The Hold Steady: Live at the Wiltern

November 26, 2008
Vagrant Records

The Hold Steady; Photo: Vagrant Records

by Casey Dolan

“Rock + Roll Means Well” read the banner behind The Hold Steady last night at the Wiltern — a phrase excerpted from opening act Drive By Truckers’ song “Marry Me” — and the evening testified to the rejuvenative effects of great rock ‘n’ roll. With nary a misstep in their hour and a half set, it was easy to understand how the much-praised The Hold Steady has connected with so many listeners of different stripes.

You’d have to go to something like a Paul McCartney concert to find an audience of such a wide age-range: from 18 to 65. The greybeards appreciated the soupcon of Springsteen — the precision of a great bar band matched with singer/songwriter Craig Finn’s Catholic prose-poetry narratives of “Holly” and “hoodrats”; the middlesters recognized the gruff confrontational sprechstimme of a Bob Mould (Husker Du being one of Finn’s touchstones from his Minneapolis youth); young’uns connected with the celebratory party atmosphere that neatly coheres with the recent presidential election. It worked for everyone.

And Finn knows it. In the title song from the new album, “Stay Positive,” he addresses the passing of torches through generations:

‘Cause the kids at the shows
They’ll have kids of their own
And the sing-along songs will be our scriptures

Finn absolutely owned center stage through these “sing-along song.” He may look like your father’s lawyer, but he is a rock ‘n’ roll impresario par excellence. Recalling the great Eddie Argos in Art Brut, Finn tossed off wry lyrical commentary as if it was casual dinner conversation. Unlike Argos, who normally sounds like Noel Coward on a martini jag, Finn is emphatically and brusquely American — a bit of a schlub, a mite declamatory as if he were reading selections from a collection of short stories.

The set began with “Constructive Summer” from the current album — an electric, stomping introduction only partially marred by a poor drum sound that was later corrected. Special mention must be given to Tad Kubler on lead guitar, who not only took at least two impressive solos during the night, but whose tube-saturated tone would make even the most amateur guitarist weep, such was its warmth and beauty.

If a criticism could be leveled, it might be that the band often displayed a lack of dynamics. Several of the songs would have benefited from subtle level shifts. Nearly every number was taken at a mid-tempo groove that mined a Stones meet Springsteen meet Bob Mould sound at a healthy volume (though not Husker Du levels). But when a band does it so well as The Hold Steady, who is to complain?

Subtle instrumental touches did change the soundscape: Franz Nicolay’s harpsichord patch on “One for the Cutters” and the addition of Drive By Truckers’ pedal steel guitarist John Neff on several songs (including the country waltz, “Cheyenne Sunrise”).

This was the final night of a tour on which, truthfully, either band could have headlined and things became a wee bit emotional at the end. The two bands share an affection for each other and each plough a similarly harvested field, although DBT are more Americana-oriented with a firm grounding in Crazy Horse circa 1975. (Have either of these bands done their Moby Grape homework?) Obviously, The Band is a common ground between them and that band’s “Look Out, Cleveland” provided one of the rousing encores. Another was The Minutemen’s “History Lesson Part 2” once again demonstrating that great rock ‘n’ roll never dies and is never confined to any specific decade.

It is no easy feat to make a three- or four-chord song interesting. The delivery and the commitment have to be honest and total. We’ve all heard thousands of songs cut from the same mold, but it’s clear that The Hold Steady have given that template its true dignity and invested into it a measure of power and pursuasion.

Live:Takacs, Muzsikas, Sebestyen and Bartok

November 23, 2008

By Don Heckman

Bela Bartok was an ethnomusicologist before the term was invented.  His early 20th century recordings of Magyar folk music are among the first actual documentation of the Asian origins of Eastern European folk music.  Equally important, the material he heard and gathered had a profound impact upon his own compositions, transforming his style from late Romanticism to a unique synthesis of folk elements – especially rhythmically – and the rapidly emerging modernism of the 20th century.


Takacs String Quartet

All these factors were on full display Friday night in the UCLA Live presentation of the Takács String Quartet, the Muzsikás folk music ensemble and singer Márta Sebestyén at Royce Hall.  The highly imaginative goal of the program was to illustrate — in living, full color fashion — the manner in which Bartok found common cause with Magyar folk music.  And the results were as entertaining as they were informative.

