“Sing Me Back Home”: The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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My first trip to Nashville, TN included a day at one of its most important historical destinations, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  Equally renowned as a research institution and as a popular attraction, its three massive stories are a temple dedicated to the sonic permutations of the folk, hillbilly, western, and blues music, which have sprung from American soil.

After standing in long line for tickets, which moved rather briskly, I stood in another line for the elevator that would take me to the second floor.  As instructed by the docent operating the elevator, I began my tour with a small exhibit about the Southern country rock band Alabama.  From there it was simply a matter of going with the flow from one gallery to another, in which case after case displayed an assortment of historically important instruments, stage costumes, and other paraphernalia.

For me, “real country” means those artists I listened to on my parents’ kitchen radio during the 1970s.  In which case, seeing one of Johnny Cash’s black suits and matching boots, Dolly Parton’s sparkling coats, or Hank Williams’ guitars brought back a flood of memories.  As a museum experience, it felt very much a like a Smithsonian, only instead of seeing Lincoln’s stove pipe hat or Dorothy’s ruby slippers, you get to see the Pontiac Firebird from the Smokey and the Bandit movies.  For more, please follow the link to a short photo album I created documenting my visit on Saturday, November 12, 2016:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ndnthinker/sets/72157676774206926/with/31138709395/

“In Cities We’ll Only Leave”: Daughter, Live at the Cannery Ballroom, Nashville, TN

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There are certain musical artists in your life who, when you see them perform—especially for the first time—leave you feeling transformed.  You’re simply not the mere mortal you were before the show began.  Perhaps you thought you knew the artists’ music intimately, fully expecting the live performance to be tantamount to when you first discovered them, which may have been moving but not necessarily transformative.  Over the past ten years, what are best described as “religious experiences” have been few and far between.  In fact, only two shows immediately come to mind, namely when I saw CocoRosie at the Rialto Theater in Tucson, AZ, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds during their Austin City Limits performance, and, perhaps, as a third, The Dead Weather at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR.

Now, there’s a fourth, Daughter at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville, TN, which I witnessed on Friday, November 11, 2016.  What all of these performances have in common was creating an experience that made me feel that I’d entered the realm of myth, in which the music was more than art or entertainment, it was medicine for the soul that I didn’t know I needed until I was awash in its affects.  In the case of Daughter, a trio based in London, they’re part of a musical tradition that extends from Dead Can Dance to Portishead to Slowdive and, more recently, The XX.  Currently, Daughter is promoting its second album Not to Disappear (2016), which augments an oeuvre that also includes four EPs and several singles.

While many bands rearrange their songs for a live performance—in the case of CocoRosie, for example, the live performances rarely sound anything like the studio versions—Daughter remains mostly faithful to the originals.  However, because of the band’s stage presence, its light show, and the exquisite musicianship, what you experience is anything but prerecorded.  As a personal aside, I must confess that I enjoy watching how lead singer Elena Tonra moves with a guitar.  In a word, she’s sensuous.  And her voice is the Center of the Universe, albeit one that’s somehow as shy and intimate and it is compelling and beautiful.

Making their way through more than a dozen songs, largely drawn from the new album, Daughter turned a grungy venue on Nashville’s Cannery Row into a house of worship.  As evidence, I want to share one of the three videos I recorded, “To Belong,” which is a song about realizing when a relationship is no longer a relationship but a burden to one another.

Photo and video credit: David Martínez

When the Heart Knows that It’s Home: The Joy Formidable and “Y Garreg Ateb”

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Formed in North Wales, based in London, The Joy Formidable have been making music since the release of their first single, “Austere,” in 2008.  Since then, three albums, three EPs, and an assortment of singles and remixes have been produced.  In one respect, The Joy Formidable evoke a mythic landscape of medieval Arthurian romance, but without the vanity of the hero’s journey.  Unlike the Elizabethan minstrel folk rock of Jethro Tull, The Joy Formidable forge the sonic scope of Rush with the lyrical grandeur of King Crimson into a rare element that could only flourish on Welsh soil.  More to the point, the songs that Rhydian Davies (bass and keyboards) and Ritzy Bryan (guitar and lead vocals) write—accompanied by Matthew Thomas (drums and percussions)—belie a more ordinary but no less evocative world of human relationships.  In the latter respect, The Joy Formidable are very much a rock n roll band, singing about the affairs of the heart, complete with epic riffs that make your spirit feel like a hitherto unknown place—a valley, a glade, a lake, a meadow—has been revealed through the chords that Bryan is playing.

