Makeup For The Silence

The digital home of music writer Jesse Richman

Makeup For The Silence

Tag: brandeis university (Page 1 of 9)

Introducing: The Justice Review Archive

Introducing: The Justice Review Archive

James O’Brien and Karaugh Brown: Live Performance at Cholmondeley’s

There’s something special about Chumley’s.   The little coffeehouse plays host to its fair share of student performances, and most of us have been by there for a scoop of ice cream and a cup of hot chocolate at some point.  But over the years, Chums has also welcomed some of the best and brightest performers in the folk world, a distinction that all to often goes unmentioned and unnoticed by the undergrad population.  Witness this Friday night, where before an appreciative crowd of 20 or 30 singer-songwriter James O’Brien offered up and hour and a half of caustic + Add New Category agony, resilient hope and some of the purest emotion I’ve ever seen grace a stage.

O’Brien is as much a shaman or a channeler as he is a folk singer – he summons forth the demons in his head and lets them speak their peace, wrestling to keep them under the harness of his powerful yawl, blasting them forth from an acoustic guitar with the power of a jackhammer and the precision of a jigsaw.  Shearing through his set with a punk-rock intensity, O’Brien nonetheless manages the perfect phrasing of a man who seems to know exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.

O’Brien is a master of control.  Vocally, he slides from a voluminous boom to a brittle falsetto with grace.  Instrumentally he does the same, deftly hopping from a gentle finger-picked introduction to a searing chorus, straining to contain the massive burst of energy flowing through his skinny frame.  It’s a radiant, contagious energy, the kind that jumps from the stage to the audience and sets a kinetic buzz about the room, one that was impossible not to pick up on in the cozy confines of Friday night’s show.

Opener Karaugh Brown played the stereotypical folk-waif – her 45 minute set adhered to all the conventions of the genre: complex lyrics, pretty but complicated melodies, weak choruses and little vocal range.  All well executed, Brown didn’t lack for talent, but for originality.  Still, the audience sopped it up, calling her back for one of those rare, unplanned encores.

originally written 4/29/01

Islam Awareness Week Event at Usdan Student Center’s International Lounge

In the first major event of this month’s Islam Awareness Week, attendees were treated to the art of Islam in its diversity.  On Monday night in the Usdan Student Center’s International Lounge, an audience of around sixty Brandeis students and friends had the opportunity to experience the modern expression of Muslim tradition through the physical art of Abdul Badi Abdul-Musawwir, the delectable delicacies of Turkish gourmet, and the rousing Muslim Sufi ear-stravaganza of members of the Cambridge Turkish Music Group.

Following a brief prayer session for the observant Muslims in attendance, artist Abdul-Musawwir took the floor.  Abdul-Musawwir introduced his work by introducing himself: the son of a half Cherokee/half African-American father and a mother of Dutch ancestry, he converted to Islam at 16 after a spiritually transformative vision of the word Allah while reading a Christian text.  Though he left art for 25 years (he spent much of that time as a counselor, including 10 years as the resident Imam of Walpole State Prison), he experienced a personal renaissance during a visit to the United Arab Emirates three years ago.

Abdul-Musawwir’s works are dually informed by his ken for modern art – during his talk, he cited Jackson Pollock and Modigliani, among others, as crucial influences – and his devotion to the Muslim faith.  Asserting that he strives to portray “humanity in its diversity and its unity at the same time” through his art, Abdul-Musawwir proceeded to unveil a series of slides of his work, primarily paintings and mixed-media compositions featuring pastels.

Much of the work he displayed focused on similar thematics, involving Islamic symbolism (both through traditional Muslim architecture and the different stylized forms of Arabic calligraphy) interweaved with modernist technique.  Most of the pieces displayed featured portions of text from the Koran and other holy Islamic works; generally, the work itself symbolically highlighted the themes of the textual inclusion.  Though it revealed itself most prominently in a work featuring the Arabic text “all praise be to Allah, the lord of all the worlds,” with the jagged lightning-strikes of text screaming towards the heavens in stark black and white, this type of symbolism pervaded much of Abdul-Musawwir’s work.

Other pieces required more explanation; one truly exquisite work (and oddly enough, his first) envisioning an abstracted mosque fronted with a funeral ground was explained as “the mosque is calling loudly; the graves are calling softly; can anybody hear me?”  Though his overweening use of monotones and the occasionally hodge-podge nature of a few of the selections presented detracted somewhat from the overall affect, Abdul-Musawwir’s art served well to further the religio-cultural dialogue.  Indeed, a question-and-answer session following the presentation turned into a short primer on the basic tenets of Islam.

