Sunday, June 29, 2014

Currente calamo: NXNE 2014 (Wednesday)

NXNE 2014 (Wednesday, June 18, 2014)

While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. In the fullness of time there might be a more complete accounting of the night that'll include more details and additional recordings.

Are bad vibes following me?

Unlike the kid-in-a-candy store glee of years past, the lead-up to this year's NXNE was filled with a mounting feeling of unpleasantness, mostly arising from a burgeoning friction between the festival's cocky "world-class" swagger and the local music community's smaller-scale ethic of mutual concern.

Murmurings of discontent over a newly-instituted radius clause — wherein acts were contractually barred from performing within forty-five days prior to the festival — picked up steam, especially as stories of bureaucratically-rigourous enforcement started to circulate. As after that got out, many further stories circulated both on and of the record, including poor treatment of longtime "partners". Closer to home, a minor bit of hubbub revealed that the festival was drastically cutting back accreditations to smaller, locally-based outlets. As far as I could tell — and NXNE does not publicly release a list of outlets they accredit — I was the only doofus one-man-show-with-a-crappy-blogspot still in the game.

The festival HQ on King St. was unusually sedate for the opening night of the music portion of the festival — a bit of a ghost town, really, with volunteers outnumbering patrons. I had toyed with the notion of making some manner of quixotic gesture and refusing my pass, but I quickly realized that not only would the effort be directed at anyone other than a bored (and in this situation powerless) volunteer, it wasn't as if my pass would go to someone equally/more deserving to me. I picked the damn thing up. No alarms went off. Might as well go see some music.

8 p.m.: Whimm @ Smiling Buddha

Headed down to The Smiling Buddha to duck into the Buzz showcase before my night's main event. I figured I'd run to some familiar faces there, and I wanted to check out Whimm, who had out up some rather tasty tunes on their Bandcamp. As the earliest band on the bill, they were understandably trying to put off starting , waiting for people to show up, but it also turned out that they were perhaps a little hesitant to get going seeing as they were without their drummer, who had broken her leg just a day before. (Are bad vibes following me?) With guitar, bass and drum machine, they pressed on and made a go of it.

It took a couple songs for the players to fall into sync with the programmed beats, and there were only flashes there of the shoegazey dreampop textures that the band seems capable of. After that, it did come together a bit more, especially on a song with an Automatic-era JAMC drum pattern that felt more naturally integrated. This tantalized, but was ultimately not quite satisfying. But I'm certain I'll be seeing this band again.

9 p.m.: Horse Lords @ The Great Hall

And then I strolled down Dovercourt to the Great Hall, walking up past David Waldman's photo tribute to Chris Levoir (now gone from us a year already) in the main stairway. The pictures were bursting with life, but seeing them left a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Are bad vibes following me? On a day where I was thinking about the festival's steamroller sensibility, my disposition could not have been improved by going to Tad Michalak's Burn Down the Capital showcase, a show — to put it plainly — that was more or less ruined by being part of NXNE.

The Great Hall was not the right spot for this show. (My understanding is that it had originally been booked elsewhere, but the festival moved it.) The space was too big for the crowd that was on hand and the feeling decidedly off. Last year, Michalak did a couple NXNE shows at Double Double Land, and the festival felt minimally intrusive on the proceedings. But here, there were extraneous volunteers standing around and shills (er, "brand ambassadors") for some awful water-flavouring chemicals working the floor.

At least that enhanced the crowd — which was less than twenty people by my count as I walked in with Baltimore's Horse Lords taking the stage. There'd be about twice that for the next spot, but even at its busiest this still could have easily fit in more intimate space. Not only was this competing with everything else at the festival, I have no doubt that some segment of the sort of people that would normally go to a show like this were put off by the very fact it was part of the festival.

Oh well. There was still some good music to be had. Horse Lords brought a rigorous instrumental krautrock groove, guit/bass/drums augmented by swingman Andrew Bernstein's alternating between second drumkit and saxophone. There were hints of prog-funk here and there (one song sounded like it could have been the theme music to the German version of The A-Team), but at its best it stripped away all excess adornments, such as one song that held a pattern in place for long enough that it went from hypnotizing to mildly awkward and back into hypnotizing. Strong stuff.

Listen to a track from this set here.

10 p.m.: Guerilla Toss @ The Great Hall

I didn't know much about Boston's Guerilla Toss besides the fact that they're on NNA Tapes, which has a solid rep. They also apparently had just at least a tiny bit of "buzz", as the crowd on hand temporarily nearly doubled as they took the stage. Their set would turn out to be a sort of spazz-noise groove-off, and would have been incredibly fun in a small, crowded room. As it was, the band made their peace with the situation by quickly inviting the entire crowd to join them on stage to dance. With bassist Simon Hanes hopping down to the floor to start herding people up, nearly half the crowd took them up on it, making it look like they'd assembled their own little crowded kitchen party. Soon, everyone was learning choreographed dance moves.

The on-stage dancers were then dispatched back to the floor and instructed to join hands and make a circle around the people who hadn't gone up on stage, and the next song ended up as a sort of freakazoid ring-around-the-rosie game, and rather a surreal sight with the band trying to suggest improvised variations from the stage. That made it more memorable as a spectacle than a musical experience, but it added some much-needed levity to the evening.

Listen to a track from this set here.

11 p.m.: Many Arms with Colin Fisher @ The Great Hall

Much of the festival-hopping crowd that'd showed up for Guerilla Toss split at that point, leaving the room barren once again for Philadelphia's Many Arms. This was not an overwhelming homecoming for saxophonist Colin Fisher, who was touring with the trio after joining them for their recently-released Suspended Definition, which was released on John Zorn's Tzadik label.

As the set led off, Fisher and guitarist Nick Millevoi joked that this was going to be their "rock set", and indeed they came with rock'n'roll verve and volume. That would be the delivery system for their jazz-skronk improvisation tactics, sounding something like a version of heavy metal as refracted by Sonny Sharrock's shredding and the rhythmic suggestions of Miles' "Directions".

Playing continuously, the band built up to a first peak of excitement, and then the rhythm section dropped out, leaving Millevoi and Fisher to shred off each other, swinging the set from musicality to whistling kettle whitenoise. As that ended and the band kicked back in, rather unusually, the sound tech stepped onto the stage and turned down the guitar amp by quite a lot. This took Millevoi by surprise, and all at once deflated that bubble of being "in the moment" as some jawing back and forth occurred. The breach of protocol was too much for Fisher to bear (perhaps feeling that he was offering his bandmates a less-than-flattering look at his hometown) and he took to the mic to abruptly end the set. That this was the final night of their tour was probably made this feel all the more deflating for them. The abbreviated set lasted just past fifteen minutes.

Are bad vibes following me? That abrupt ending also definitely felt like it shut the evening down, and with apologies to Australia's Kirin J Callinan (who was scheduled to play last) it just felt like it was time to get gone from there.

Still to come: petitions, visions of festivals that could be, total darkness, and more.

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