When I saw The Joy Formidable perform for the first time, it was on Saturday, October 29, 2016 at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.  They were opening for another band, which was inconsequential to me.  I had been waiting years to see this trio perform live, so I was there for only one thing.  I was not disappointed.  The set opened with “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade,” from their first album The Big Roar (2011), which was also the source of the show’s finale, “Whirring.”  In-between was a selection from their second album Wolf’s Law (2013) and their recent release Hitch (2016).  However, at about the midway point, the band played “Y Garreg Ateb,” which was part of a monthly singles series that The Joy Formidable released during 2014, featuring songs sung in the Welsh language.  When Bryan introduced the song, she said it was about a place one goes to, a sacred space, in order to contemplate.

While it is tempting to characterize the Welsh songs as examples of musical nationalism or musical sovereignty—it’s easy to forget, particularly when one lives in America, that Wales is a colonized nation—the touching quality of the song feels more like an ode to the land as a source of dreams and solace than a rebellion against the English.  I say “feels” for the simple reason that, not being a Welsh speaker, I have no idea what the lyrics say.  Yet, as someone who comes from an Indigenous culture, the song brings to mind the harmony that one can only experience when they are reconnecting, through song, with a place, a land, where one truly belongs.  With this in mind, if “Y Garreg Ateb” is an example of anything, it is of how singing in a different language—Welsh, instead of English—completely alters one’s sense of being.  While the song is still recognizably The Joy Formidable, at the same time it conjures an utterly different side to the band.  It is the difference between going out into the world, where strangers and the unknown reside, and returning home, where family and friends live, the ones who know your true face.  Below is a video I recorded at the show.  Please enjoy:

Video and photo credit: David Martínez

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Skeleton Tree’ (2016)

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Ever since I saw Nick Cave twist and brood in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), in which he and the Bad Seeds turned “From Her to Eternity” into a hymn for the forlorn, I have always listened to their songs as religious music for the fallen.  Just as Wenders’ angels, Damiel and Cassiel, looked over and worried about humanity in an unbelieving world ravaged by world war and divided by the Berlin Wall, so too does Cave and his collaborators evoke a world, across sixteen studio albums, in which love and skepticism are the two angels guiding the consciences of people who are on an endless search for acceptance, affirmation, relief, forgetting, and oblivion.  The Bad Seeds’ world is a world of Cain and Abel, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, an image that was reinforced for me by Cave’s 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel.

In the case of Skeleton Tree, released a mere twelve days ago on September 6, the spirit of Job is conjured throughout each of the album’s eight songs.  More to the point, Skeleton Tree is an album of loss, mourning, and anguish, which is infused with an otherworldly beauty.  The music is sparse and moody, while the lyrics are emotionally complex.  From “Jesus Alone,” in which various tragic figures are seen in their darkest hour, to the title track, which stirs up a desolate landscape and “a jittery tv,” each song explores a different form of anguish, be it a lost love, “I Need You,” or a lost child, “Girl In Amber.”

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How much of what appears in this album was inspired—if that’s the right word—by the death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, last year at the Ovingdean Gap near Brighton, England, one cannot say based on the lyrics alone.  What is obvious is the tone of despair and elegiac splendor, which take the listener from the hopelessness of “Anthrocene,” in which Cave sings “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose” to the hint of redemption in “Distant Sky,” which sings with anticipation, “Soon the children will be rising, will be rising,” even if “This is not for our eyes.”  My favorite song, though, is “Rings of Saturn,” which is about the epiphany of a woman, “Her body, moon blue, was a jellyfish” and who is “completely unexplained.”

In the end, Skeleton Tree is a more than worthy successor to Push the Sky Away (2014).  For even if one is unaware of the tragedy that has befallen Cave, the songs comprising this album are as evocative and fulfilling as anything he has ever done, be it Tender Prey (1988) or Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004).  All I can tell you is that I haven’t been able to stop listening to these songs all weekend.

“I Am A Loyal Dog!”: Cult Leader’s One-Band Rebellion Against Conformity

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Photo credit: David Martínez

If your only image of music coming out of the state of Utah is limited to The Osmonds or if you thought that Salt Lake City punk was just some old 90s movie, then you haven’t checked out Cult Leader. Touring on their 2015 debut album Lightless Walk, I caught the band opening for Dragged Into Sunlight at Club Congress on Sunday, July 17, 2016 in downtown Tucson, AZ. Interestingly, when I first saw the band they were opening for Sleep during the Southwest TerrorFest last October, which was also in downtown Tucson, only then it was across the street at the Rialto Theatre. Both shows were awesome. However, the gig at Club Congress was more intimate. Not to say that there were any kumbaya moments. On the contrary, Cult Leader is totally grindcore, some would say crust, both of which evoke an intensity expressed in rapid hardcore licks, growling vocals, and lyrics that rage against the suffocation of conformity. The song that I recorded, “Mongrel,” is from the band’s 2014 EP Nothing For Us Here. It’s a song about a dog and about loyalty, which is taken to gruesome extremes.