Following a delicious catered dinner of traditional Turkish food including some perfectly sweet desserts, four members of the Cambridge Turkish Music Group (plus a Brandeis student who chose to join in the fun) presented a brief showcase of traditional Sufi Muslim music.  Featuring the steady propulsion of darbouka drums and the tortuous maneuverings on the fretboard of standout Turgay Erturk’s oud (musically, a cross between a guitar and a sitar; physically, a likely precursor to both) backing lyrics derived from the great Muslim spiritual poets Rumi and Yunnus Emre, the group took the audience through three pieces.

Aside from a few short introductory taksim (brief improvisory introductions to musical works), the focus of the music Monday night was on concentrated groupwork, the steady synchronization of drums and vocals amongst the members.  The resulting performance drew its power from its rigid focus as much as it’s liturgical theme.

Throughout the night, there was a clear cultural exchange – the crowd, seemingly about half Muslim and half not (if the earlier discussion was any evidence), took the opportunity to engage in their own discussions on religious pluralism and multiculturalism, during dinner and beyond.  As an art exhibition, Monday night’s program was a clear success; as a fundament to Islam Awareness Week, it was even more so.

originally written 4/03/01

Garageland – “Do What You Want”

Garageland hail from New Zealand.  Geography isn’t usually the best way to start off a review, but when it comes to Kiwis, there’s just no escaping it.  Perhaps it’s the distance; maybe it’s simply the isolation.  But whatever it is, New Zealand pop-rock (as well as the same from neighboring Australia) has a distinctive sound that can only be quantified as “Down Under-ness.”  It’s the kind of quirky sound that might escape from an alternate universe where the Replacements and Pavement were million-sellers and Kurt Cobain never got around to offing himself.  And it’s something Garageland deals in spades.

On “Do What You Want,” the band’s second release (and first with major stateside distribution), it’s a boon and a curse; the Kiwi sound is pretty unique, but to untrained American ears they sound like pretty much every other band from the land of sheep and more sheep.  Like Blur’s Damon Albarn on a bender, lead singer/songwriter Jeremy Eade moans and yowls his way through 13 tracks of droll, self-aware lyrical pap, while his schizophrenic backing band can’t remember when to crunch like Nirvana and when to prog-squeek like Radiohead.

Everything about Garageland screams “critic’s darlings.”  Well, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be that critic.  Garageland make the kind of conventional indie-rock you can hear wafting out of a thousand midwestern basements, none of it particularly inspired or interesting.  Apparently in New Zealand it makes for top twenty hits, but we’ll have none of that here thank you very much.

originally written 3/24/01

Judicial Revue 3 (Louis Magazine Fundraiser) – Live Performance at Schwartz Auditorium

(feat. track – “The Moon Got Broken” from No Love Lost by Kate Schutt)

Eclectic can be a good thing.  It’s nice to expose people to diversity, to let them know what’s really out there in the range of possibilities.  But sometimes eclectic doesn’t quite work.  Witness Saturday night’s Judicial Revue 3 fundraiser for Louis Magazine.

Perhaps it was that Culture X, Pachanga, and VoiceMale’s ICCA competition (among other events) were all scheduled for the same night.  But it seemed that while each performer drew a crowd of fans, none were interested in sticking around to see what else was going on.  The result: a lot of in-and-out traffic, a half-empty Schwartz auditorium, and a lot of people standing around waiting for their band of choice to take the stage.

The night’s slow start didn’t help.  While the night’s first two acts, The Royal We and Good Question turned in the requisite effort, both could use a little more work (and in the case of Good Question, a drummer certainly wouldn’t hurt).  Still, on a campus that’s rapidly becoming devoid of a music scene, every little bit helps.

Chappie and Pals faired far better in their semi-acoustic set.  Though it took a couple tracks to get into sync (especially with Matt DiCarlo ‘02, filling in on congas for the night), things hit their groove for the band with cover of 99 Red Balloons featuring a balloon drop over the crowd.  As entertaining for their antics as for their music, the band pulled out all the stops for their set –at one point, Mark Hopkins ’03 took out Josh Chappie ’03 with a flying tackle mid-song, and the entire band bared their chests at sets close.