The program’s first half began with several traditional pieces from Muzsikás – including a Transylvanian dance and a Transdanubian ugros and fast csardas.  Sebestyén made her first appearance singing a flute melody with long flute player Peter Eri, displaying the penetrating, emotionally-edged sound that is at the heart of her singing.

Marta Sebestyen and Muzsikas

Marta Sebestyen and Muzsikas

But the centerpiece of the opening section was a shimmering rendering of Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4, a piece whose folk-derived elements provide a constant subtext to confident, sometimes aggressively dissonant modernism. Along with the String Quartet No. 3, it is among his most technically adventurous works, demanding that the players explore every aspect of their instruments, with movement No. 4’s Allegretto Pizzicato a stunning combination of digital virtuosity at the service of an irresistible musical flow.

The second half of the program dealt more directly with Bartok’s folk music associations by actually blending traditional pieces from Muzsikás and Sebestyén with Bartok’s Violin Duos, Sonatina on Themes From Transylvania and Rumanian Folk Dances. The Sonatina and the Violin Duos were introduced with transcriptions of folk music recorded by Bartok.

The synchronicity was fascinating, especially in passages such as the Violin Duo No. 44, in which the Takács Quartet’s violinist Károly Schranz performed with Mihály Sipos, one of Muzsikás’ violinists.  Sebestyén’s solo vocal version of bagpipes – intriguing on its own – provided a fascinating contrast to the Takács Quartet’s reading of Bartok’s Bagpipers (from the Sonatina). And the frequent interplay between the ensembles – in which one or another player from the Takács Quartet would suddenly turn up with Muzsicás (and vice versa) was a constant highlight of the set.  The final, buoyant individual segments of the Rumanian Folk Dances added a convincing coda to the evening’s compelling account of Bartok’s creative romance with his homeland’s ethnic musical roots.  UCLA Live’s productions are always beguiling, but Artistic Director David Sefton outdid himself with this extraordinary program.

Here, There and Everywhere: The Times — Update

November 22, 2008

By Don Heckman

A number of jazz fans who wrote to the Los Angeles Times complaining about the reduction in jazz coverage over the past four months have just received an email response from Times Editor Russ Stanton. The message includes the following information: “I am pleased to announce that Times Staff Writer Chris Barton is taking over the jazz beat at the Los Angeles Times. He reviewed the Marsalis/McCoy Turner/Mehldau show at the Greek Theatre on Sunday night.”

Stanton’s statement apparently means that I will no longer be functioning as the de facto jazz critic of the Times, as I have done over the 14 years since Leonard Feather’s death.

But what matters most, of course, is that jazz coverage of some sort will continue at the Los Angeles Times.  Barton has begun his take over of the “jazz beat” with a story in Calendar today about Medeski, Martin and Wood’s first album release on their new, self-owned label.  One can only hope that future coverage of jazz will emphasize creativity and content, rather than sales, ratings and popularity.  And that Barton will continue to allocate to the Southland’s world class, resident jazz players the much-merited attention they have received in the past.

Here, There and Everywhere: Charlie of Charlie O’s

November 22, 2008

By Don Heckman

Running a jazz club has to be one of the more admirable, but difficult, of all human tasks, especially when the club is open seven days a week.  And maybe it was the wear and tear, the sheer day in, day out stress of making Charlie O’s one of L.A.’s classic jazz venues that finally caught up with Charlie Ottaviano on Monday, when he died of a heart attack at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

Charlie O

Charlie O

“Charlie had a heart attack several years ago, ” Jo-Ann, his wife and constant partner told me, “and the doctors were trying their best to get him healthy but he was a stubborn man.  He had been really sick for the last six weeks but in the end he had a massive heart attack and could not survive.”

I loved Charlie O’s the first time I entered it.  Its long bar, intimate performing space and walls filled with photos reminded me of some of the Greenwich Village music clubs of my youth.  Charlie and Jo-Ann’s tastes in music were (and are) first rate, and God bless them for sustaining Monday big band nights.

Charlie, who was born in Batavia, N.Y. on Jan. 3, 1942, played tenor saxophone and bass, following in the footsteps of his father, who was the leader of a big dance band.  After moving to L.A. in 1960, he was initially in the construction business, moving on to own two San Fernando Valley clubs before opening Charlie O’s.

His laid-back, always amiable manner, and his dedication to the music will be deeply missed.  But Jo-Ann promises to carry on the torch.

“I have a very heavy heart,” she said.  “The thing that I know about him is that he was living his dream by owning this jazz club, and not too many people can say that they live their dream.  I’m trying to carry on here, which is what Charlie wanted.”

