphones, or ambiently. The performances are strong enough to eat up all three.

Live Fripp: ’74 & ’10

17 05 2011

When music cost more it seemed there was less of it. Now that music is often free, there’s a glut. More is good but more is a lot to wade through.

Prog loves this glut and it’s a pleasure to sip from the fire hose.

Robert Fripp’s recent performance in a very public space in New York playing his version of ambient jazz is available to listen to any time for free here and here. Free music that’s actually worth paying for … but why bother. Thank you, seriously, WNYC Radio, for actually creating programming in the public interest, at no direct charge, with an interview that is not over-the-top fawning. Archived too? There is nothing to not like and that’s a compliment for the stale loaf of bread that’s become American radio.

The context of this show’s broadcast fits into the progressive mold: a live recording, strictly by the station for its listeners. This practice fled from album-oriented rock radio’s demands for low budgets in the mid to late ’70s. A live broadcast from a local venue, usually a small one, was a treat for those who couldn’t get a ticket. Grateful Dead on KSAN formed the mold.

Fripp that costs is available too.  Toronto ’74, with all the beautifically jagged edges Fripp owned at the time. Bill Bruford’s hollow-with-a-solid-bottom drumming, the heady pull of the dark bass, and the sheets of steel guitar. DGM makes the show available by mail order as the most recent release in the King Crimson Collectors Club series that dates back to the late ’90s.

Pay the guy; he deserves it. No one should have received the bad treatment Fripp’s been meted out by the music business, and he’s only one of tens of thousands to realize he had to be part businessman in addition to avant garde musician. Evolve or die, eh?

Both performances are progressive, a foot in the past and one in the future. Put each in context with its time and it’s clear they’re an accurate mirror of our time, then and now. Those who listened closely, and those who still do, are still present for a feast of audio.

Plus, it’s a Robert Fripp audio feast. He’s easy to underrate and tough to overrate.

Prog should be rewarding in this way. It’s not a drive-by  experience. It’s meant to resonate and both these Fripp performances will bounce pleasantly around the room and your head for a while after you’ve heard them.

Decemberists: Prog Meets the Sea Shanty

4 05 2011

The Decemberists are a twisting and rewarding trip through musical genres leading ultimately to the doorstep of prog. This prog-unlikely band is from Portland, Oregon, not lushest England but lush nonetheless. The themes never stray far from life, death and the joys & perils of extremely large bodies of water. The vessel is often traditional acoustic English folk  with a twangy country American hull of reverb and a crisp backbeat that doesn’t falter at the odd time signature. Song lengths vary — they’re as long as necessary, sometimes clocking in at a 78 rpm standard of  three minutes but 10-minute territory isn’t unusual.

It’s tempting to categorize music or tear it apart to find out what makes it tick. The Decemberists hold up pretty well to this kind of scrutiny. Invite it, even. The more the better. This is music that revels in being examined.

The band’s latest is The King is Dead, the fourth in a strong string of discs. Close your eyes, choose and you can’t find a loser in the bunch. Each are a joyful experience. This newest is a poppy set, with running times condensed and cinematic story songs Chaucer or Patrick O’Brian would recognize. “Why We Fight” is a great example — don’t spare the volume.

Prog has changed over the decades but it’s essentially the same as it always was — adventurous music by and for adventurous souls. It buries the past behind while simultaneously revering it. Traditionalists may not care for the Decemberists — there’s an accordion and the occasional pedal steel guitar to contend with. But don’t let these oddities spoil the party.

The band played a recent show in Atlanta that was probably a typically frisky night on the road in front of an enthusiastic audience.  Good show. They’re not the most spontaneous group in the world. The song’s the thing — meticulously written and produced operatic shorts. A lot like Paul McCartney, you’re not going to get a new version of The Mariner’s Revenge Song” any more than you’ll get a techno “Oh-Bla-Di-Oh-Bla-Da.” Style morphing and improvisation isn’t the goal here. A thoughtful story with a beat is.

The Atlanta concert’s “Rox in a Box” was a highlight.

What does this resurgence of prog into the popular mainstream say about modern life, about music, about ourselves? Easy: You can’t keep a good idea down.