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Last Saturday night (7 Feb) saw the kick-off of my 2009 gig ‘season’ with Giant Sand‘s performance in the Paradiso‘s upstairs room. I’m not familiar with Howe Gelb‘s work, knowing more about him from association (the kudos of some of my favourite female performers in Scout Niblett, Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey, and the Giant Sand offshoots of Calexico and Friends Of Dean Martinez) than from his records – but his intuitive, virtuosic playing (on both guitar and piano) and personable good humour quickly won me over. Gelb’s ‘desert rock’ compositions are now fleshed-out by a trio of Danes (having married a Dane, Gelb splits his time between the Arizona desert and the more temperate climes of Aarhus), but the sound is still pure Americana, evoking not only the scrubby skree of the Sonoran Desert, but also Prohibition-era speakeasies, the red vinyl of diner booths, blood moons and lost highways. He wrenches some amazing sounds from his guitar, sometimes even to the obvious bemusement of his bandmates, and at times spews some squalling, corrosive riffs that Steve Albini would be proud to call his own.

In a tribute to Cramps frontman Lux Interior, who sadly died in the week, Gelb launches into a Duane Eddy-like surf-guitar riff, before reminiscing how Giant Sand opened for the Cramps in France on his first-ever European tour back in 1986. Gelb had smuggled two joints in the band of his Stetson, which were expropriated by Cramps drummer Nick Knox (although then graciously shared with their former owner), and the internationally-freighted weed, playing on European soil for the first time, in front of 3,000 people (up to that point having been used to audiences of around twenty people), and hanging with the Cramps (the Cramps!!) all made for an understandably unforgettable experience. Gelb, with his Richard Gere good looks, is in particularly good nick for his 52 years (he attributes this to the restorative powers of beer), something which is not lost on his female fans: after he educates us about the Galician saying “Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non” (the peppers of Padrón, some are hot and others not), someone upfront retorts “you’re hot!”, leaving him at a loss for words for the only time that evening. The gig closes with the band joined onstage by fellow desert-dweller Lonna Kelly, who’d played in support. The pregnant Kelly is the subject of some classic Gelb humour – joking about her waters breaking on stage: “it’ll be just like SeaWorld: only the front two rows will get wet”. Kelly has an amazing voice, although unfortunately it suffers from not being distinctive enough – at times a dead ringer for Cat Power/Chan Marshall, at others it’s the Icelandic elven-tones of Björk or Múm‘s Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir.

 dividing line

As this was my first live music experience of 2009 (not counting a visit earlier in the week to Amsterdam’s impressive Concertgebouw for a Wagner/Shostakovich ‘double-bill’), it caused me to reflect on the world-according-to-NarcoAgent best shows of 2008:

The year got off to a great start with an amazing performance by Vic Chesnutt, backed by various members of A Silver Mount Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Vic’s blackly humorous musings on mortality set the bar high, a height only reached again in late May with the powerhouse Primavera performance of Shellac (although Earth and other Primavera‘sters Six Organs Of Admittance, Om, Fuck Buttons, Kinski and Scout Niblett all came close). Seeing the classic “Locust Abortion Technician”/”Hairway To Steven”-era line-up of Buttholes Surfers was a special treat, despite the presence of “The Paul Green School Of Rock All Stars” threatening to drag the whole enterprise down into a farce unbecoming even of the Buttholes.  There had initially been uncertainty over whether Paul Leary would make the cross-Atlantic journey, but make it he did, and make my night he did, he being one of the best goddamned guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in action.

Mogwai in the atmospheric forest-enclosed amphitheatre of the Rivierenhof was a magical experience, but lacked a bit of the firepower I’ve come to expect from the Scottish Guitar Army. This was rectified two months later in the Melkweg where the volume was turned high and the jams were kicked out. Songs from “The Hawk Is Howling” made more of an impact this time round, particularly the mesmerising “Scotland’s Shame” and the triple-guitar-assault of  “Batcat” which closed the set in thunderous style. And they played “Christmas Steps”… ’nuff said. Setlist here.

Mogwai @ Melkweg, Amsterdam 30-10-2008

The last couple of months of the year didn’t disappoint – intimate shows by Nadja and Alexander Tucker highlighting the diverse possibilities of the electrified guitar, and Genius/GZA & Killah Priest duelling the iron mics for a run-through of “Liquid Swords”.

But it was the last-but-one gig of the year that also proved to be one of its best: the forged-in-the-pits-of-hell combination of Italian axe-wielders Ufomammut and Lento packed maximum riffs-per-square-inch in to the Deventer Burgerweeshuis. The youngsters of Lento (on their first outing beyond their homeland’s borders) mix dense riffing with stretches of melodic hardcore and ambience, sometimes sounding like an instrumental Isis.

Lento @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Despite the calm-in-the-eye-of-the-hurricane ambient interludes, Lento had already damaged eardrums before the Ufomammut triumvirate took to the stage with their special brand of HEAVY, heady, heretical rock. That two-thirds of Ufomammut also comprise the Malleus art collective made for a captivating visual backdrop, all fire ‘n brimstone and psychedelic swirls, and the band played an awesome set of alternately hypnotic and crushing doom-metal.

