Thursday, April 3, 2014

Katie McNally Trio at a Bothell house show

Through work contacts I heard that katie McNally, a talented fiddler, was playing a house show in Bothell, which is right next door to the town I live in on the north end of Lake Washington. Dana and I went and had a great time. Katie McNally described herself as mostly a Scottish-style fiddler then proceeded to play all kinds of different music that I'm pretty sure included Scottish and Cape Breton and Galacian music, plus something written by a Bengali in a European style (the details elude me, I should've taken notes), her own compositions, and more.

Katie was interesting to listen to as she introduced songs and told stories, and then the playing started and I was transported. I grew up listening to bluegrass music on my dad's stereo back in the sixties. He recorded some at the monthly Saturday Maltby Bluegrass Jam - which is still running 50 years later, amazingly enough. Every weekend we'd listen to the KRAB live Bluegrass show - late at night, live on the radio for hours on end. There was always a fiddle and a guitar, usually a banjo, more often than not a singer or three, and occasional percussion. Katie's music wasn't exactly the same, rather it's one of the main roots of the folk music I grew up listening to, filtered through Appalachia and recordings from the thirties. The music has continued to grow and thrive in parallel and some of the more interesting pieces were composed by Katie - they sounded old school as heck, like I'd grown up listening to riffs stolen from them, and I'd never heard them before. That immediate familiarity and comfort stands out. I was listening to music played by someone I'd never met playing songs I'd never heard and it felt like I was coming home to the familiar haunts I'd grown up in.

It was evocative - it took me back to my childhood growing up in Edmonds - the instruments were different, Katie's trio mostly played with a violin, viola and grand piano; sometimes with 2 fiddles, but it was hauntingly familiar. The reels and amazing string duets and the interplay with the complex piano arrangements all added different elements, and the viola often switched to pezacata and struck approaches to get a variety of sounds. He also played some of the softest accompaniment I've ever heard, very subtle stuff. It paid off to listen very intently, and the room as very quiet, even the younger kids mesmerized by the performance.

The dynamics were interesting and the quiet bits would build both in volume and rhythm to peaks with the musicians wailing away, then Katie thumping out a beat on the carpet as they are all sawing and playing away to bring it back home and wind the parts back together. Underneath it all there was the frequent return to the strings winding around each other, skipping along and playing off each other, converging on notes then playing intervals against each other, multi-string violin bowing increasing the volume and intensity and complexity as the music comes alive at the touch of the fingers of the musicians.


The talent and precision was breathtaking and the songs were powerful; we all enjoyed the show. The pianist and the viola/2nd fiddle player each took the spotlight for a bit and performed a solo number - the pianist calling himself a poseur for playing a Galician tune on a piano, since pianos are not authentic Galician instruments. Poseur or not, it was inspired. He played with rhythms and nearly percussive approaches on the keys - I really don't have a good vocabulary to describe it. The solo piano number was amazing and the sideman did a classic Brahms number that was tasty and we had a break - and opened the windows, it was very warm - and the trio played a second set.

The empathy the musicians had for each other bordering on telepathy, the way they could play with tempos and alternate transitions on scales, playing with tempo without losing each other, reflecting tempos and rhythms and passages across instruments gave the live performance a very organic spontaneous feel - structured and well rehearsed yet with plenty of room to improvise and respond to each other.

The trio did a number of reels that were thrilling - moving briskly and precisely, pretty soon zipping along, and Katey stomping (now on a carpet protector, better sound!) the beat out to drive it on to a powerful climax. We all wipe a bit of sweat off our brows, catch our breath, and Katie explains the next bit - how she wrote it for a large group (an oddly instrumented large group) and had to cut it down for the trio - and they proceed to wreck us all over again.

The intensity of the music, the singing strings on the leads and multiple string bowings for chords and the dynamics from quiet to loud and back again in the same song, the jazzy and quiet but essential piano accompaniment, the occasionally interesting left hand rhythms all combine to make this unique and fascinating - time flies and the show is over way too soon, even with a few songs in an encore.

There are so many elements and I'm already forgetting many - I'd swear the pianist said he was playing a Macedonian number in 22/8 time, I think I recall obscure arkestars from roughly that neck of the woods into crazy time signatures. Crazy signature or not the music was enthralling and beautiful. The tuning was rapid but consistent between songs and the humidity was brutal on the bows with many broken bowstrings, or are they threads? One song used a simplified D-G-D-G tuning (if I recall) and Katie made getting into and out of that tuning quickly while keeping the patter going seem effortless so even with fairly major tuning changes the show moved right along.

It's rare that I stay engaged with music that has no verbal component - no lyrics, no voices singing, that's OK we had strings singing and crying and laughing and a piano chuckling and pounding and alternating and playing and themes running around all over the place. The show was very satisfying and I'm glad I got the tip from work, I don't see enough variety and I surely don't see enough good fiddle music. Musicians this talented are worth seeing no matter what they're playing, so getting to hear the old familiar music from my childhood or at least it's cousins played that well made me realize how much I miss hearing some of the varieties of music I grew up on. Time to get out to Maltby for another bluegrass fix, I think. Maybe that will hold me until McNally gets back to town.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Iska Dhaaf album release with Don't Talk to the Cops at Neumos on My Birthday

Iska Dhaaf's CD Release Show with Don't Talk to the Cops is on my birthday! I love that lineup.
I didn't get video, just some cell phone shots.