Charlie O’s is at  13725 Victory in Valley Glen, just west of Woodman Ave.  (818) 994-3058.

CDs: Black Saint and Soul Note

November 20, 2008

By Don Heckman

The Italian-based labels Black Saint and Soul Note were seminal sources of cutting edge jazz in the seventies and eighties.  Established in 1975, the companies spent the next thirty years chronicling the work of artists such as Cecil Taylor, Dave Douglas, Charlie Haden, Andrew Hill, Anthony Braxton and the World Saxophone Quartet, among numerous other out-of-the-box artists.  In 2008 both catalogs were acquired by CAM Jazz (Creazioni Artistiche Musicali), a Rome-based label dedicated to “releasing anthony-braxtonvintage jazz recordings from an immense repertoire and producing new jazz-style recordings consisting of both original compositions as well as cover versions of memorable film themes, musicals and songs.”

But the big news is that CAM Jazz has just announced that the complete catalogs from both Black Saint and Soul Note have been leased to eMusic (  So, for the first time ever, this cecil-taylorextraordinary catalog of music will be available for digital download — exclusively on eMusic for the next two months.  Among the musically significant items included in the catalog: “Parallel Worlds,” by Dave Douglas; “Etudes” by Charlie Haden with Paul Motian; “For Olim” by Cecil Taylor; davedouglas“To Them-To Us” by Jaki Byard; “Eugene 1989” by Anthony Braxton and “Trickles” by Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Kent Carter and Beaver Harris.

Material from Black Saint and Soul Note hasn’t always been easy to find — even when it was initially released, and even less so, today.  Which makes its availability on eMusic especially appealing.  To help guide listeners in the right direction, eMusic has created a guide to the catalogs, including commentary from a number of expert eMusic jazz contributors.  The guide can be accessed at Black Saint/Soul Note Essentials.

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead…Reborn

November 19, 2008

...Trail of Dead

by Casey Dolan

Conrad Keely sits behind a desk sketching. His alert brown eyes dart up, absorbing what bandmates Jason Reece and Kevin Allen are saying regarding the upcoming album for …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. The academic Keely provides a deep foil for Reece, who displays a voluptuous, convivial athleticism. Reece is talkative despite the rigors of a rough and ready one-off gig the previous night. The laughs come easy. Less so for the taciturn Allen, whose bloodshot eyes indicate a slower recovery.

The Austin band is in recovery mode in toto. Once one of the most praised groups of the post-rock era, an unhappy deal with Interscope resulted in three albums in which the band’s curious mix of melodic beauty and wild anarchic blare was reduced to a programmatic repertoire tailored for radio (although the first of the three –2002’s “Source, Tags and Codes” — is, in all fairness, its most widely praised album earning a 10 out of 10 rating from Pitchfork).

The band left Interscope in 2007 and formed their own Richter Scale Records, partnering with Justice Records (the home of Willie Nelson and Kris Krisofferson) and distributed by Fontana/Universal outside of Europe. Following a teaser EP released October 21, “Festival Thyme,” that gives clear indications of what is to come, the band will release the most ambitious album of its career on February 17, 2009 and possibly put together its most ambitious tour. To complicate the current demands, frontman Keely moved to New York last year leaving the remainder in Austin.

No sign of any schism between the three principals was seen the night before. In a one-off performance intended to recapture their noisy early days in Austin, …Trail of Dead appeared as a bassless trio at the Echo. The audience, who had expected a much fuller ensemble, initially seemed confused. Old familiars — “Gargoyle Waiting,” “Another Morning Stoner” — received muted response, but by the night’s end they were ecstatically pumping fists in the air through the two encores.

The trio stressed the raw, punk side of their more multi-faceted expanded ensemble. This was the profile that earned their initial reputation in Austin nearly 14 years ago, but it masked their consummate abilities in other directions.

At the beating heart of …Trail of Dead there has always been a duality: between atavism and religiosity, a restless pushing and pulling between the Dionysian abandon of a falling Marshall stack amid screams to the pagan gods of rock ‘n’ roll toilets everywhere versus the Apollonian calm of a transfigurative mysticism, some of which harrowingly depicts a final judgment worthy of any Michael Wigglesworth stanza or Yeatsian epiphany. None better illustrates this than a verse and chorus from “Bells of Creation”:

I was standing in the midst of the great company

Listening to their voices in ecstacy

And I watched as all creation was sang into being

It kept changing


And all at once I caught a pulse and felt a rhythm

And I thought of the Song of the Ages

But then the balance tipped and opened up a schism

And it felt like raging.