Dragged Into Sunlight: When Misanthropy and Music Collide

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When the prisoners of Plato’s allegory of the cave were compelled out of their subterranean domain, where they lived with the shadows of deception, into the light of truth, they convulsed at the onslaught of a relentlessly bright world. Only after their eyes slowly adjusted did they begin to appreciate, even adore, the world revealed to them. However, what happens when the sun is too painful because it’s simply not your natural environment? Like a vampire, werewolf, or ghost, your world is the world of darkness. So, if you’re dragged into sunlight against your will, your impulse will be, not only to return to the shadows from where you were found, but perhaps even seek the deeper recesses of your realm of choice. When the extreme metal band Dragged Into Sunlight was asked in an interview with Slug Magazine about why they perform with their backs to the audience on a dimly lit stage, they answered, “Dragged Into Sunlight is an ugliness best kept in the dark.” At the same time, the band also stated, “There is definitely some beauty to be found in the unknown.”

On Sunday, July 17, 2016, in the hot and humid cavern of Club Congress in Tucson, Arizona, I saw Dragged Into Sunlight perform for the first time.  They were touring on their recently released collaboration with Gnaw Their Tongues NV, which stands for “negative volume.” However, their set was a mix of their current release and tracks from their first full album Hatred For Mankind (2014). What I experienced in that small venue was an apocalyptic eruption of grinding chords, pounding drums, and vocals from the pits of Hell. True to form, the band played their roughly fifty-minute set in an alternation of dim stage lights and constant strobing, which was off-set with a huge candelabra standing in the middle of the forestage.  I never saw any of the band members’ faces once, including the bassist, whose microphone was setup to face the audience.

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As for the music, the show opened with “To Hieron,” which is the fourth track on Hatred For Mankind. Like many song lyrics, the words of “To Hieron” evoke different things to different listeners. According to DarkLyrics.com, what is sung in a highly stylized voice of anguish and aggression are the words:

Watching, waiting, visible

Skeleton witch,
Starved for weeks

Dethroned, defleshed, and stoned to death,
Lashed to the grinder

Jaws locked around your face
Think before you fucking speak

With respect to the origins of Hieron, it is an ancient Greek word for “temple” or “sacred space,” in addition to being the name of a 5th century BC kingdom on the island of Syracuse. Does the song have to do with either of these meanings? Obliquely, at best. More obviously, in my mind, the song conjures an image of utter destitution and forlornness, the kind of punishment that only an angry god can inflict upon someone. What I’m trying to say, then, with regard to Dragged Into Sunlight’s performance is that “To Hieron” set the tone for the entire show, which was fucking loud and amazing! If William Blake were alive today to form an extreme metal band, it would probably be Dragged Into Sunlight. There is, indeed, a kind of beauty to the unknown. By the time the band ended its set, no one spoke to the audience once and the show suddenly ended with a completely darkened stage. No thank you or goodbye. It was a brilliantly conceived stage show. In the end, my long wait to see this band perform live was well worth it. In fact, it seems nothing short of a dark miracle that their tour found its way to Congress Street in downtown Tucson. I hope the forces of darkness send them my way again. Please enjoy the video clip I recorded below:

Photo and video credits: David Martínez

Re(d)Generation: Renewing the Heartbeat of the Earth

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Dancing Earth is an Indigenous dance collective based in Santa Fe, NM, which has been gracing stages around the world for more than a decade with their spectacular shows. Founding director and choreographer, Rulan Tangen, is the visionary behind Dancing Earth’s visually eloquent and emotionally moving productions. What is most remarkable about these performances, on which Tangen collaborates with an array of talented dancers, musicians, and artists, is not only their beauty but also the way in which they perfectly balance the contemporary with the traditional.

The clip that I recorded at the Gammage Auditorium, which is located on the Arizona State University campus in the City of Tempe is a mere glimpse into a poignant production titled Re(d)Generation. For those unfamiliar with Dancing Earth, the performance may strike one as incomprehensible as “Indian dancing,” particularly if one is acquainted with pow-wow dancing, or the assortment of traditional American Indian dances performed at, say, the Heard Museum’s annual Hoop Dance competition or the Saturday morning demonstrations of ceremonial dance at the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center.

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As I stated above, Dancing Earth perfectly blends the contemporary with the traditional. More specifically, Tangen and her dancers express very ancient beliefs, recounted in oral traditions, about the earth as a living being in the undulating forms of modern dance. With that in mind, what you may see in the video clip is an evocation of the earth as a place of animate beings, be they plant, animal, or mineral, which are all alive with the impulse of life and movement. The heartbeat of the earth is the most fundamental rhythm, which generates the Epic of Life, in which everything has a place, a conscience, and a way of moving. In closing, I honestly believe that what I saw on stage Wednesday morning, April 20, 2016 was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. For more about Dancing Earth, see http://www.dancingearth.org/