Following Chappie were two Boston-based ska-core acts, Formula 1 (who leaned heavier towards the ska end of the spectrum) and Dow Jones and the Industrials (who took the “core” end head-on).  Both bands brought their own crowds with them, which was fortunate because by that point in the night the Brandeis contingent had abandoned Schwartz Auditorium almost entirely.  But for those who stuck around, both bands turned out excellent, energetic sets.

Still, by 1:00 a.m. the Brandeis audience had come back, in time for folk-punk Kate Schutt’s triumphant return to campus.  Schutt, recently off a tour plugging her just-released Brokenwingtrick, has built up quite a following here on campus, and from her set on Saturday night it was obvious as to why.  Schutt’s burning intensity absolutely explodes off the stage, and it kept the awestruck crowd dead silent for nearly her entire set.  Judicial Revue 3  was a long, late night by all accounts, but as seems to be an increasingly common event at Brandeis, Kate Schutt made it all worthwhile.

originally written 3/18/01

Ed note: I could not find any contemporaneous music from any of the artists referenced, so I opted for a track from Schutt’s 2007 release.

Company B “Commando” CD Release Coffeehouse live performance at Cholmondeley’s

Celebrating the release of their latest CD “Commando”, Company B pulled out all the stops this past Wednesday Night at Chumleys.  Spurred on by sterling performance from the University of Texas at Austin’s Ransom Notes, the B stepped up their already-strong game.  Though they stuck almost entirely to tunes on their CD, Company B proved that nothing compares to a live performance, flashing some secret-agent flair, come-hither coos and the occasional raunchy pantomime during their 45 minute headlining set.

Highlights of the set included Brendan Gannon ‘01 making like a sleazy 70’s hipster while showing off some formidable pipes in a rendition of Hot Chocolate’s disco-cheese number “You Sexy Thing” and Stacie Guthrie ’02 purring her way through the Cole Porter pop-jazz classic “Too Darn Hot.”  And as far as full-group performances go, no group on campus can match the precision timing and pitch-perfect harmonies of “I’m a Train,” which went off without a hitch.

Still, in a solid set punctuated by a few moments of brilliance, Company B saved the best for last, when the group pulled Leana Palmer ’01 from the audience to sing lead on “Chain of Fools.”  Palmer’s sultry, heartfelt solo brought the crowd to a reverential silence.  It was one of those rare perfect moments – the crowd hypnotized, all eyes forward – that just can’t be adequately put into words.

After an opening set by the Late Night Players, UT-Austin’s Ransom Notes put on an entertaining set, priming the crowd for Company B with covers of modern rock tracks like the Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly” and Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta’.”  Closing with an impressively devious take on the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” the Ransom Notes performance made for a pleasant surprise.  Still, it was Company B’s show, and they laid claim to it with a strong performance on Wednesday night.

originally written 3/18/01

Henry Rollins – A Rollins In The Wry

Henry Rollins, punk’s poet laureate and the posterboy for early 90’s angry-rock, seems like the kind of intimidating bulldozer you’d hope not to stumble across in a dark alley post-midnight.  But for all his tattoos and biceps, Rollins has a humorous side as well.  He rarely lets it peek out in his music; he’s a little looser about it during his multiple TV appearances.  But it’s in his spoken word where the man’s sense for sarcasm ultimately shines.  “A Rollins in the Wry,” recorded over a series of nine live talking sets at Luna Park in Los Angeles, culls together some of his better moments.

“In the Wry” catches Rollins in a Denis Leary mood, witty, sharp and always on the edge of popping, letting the tension build around his lengthy jokes.  He doesn’t shoot for punchlines; rather, he lets his tales ebb and flow, with he wittiest remarks rarely reserved for stories’ end.  He’s not a comedian, and he doesn’t try to be one.  Rather, he’s the anthropologist, the writer, the observer with a genius for pointed expression, the loveable smarmy bastard-with-attitude.

But while Rollins can be bitterly sarcastic, he’s rarely vicious – perhaps it’s the result of years sleeping on the floor of a van, perhaps its always been in his personality, but Rollins seems to have an overwhelming respect for his targets.  In one of the disc’s funniest moments, Rollins gets almost reverential towards Bill Clinton’s agile defense to the Lewinskygate charges.  He hits on everything from homosexuality to foreigners to bad poets without ever sinking to -isms and phobias.  Its as though, in Rollins’ world, no topic is too sacred to opine on, and yet all things are treated with respect.  If there’s anyone he refuses to hold back on, it’s himself, and his self-criticism makes for a downright honest recording.