Ufomammut @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Guitarist Poia gave a masterclass in controlled yet expansive riffing, showing that it’s not how many guitars you have in your arsenal but how you use ’em, and bandmates Vita (drums) and Urlo (bass, moog, vocals) ably supported him in creating the vast, hallucinatory doomsludge, at times swimming in Hell’s molten pits, at times in interstellar overdrive. The members of Lento joined their mentors onstage for the final two songs, playing “The Overload” and “Down” from their collaborative “Supernaturals Record One”. Two drummers, bass, moog and too many guitars to count achieved the impossible in being even heavier than what had gone before!



You can listen to the whole of Ufomammut’s 2008 album “Idolum” on Last.fm here. The Ufomammut & Lento collaboration “Supernaturals Record One” can also be listened to here.
Ufomammut & Lento releases can be obtained directly from their label Supernatural Cat.



Pretty much the only thing I feared I’d be giving up on leaving London was the Big Smoke’s rich & varied live music scene. Sure, I still cast the occasional envious glance at The Luminaire‘s programme of The Young Gods acoustic sets, Jason Molina Christmas parties and Stars Of The Lid supported by Boduf Songs (and reminisce how that great little venue was but a stone’s throw from my former lair), but my time in Holland so far has been packed full of excellent gigs. The beauty of this small country is that distances between cities are such that it is possible to go and see a show in a different city in the same travel time as it would take to get from one side of London to another – so I’ve already seen things in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Utrecht and Haarlem, and that list is only likely to grow (hopefully taking in Groningen’s Vera one of these days, which has a reputation as one of the best places to play anywhere in Europe). And the smaller hall upstairs at Paradiso, located in an old church but a space that can rock hard, has fast become one of my favourite venues.

So in another attempt at getting this site back up to speed, here is a (mainly visual) rundown of some of the great live experiences I’ve had in this country so far…


Six Organs Of Admittance @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (14-Aug-2007)

I’ve written here about my first proper live experience in my new home, this highly-charged ritual of amplifier worship definitely one of my favourite shows of last year.


Future Of The Left @ Tivoli De Helling, Utrecht (04-Oct-2007)

Future Of The Left @ Tivoli De Helling, Utrecht

The maiden out-of-town gig, to catch Future Of The Left on their first foray to continental Europe. Their energetically vicious stabs of sound and low-end punch quickly won over the crowd, many of whom were presumably encountering the band for the first time (FotL were supporting American punkrockers Against Me!)


Michael Gira @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (15-Oct-2007)

Michael Gira @ Paradiso, Amsterdam

That this show did not make my top gigs of ’07 list is criminal oversight. Michael Gira is a living legend, and every performance of his that I have witnessed has been a special experience, none more so than this one. He invests his performances with genuine passion, his hollerin’ & boot-stampin’ making it seem as though he’s channeling a sold-his-soul bluesman playing in 1920’s dusty nowheresville. The set opens with Swans-song “I Am The Sun” and follows with a perfect mix of material covering further late-period Swans releases and all of Angels Of Light‘s oeuvre. Gira wrly remarks that he wishes to “write spiritual songs, but I don’t have any”, but don’t worry Michael: as I’m sure the rest of this night’s audience would agree, despite the bleak and sometime hopeless nature of the subject matter, your performances reach right into one’s emotional core and are genuinely life-affirming.

Setlist: Michael Gira @ Paradiso (15 October 2007)
I Am The Sun
Promise Of Water
Nations
Failure
Lena’s Song
My Brother’s Man
She Lives!
Destroyer
My Sister Said
Sometimes I Dream I’m Hurting You
Rose Of Los Angeles
God Damn The Sun

Here is the encore “God Damn The Sun”, recorded live in Lisbon, Portugal in 2002 and taken from the (now out-of-print) “Living ’02” release.

Michael Gira – God Damn The Sun (live in Lisbon)



Liars @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (30-Oct-2007)

Liars @ Melkweg, Amsterdam

My first experience of this legendary venue, and what an experience it was.  Angus Andrew seemed to be enjoying Amsterdam to its mind-altering fullest and was in fine showman form, he and his cohorts putting on a sensory assault of rhythmic noise and lights that overwhelmed some in the audience but delighted most (at their best Liars manage to channel the Cure, Bauhaus, Neubauten, and the Birthday Party, giving it all a post-modern/art-school twist, their live shows somewhere between pagan ritual and post-millennial dance party). The newest songs were blasted out fully-formed, unlike my first exposure to them months previously – and the trancey tribalism of the amazing “We Fenced Our Houses…” and “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack” had the audience riveted in near-religious awe.