I didn't even get cell phone photos of Don't Talk to the Cops, I was too busy dancing and moshing and having fun. I first saw Don't Talk to the Cops at Reverb in October 2011.
They had Hollis with them for a couple numbers, fun show!
I kept track and went to see them again when I got the chance like at Bumbershoot in 2012: and at Heartland last year: not to mention a few Vera Project shows.
One show in particular - at the Redmond Firehouse, a classic DTTTC show with Mash Hall overtones, great sweaty show with the audience dancing and having a great time:
There was an opening act I'd never heard of called "Iska Dhaaf" and they stood out immediately, their song "Happiness" is a haunting instant classic:
Droney guitar, up front percussive work - stripped down lineup, each instrument prominent, simple and powerful. The vocals and especially the occasional two part sections and tasty reverb and echo give it a dreamy indirect feeling. The dynamics, the transitions from the haunting quieter bit to the louder more percussion driven sections and the final bridge of happiness gives it more progression, more of a completed arc. This song slips into your emotions and memories like the soundtrack for the bit that was about happiness, but wasn't really very happy at all. You're glad it's the bittersweet echo of that feeling, better in retrospect than while you're living through it.

After the fact I read that Nathan Quiroga (I saw him quite a few times as Buffalo Madonna in Mad Rad) and Benjamin Verdoes of local indie favorites Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band are Isk Dhaaf, so they're a bit of a Northwest indie super-group, which is cool.

I was looking forward to the birthday show, and they didn't let me down. I didn't record any videos, but the show was great and we had fun, good sweaty fun.

I posted the videos from the Redmond Firehouse show a year ago and never paid too much attention after that. When I was writing this I noticed that I have 1,687 views of the youtube video from the Iska Dhaaf show at the Redmond Firehouse. I never gave it much promotion or anything, probably just mentioned it once or twice on a blog, but that's a high level of viewing - for, me at least. I only have one video with more views (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis from 2 years ago) so that's quite a few views for a fairly unknown band.

I suspect Iska Dhaaf may be breaking out quickly to regional success, and with their contacts and history I wouldn't be surprised to see national success pretty soon. Success is a fickle and unreliable thing, you never know how it will go, so I hope they're enjoying playing cool music for appreciative audiences as much as I enjoyed getting to hear it!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

2014 EMP Sound Off! Finals

After three great weeks of shows with Laser Fox winning week 1, Thee Samedi winning week 2 and Otieno Terry winning week 3. Fauna Shade took the wild card slot to round out our four final competitors.

Unlike the prior 3 shows, which were held on the 3rd floor, the finals were in the Sky Church and Chipotle was serving tasty tacos gratis. Chipotle is one of my favorite local businesses, they sponsor many great local music and arts related events like the EMP Sound Off! and they donate free food to the Vera project too, and they have good vegetarian and vegan options. Good restaurant with it's heart in the right place, I appreciated having good tacos at the show.

After some munching we moved into the Sky Church and Laser Fox opened up the Finals show and put on a solid set.
Opening is a tough slot - the crowd is cold, and even if you do get them warmed up some, when the last couple bands (3 & 4) play your performance won't be remembered as well. Laser Fox put on a good show and worked the crowd, getting some "Laser Fox" chants going. Nice way to open the show, but winning from this slot is tough.

Next up was Thee Samedi. The second slot is better than the first - Laser Fox warmed the crowd up, so Thee Samedi got to start from there and see if they could work them up any more - and they cranked up the crowd even further.
The music was thrashier than Laser Fox and the showmanship was more towards the transgressive and somewhat brutal end of the spectrum, which definitely got the crowd moshing and raising a ruckus. They were into it and appreciative. The showmanship is mostly from Noah, the front man who thrashes around, sometimes on the floor, and does odd things with a microphone. He's also prone to minor self flagellation too.

There was less blood than in the semifinals, but still more blood than anybody else in the venue. The band was a good solid loud power trio, cranking out thrashy fast hard tunes and having a good time pounding out the aggressive in your face music.

Definitely a hit with the crowd, we'd have to wait until the bands finished up before we'd find out what the judges thought.

Next up was Fauna Shade, a fun guitar oriented trio from Everett. The drummer Eduardo Contreras is a friend of mine from the Vera Project. We hung out there quite a bit at Veracity shows and member meetings and main stage shows over a few years. He's busier working in Everett and playing in a band so he doesn't get back to the Vera much recently & it's great to see his band doing well.

The follow-on effect gave Fauna Shade the opportunity to build on the energy from the earlier acts, and they took it. I was definitely rooting for Eduardo's band, not to take anything away from anybody else's bands, they're all awesome, I just know Eduardo well.