“A Rollins in the Wry” plays like a book reads – Rollins’ wit is dry, his flow literary, and you walk away feeling a little smarter for having experienced it.

originally written 3/17/01

Roberto Vizcaino – Live Performance at Cholmondeley’s

In a year where Steely Dan can walk away with Album of the Year while Eminem gets the shaft, it seems hard to put any stock in the Grammy awards.  But broken down beyond the hype, cultural relevance and superslick studio production, there’s one thing that all Grammy winners share: overwhelming talent, far enough beyond their fellow musicians that even their so-called peers seem merely adequate.  It’s in their ability to bring music beyond the creative arrangement of sound, to make it inspire feeling, emotion, dance and trance, energy and synergy.  And it’s something Roberto Vizcaino has in spades.

Roberto Vizcaino, music scholar and Grammy-winning percussionist, graced a packed Chumleys with his demure presence this past Tuesday night.  On leave from his native Cuba to tour and teach in the United States, Vizcaino proved ever the educator.  His lesson Tuesday night — that one inspired man, with only his hands, can reach the emotional pinnacles even symphonies only grasp at.  Stunning the crowd in an hour-long performance, Vizcaino banged and thumped through a set of primarily traditional Afro-Cuban tunes with an assured know-how and a deft mastery of his drums.

On the stage all by his lonesome, Vizcaino made like a master chef, mixing a dash of rumba with a taste of jazz, stirring the audience to a frenzy, bringing the air in Chum’s to a boil, backing down and letting the beat stew simmer.  His original compositions rose and fell with grace, but the credit belongs most of all to Vizcaino’s astute sense of his audience, his ability to manipulate the proceedings, to bring about tension and release at just the right moments.  His mining of traditional Cuban music and its African roots made like a history syllabus, and the inclusion of a few better known crowd-pleasers like the anthemic “Guantanamera” kept everyone focused front and center.

Though he confines his instrumentation to drums, Vizcaino’s skill is in utilizing them as agents of melody.  For the majority of his time on stage he confined himself to a set of four congas, each tuned to a different note.  But this limited arsenal, when combined with Vizcaino’s seemingly limitless styles of playing, allowed for a stunning range of tonal alterations, varying timbres and just outright cool effects.  Just as the best a capella groups manipulate the human voice into a lush backdrop of instruments, Vizcaino’s drums sing, squeal and hum.  And when he added in a few more percussion choices, working with both stick and hand drums at once, singing and stomping all in time, it was akin to watching an entire band perform.

He speaks almost no English (he was frequently joined on stage by Naama Laufer ‘03, whose admirable attempts at translation provided for some of the night’s funnier moments), but it mattered not on Tuesday — Vizcaino is living proof of the universality of music as a language.  Almost entirely without words, he communicated a depth of history and experience that the longest of books would be hard-pressed to match, and when he invited the audience to sing along in words foreign to most, it was clear that the meaning was part and parcel with the melody.

The audience, for its part, responded with a healthy enthusiasm.  Grooving gently, absorbing the music slowly at first, the entire crowd was dancing along (to a few hastily-taught steps) by the show’s climax.  Though a few attempts at letting the fans clap along failed miserably, their excitement trumped their lack of rhythm in the end.  But while Vizcaino worked his hardest to involve the crowd in the musical process, it was clearly his show from start to finish.

Which is as it should have been.  It’s a rare opportunity to witness a talent on the level of Roberto Vizcaino in such an intimate setting; for the lucky audience at Chums on Tuesday night, it’s a moment they’re not likely to forget.

originally written 3/17/01

Kevin So – Live Performance on WBRS Coffeehouse

Friday afternoon saw lauded folk singer Kevin So make an appearance on WBRS’ weekly free live music series, the “WBRS Coffeehouse.”  Highlighting tracks from his recently released “That Oriental Guy” and plugging an upcoming performance at Brandeis’ Asian Awareness Weeks’ main event, So romped through blues grit and classic folk ballads with a musical virtuosity and bright personality that livened up the snowy afternoon.

Though often referencing his Chinese-American roots, So mines a musical vein as old as the country itself, brushing upon the work of folk luminaries from Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan up through the modern anti-folk cadre, sampling liberally from the blues, jazz and classical music along the way.  Deft on the fretboard, So proved that he knows his way around an acoustic guitar, having a little fun with a slide to boot, but even more impressive was his brief interlude on the studio’s rickety piano, where he squeezed some beautiful sounds out of the vaguely out of tune box.