Given the size of the Echo and their still enormous sound even as a three-piece, the set often sounded like a cement mixer pounding pebbles. The sound man tried to compensate for the harsh high-end by boosting Reece’s kick drum (and it worked to some extent as a bass simulator), but, sadly, so much of the band’s melodic invention was lost in the engine’s roar.

As a preview of the album, the gig failed and was, indeed, irrelevant. Only one song from both the EP and album, “Bells of Creation,” was performed and the overall sound bore no resemblance to the greater part of an album which could very well signal a turning point in the band’s career.

The still-untitled album is an enormously expressive work that acts as a summation of everything that came before and points toward a future of greater musical complexity. There is a majesty, a maturity and gravitas that suggests “masterwork.” All of Keely and Freece’s melodic gifts are on display and the interweaving guitar parts, layered vocals, rich and diverse keyboard sounds employing real string samples combine to form an overwhelming whole. Changes in meter from 4/4 to 6/8 (and 9/8 in one tune), a signature mark of the band, are never token nods to prog inclinations, but seamlessly integrated into complete song statements.

No single is immediately obvious, although “Bells of Creation” seems a likely candidate.

Old fans will appreciate the blood and thunder of the opening three tracks. The spirit of a pop Sonic Youth is there — with screams, feedback, noise and simple Mogwai-like immensity. But as the album begins in violent birth, so it transforms by the fourth track and, lo, enter beauty, consideration and wisdom. That might win them new fans — fans who appreciate the composer’s compass of a (dare I speak the name?) Radiohead — but it could equally continue to alienate those who dismissed them several albums ago.

Not so surprisingly, given Keely’s heritage, Irish motifs spring up at various points: the opening instrumental track title (see below), the sing-song chorus on “Fields of Coal” and a quasi-ceilidh band effect of string sounds on “Isis Unveiled.” Bells, feedback loops and startling close harmony vocals contribute to the rich palette of sounds.

Producer Chris Coady (TV On the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear) was a boon addition to the project, bringing a wealth of technological savvy the band hadn’t employed before, but his involvement was necessitated by a severing of ties.

Reece explains, “We started recording in the March of this year. There were a lot of breakups in time…we lost a producer (long-time associate Mike McCarthy). We kind of “switched producers.” It was kind of mutual….”

“It was a moving along,” interrupts Keely. “I think he felt that in the direction we were going, he probably didn’t feel like he knew how he could contribute, trying to do this new ambition…. It was a long relationship that came to its conclusion. I think, with especially what we were trying to do, that we [wanted to] embrace recent technology, like take what’s going on right now. To me, the changes in technology always have to be at the heart of the creative expression. Mike McCarthy’s a traditionalist; he’s not really moving with the times. The choice of Chris Coady had a lot to do with his ability to grasp…obviously, a common vocabulary.

“Chris had his own opinions about how to make soft synths sound rich. So I was constantly giving him files in Logic [Apple’s studio application]. It would just be raw data that you’d pass through a million processors and that’s where he lost me because I don’t know anything about gear in that sense. I’m learning, but it’s a pretty arcane art to me.”

“A lot of cables,” adds Reece.

“…Patch this together,” says Allen.

And, finally, Keely says, “It was a very small studio.”

“But it’s still basically analog,” Allen says. “It only has 24 tracks.”

“The basic stuff is analog, you know, what we did live,” says Reece. “Live to 2-inch tape: drums, guitars, bass, flying around in a room…. Some songs have two drummers.”

Keely laughs. “One song has three (‘Halcyon Days’).”

The band received some unexpected assistance during recording.

“We had people come in and guest on it,” says Reece. “Yeasayer…and Brenda Radney. She’s on Justin Timberlake’s label. That was like a weird accident…. [Producer] Chris Coady has this one area [of the studio] and John Hill [the producer/writer of Santogold]…has this other area. All the people who were going through his place walked through this corridor, so they would have to hear us working. This girl was like, ‘Hey, what you guys up to?'”

Keely elaborates, “That was the fun thing about working in New York. You had this small community of other people in bands to call upon, pop in. Chris was friends with Yeasayer and brought them in. We had friends, Dragons of Zynth, and just local bands who…just came in and sang.”