The band was tight and the reverb was cranked up - on the vocals more than anything. I enjoy the band's sound and already have several favorite songs - I managed to see them once in Everett, then of course in the Sound Off! semifinals, so I knew I liked the sound.

Fauna Shade rolls with the classic power trio with guitarist/vocalist lineup and the singer/guitarist is the face of the band, playing and singing and engaging the rapidly intensifying mosh pit in front of him.
The bassist is more introverted, focusing on his instrument and getting all kinds of odd scratches, shrieks and piercing sounds out of it then filling the bottom end as another shaggy reverb-drenched song kicks off and amps the crowd intensity up some more.

The band goes form spacey noise to tight intros into complex songs, clicking into and out of sections of song with well rehearsed tight transitions, making it all look easy and most of all fun. The guitarist was obviously enjoying himself and engaging with the audience with more energy than I noticed in the prior shows - he stepped up his game and really nailed my favorite songs, getting me and the crowd screaming and thrashing and sweating. Eduardo played a good tight set and the rhythm section was solid and so was the guitar. The best technical performance of the evening so far and while the showmanship wasn't in your face and aggressive - playing guitar and singing does pin you down to one spot much of the time - the music was so good and rollicking that the show kicked our asses anyway.

I love a good rock and roll show put on by a band that has decided on a good approach that is new yet feels classic and I enjoyed the heck out of Fauna Shades performance. In my mind they were the best so far, and had set the bar good and high for Otieno Terry. OT (as we chanted his name, oops maybe a spoiler) had put on an awesome show in the semifinals so we knew they were fully capable of nailing it and bringing the house down. Were they going to be that on tonight?

Otieno came out and kicked it off with a solo a cappela number, which is a ballsy move. With no musical accompaniment and no rhythm section we weren't moving much and there wasn't exactly a groove. Otieno basically had to nail everything, hit every note, get those phrases down and the intense emotions across with his voice and his stage presence and nothing else. He was more than up to it, and the crowd loved it. After the opening number the band came out and the rhythm section started thumping away at the low end, the pianist playing some jazz influenced chord progressions and an intricate lead figures here and there, and the dude on the end - who is pretty much my all time greatest side-man at this point - brought the cool factor up by an order of magnitude through his own stage presence.
I've never noticed someone so good at bringing his A game to a performance yet somehow never deflecting the spotlight from the lead (Otieno) - the perfect side man. I didn't catch his name, if anybody knows it add it to the comments.

I liked the way the backing band was in suits and ties and slacks, they even had nice dress shoes: they looked sharp.

The band was ridiculously talented - my favorite bassist of the night, dude was popping and thumping strings and having a great time driving the beat that you just couldn't resist down into your guts - that's where I always feel that punchy low bass that just makes you move. The crowd was intense and the set was great. The pianist was tasty, playing intricate passages and augmenting the sound, sometimes playing fairly minimally, other times holding up a chunk of the rhythm, very nice work that gave the band a different and better or perhaps cleaner sound than most of the live bands I see.

Otieno was on his game, taking us along through the emotional rigors of the stories his songs told - and boy can he communicate that emotion!

I also can't help circling back to the side man that I have a man crush on. The cool suit and the backing group made me think a little of the old rat pack; I grew up on Dean Martin's variety show with the singers in their sharp suits telling funny stories and alternating leads vs. side roles. OT's band's approach was that kind of an old school approach, although with more of a smaller set of more inspired musicians rather than the rat pack's larger bands where the inspiration was more in the arrangements. These guys would've fit right in with the rat pack.
When they got the 3 part vocals going it was pretty darn cool, these guys have an effortless style and the sound was great and very much their own. Fauna Shade set the bar high on musicianship and Otieno Terry pushed it a little higher while putting on a powerful show across the board. I was rooting for Fauna Shade but unfortunately OT was just off the scale. Well, unfortunately for Fauna Shade and it's winning ambitions; for the rest of us it was a musical blessing, music as a spiritual connection. By the end of the dancing and yelling and clapping and bouncing my feet hurt and I was sweaty and grinning - another great show, there's so much talent making music in Seattle it never stops amazing me.

With the performances finished we hit the usual post-show pause while the judges tally scores and the audience expressed its appreciation for the bands and the audience appreciation award went to Thee Samedi, a well earned award. Finally the judges results were announced and Otieno Terry won it, and deservedly so. Fauna Shade came in second which was great too.

Another great Sound Off! this year, filled with talented bands and great sets and memorable performances and the killer songs. Very well run, judging was spot on, all in all this was an awesome series of shows.

The best part is that now there are 12 more bands on my list of cool bands to keep an eye out for so I can see how they're doing and what they're up to. You can never have too many band crushes or too many opportunities to see great bands, so it's all good!

Kudos to the EMP and the Sound Board and all the volunteers who put this event on, and the Studios who sponsored the event like Fastback Studios, London Bridge Studios, Robert Lang studios, and the Snoqualmie Tribe and BNSF and Talking Rain. Thanks to all of you for helping put on a great Sound Off! this year, I enjoyed it immensely.