Though a solid performer, So falls into the trap that hurts so many modern folk acts, crossing the line from clever to gimmicky a little too often for comfort; for every few brilliantly smart analysis like the witty “Standing in the Shadow of Ellis Paul,” a rumination on So’s place in the Boston folk scene, or the cleverly playful blues romp “Hot Tub,” there’s a cheeseball number like the silly “Porn Star” (sample line: “Just take off your clothes, don’t screw up your lines/ Don’t pick your nose, make sure you last a long time”).  Still, So seems pretty good at sensing his limits, and ends up on the right side of the line most of the time.

Over the course of 90 minutes, So showed his range, both charming and lulling the modest audience in Usdan’s Winer Wing.  So’s star is rising, and with good reason; as was witnessed Friday afternoon, he’s a magnificent performer with a ton of talent in reserve.  Kevin So may not look like a typical folk singer, and the simple fact is that he’s not a typical folk singer – he’s much better than that.

originally written 3/11/01

A Capella Fest – Live Performance in Olin-Sang

On a campus as a capella mad as Brandeis’, the only big surprise at this Thursday’s “A Capella Fest” was that the A Perfect Circle concert across the street in the Gosman Center drew more people.  Despite both heavy traffic on South Street that delayed the show’s start for nearly half and hour and a no-show by crowd-pleasers Voicemale, the crowd ate up performances by nearly half of the campus’ groups as well as a solid set from professional a capella act Ball in the House.

After a brief warm-up number by Starving Artists (who arranged the night’s performance, a benefit for the American Heart Association), Boston’s Ball in the House hit the stage (or in this case, the lecture area at the front of Olin-Sang 101) to a tremendous crowd response.  Fresh out of the studio, Ball took the opportunity to show off a couple of new numbers in addition to a couple gems from their previous two discs.  Though their late arrival threw them a little of their game, Ball on an off night are still better than most a capella groups at their best.

Ballads like “More Than Forever” and “Second Embrace” are on par both musically and lyrically with anything coming out of Lou Perlman’s empire as of late, and vocally the men of Ball were spot-on the whole night.  Upbeat tracks like the upbeat “Home” had the audience bopping along, and though their fan-fave (and performance staple) cover of Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” was a little more subdued than usual, the crowd popped nonetheless.

Following the professionals is a tough act, and unfortunately Spur of the Moment didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off.  In the night’s weakest set, uninspired solos on the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and especially Everclear’s pop nugget “A.M. Radio” were barely audible over the group’s overpowering arrangements.  Limited to a short three song set, Spur never got the chance to redeem themselves.

After a short intermission, Proscenium, Brandeis’ musical theater a capella group and relative newcomers to the performance scene took the stage.  In perhaps the night’s biggest surprise, Proscenium wowed with both solid arrangements and strong solo’s, capped by a wonderful take on “One Song Glory” from the musical “Rent.”  Musical theater, with it’s melodrama and faux-emotional preening, dovetails nicely with the conventions of traditional a capella performance, and Proscenium made it apparent with a tight set.

Limited to only two numbers by time constraints, Up the Octave barely had a chance to warm up before they were off the stage.  Still, they took advantage of the time they had with a little creativity, including a plug-in Christmas light outfit for their rendition of “When the Lights Go Down in the City.”  Though the group members’ voices blended beautifully in their arrangements, all-female groups often sound lacking in the low-end, and UTO was no exception.  Still, for the short time they performed, Up the Octave put together a solid show.

Closing the show was the night’s host group, Starving Artists, and they took advantage of the headliner slot with perhaps their strongest performance to date.  Starving Artists have shown some tremendous growth over the last year or two, and they definitively staked their claim to a spot in the Brandeis a capella pantheon with Thursday night’s performance.  Shining brightest in their three number set was Aliza Saivetz’s ‘01 spectacular solo on Nina Gordon’s “Tonight and the Rest of My Life.”  Backed by a lush arrangement perfectly suited for the song’s swirling, subdued bliss, Saivetz dropped a capella’s theatrical pretensions for a stunningly impassioned, heartfelt vocal lead.  Emotional but never over-emoted, it was the perfect cap to a night of  strong performances from Brandeis’ a capella community.  My condolences to all the A Perfect Circle fans at Thursday night’s Gosman show – they missed out on a heck of an a capella performance.

originally written 3/11/01

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