But nothing was simple in the development of this album. Even the final process had to be redone. Jason Reece explains, “We actually mastered this record before, then we just didn’t like the way it sounded, so we had to revamp, rethink everything out.”

Keely continues to sketch. Perhaps at his fundamental core, Conrad Keely is a visual artist. His artwork for the album is close to finish. He’s working on a elephant processional scene, “Classical. Slightly Graeco-Roman. The elephant is the symbol of our label and the procession is supposed to illustrate the idea of moving forward.”

The touring group will be six in number, but, if Keely has his way, will also include traveling art exhibits, spoken word interludes and other forms of multi-media.

Album song titles and current sequence (Regarding the sequence, Keely says “The final version [was figured out on the plane from New York two days earlier]. The first three songs will never change. That was part of the original sequence.”):

  1. Giant’s Causeway (renamed, but still Irish-themed, from “The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade” on the EP and a different mix)
  2. Far Pavilions
  3. Isis Unveiled (The first three songs work as an almost continuous intro to the whole album. Each song neatly dovetailing into the next)
  4. Halcyon Days (Allen says, “This is where the album really changes, in that breakdown in the middle…. [The album up to that point is like] the last scene in ‘2001.”)
  5. Bells of Creation (available as a stream on the band’s myspace page and on the EP in a different mix; also available as a one-week only download at
  6. Fields of Coal (with a Dylanesque vocal and quasi-sea shanty chorus)
  7. Inland Sea (available in edited form on the EP and a production highlight)
  8. Luna Park
  9. Pictures of an Only Child (one of Keely’s earliest songs, mainly autobiographical and with surprising changes in key)
  10. Insatiable I (a stripped down piano waltz)
  11. Ascending (has a double, not doubled, vocal with one singing half-time. A section of the song is in 9/8)
  12. August Theme
  13. Insatiable II (The fuller reprise of track 10, and ends with a mighty repeated chorus: “I’m the monster, I exist/On this summit, I am lost/On its slopes I’ve seen/The world as she was meant to be seen.” This Shelleyan ode (both Mary and Percy) to the primeval was inspired by Gigantopithecus, the historical King Kong that lived in southeast Asia almost a million years ago and, in the song, our source ancestor).

Photo by Rachael Warner

Live: Marsalis, Tyner and Mehldau

November 18, 2008

By Don Heckman


Ellis Marsalis

One couldn’t have asked for a better display of the stylistic and creative uncertainty rampant in today’s jazz world than the Sunday night Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Brad Mehldau concert at the Greek Theatre. Give the Nederlander company credit for offering a rare jazz event at a venue that is usually far more oriented toward other genres. And understand that – assuming their desire to have something in the way of a headliner – they would feel the need to include such well known names as Tyner, Marsalis and Mehldau. (Even though the theatre seemed less than half full.)

But ultimately, it all comes down to the music, and what was presented said far more about uncertainty than it did about the still-vital jazz simmering beyond either the awareness or the interest of most of the mainstream media.

Start with Mehldau, who opened the show with a solo set. Although he has often displayed — usually with his trio — a sense of lift and propulsion in his playing, it was on the back burner for this event. Instead, he dipped into his contemporary classical music bag and pulled out a set of improvisations impacted by the love of repetitions present in composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The results were occasionally intriguing, far more often wearying.

Tyner, backed by bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt, was his usual authoritative self. He has moved through many stylistic areas since his John Coltrane days, of course, and the mode for this night was fairly mainstream, and lacking the full keyboard intensity that is present in his most compelling performances. The presence of guitarist Marc Ribot, touted as a guest star appearance, was largely a distraction. Although both Tyner and Ribot possess significant credentials as imaginative, envelope-stretching artists on their own, their methodology for working together was very different and very out of sync with each other.

The Marsalis set – which featured Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone and Jason Marsalis on drums – turned out to be the most engaging of the evening. Although Marsalis may be best known as the pater familias of a handful of talented jazz-playing sons, he is also an always appealing player who understands the intimacy of the improvisational process. That was never more apparent than in his performance of Thelonious Monk’s rarely heard piece, “Teo,” in which he captured the spirit of Monk without imitating the style.

In sum, however, the program offered an evening in which one could hear vestiges of what contemporary jazz has to offer, but not nearly enough. Yes, we live in a jazz era that is sorely lacking in prophets. And, yes, technical virtuosity has too often taken the place of creative flights of imagination. But the real music is still there, still opening new vistas, even though you might have to look past the large venues, go to a small club or seek out an under-publicized record label to find it.


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