Mono + Future Of The Left @ Patronaat, Haarlem (09-Nov-2007)

Future Of The Left @ Patronaat, Haarlem

Following another blistering bass-heavy set from FotL (albeit with the band themselves not seeming to enjoy themselves, unhappy with the Haarlemmers engagement & their own equipment troubles), I didn’t actually see headliners Mono, instead listening to their bombastic but sterile ‘compositions’ from the merch stand while politely grilling FotL’s Falco for Albini tidbits & the like…


Gravenhurst @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (20-Nov-2007)

Gravenhurst @ Paradiso, Amsterdam

Nick Talbot’s Nick Drake-isms sometimes sit incongruously with the (post)rockier tack he has taken on Gravenhurst‘s past two albums. The best songs this night (like “Down River”, “The Western Lands” and “Black Holes In The Sand”) are when he pulls back on the earnest and the band collectively let their hair down.



Part II to follow shortly with futher uninformative blatherings on Jason Molina, Qui, Jesu, the State-X / New Forms festival, Aesop Rock and Whip…



Having once been a relatively enthusiastic proponent of the end-of-year ‘best of’ list, a few years ago I stopped putting these together in favour of just creating an aural review of releases I particularly liked in the form of a CD compilation. I suppose I rejected the idea of trying to rank the year’s releases, to come up with the ‘best album’ of that particular year, as this was forcing me to evaluate the music on a critical/intellectual level that doesn’t work for me – for me music is about feeling; from wanting to bang my head or creep myself out, from getting goosebumps of euphoria to twinges of melancholy… But I suppose it is sacrilege for a music-related blog to come to the end of a year and not attempt some sort of round-up, so rather than create a ranked list justified by socio-political contexts or clever meta-musical references, these are the records (in no particular order) and live performances that have rocked / droned / folked up / brokebeat / hiphopped my world in 2007, that have made me feel



Top 25 Albums of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 25 Albums of 2007

from top, l-r:

Magnolia Electric Co : “Sojourner” boxset (Secretly Canadian)

PJ Harvey : “White Chalk” (Island)

Angels Of Light : “We Are Him” (Young God)

Low : “Drums And Guns” (Sub Pop)

Liars : “Liars” (Mute)

Mammal : “Lonesome Drifter” (Animal Disguise)

Grinderman : “Grinderman” (Mute)

Boris with Michio Kurihara : “Rainbow” (Pedal/Drag City)

El-P : “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” (Definitive Jux)

Vic Chesnutt : “North Star Deserter” (Constellation)

Nina Nastasia & Jim White : “You Follow Me” (Fat Cat)

Om : “Pilgrimage” (Southern Lord)

Scout Niblett : “This Fool Can Die Now” (Too Pure)

Shellac : “Excellent Italian Greyhound” (Touch & Go)

Epic45 : “May Your Heart Be The Map” (Make Mine Music)

Magik Markers : “Boss” (Ecstatic Peace!)

MIA : “Kala” (XL)

Sigur Rós : “Hvarf-Heim” (EMI)

Stars Of The Lid : “And The Refinement Of Their Decline” (Kranky)

Jesu : “Conqueror” (HydraHead/Daymare)

Alela Diane : “The Pirate’s Gospel” (Holocene/Names/Fargo)

Six Organs Of Admittance : “Shelter From The Ash” (Drag City)

Bracken : “We Know About The Need” (Anticon)

Future Of The Left : “Curses” (Too Pure)

Earth : “Hibernaculum” (Southern Lord)




Top 5 EPs/Singles of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 5 EPs of 2007

l-r:

Efterklang : “Under Giant Trees” (Leaf)

Zonderhoof : “Zonderhoof” EP (Sound Devastation)

Joanna Newsom : “Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band” EP (Drag City)

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Ask Forgiveness” EP (Drag City/Domino)

Jesu : “Sundown / Sunrise” EP (Aurora Borealis/Daymare)

 



Top 10 Gigs of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 10 Gigs of 2007

Future Of The Left + Infants @ The Luminaire, London (10 March 2007)

Josh T Pearson @ ATP festival, Minehead (27 April 2007)

Nick Cave / Grinderman @ ATP festival, Minehead (28 April 2007)

Dirty Three @ ATP festival, Minehead (29 April 2007)

Scout Niblett @ Bush Hall, London (21 May 2007)

Isis + Boris @ Koko, London (02 July 2007)

Liars @ Madame Jo Jo’s, London (03 July 2007)

Six Organs Of Admittance @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (12 August 2007)

Sonic Youth do “Daydream Nation” @ The Roundhouse, London (30 August 2007)

Jesu @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (05 December 2007)


Correctly guess which picture was taken at which gig and I will send you a copy of my “Best of 2007” 2CD compilation (once I’ve pulled my finger out of my ass and actually made the thing). Use the contact form on the Disclaimer page to submit your ‘entry’.



A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Things have been deathly quiet in NarcoAgentland the past two months or so, largely as a result of me having continued to straddle two countries* whilst I go in search of free love . Normal service will hopefully be resumed soon, but for the moment I’d like to travel back in time to the weekend of 11/12 August, which ushered in my first live music experience(s) in Amsterdam.

First up, it was a chance encounter of seven-piece all-female country/folk band Oops-a-Daisies , who performed an unplugged set outdoors at the Blauwe Theehuis in Vondelpark on the Saturday afternoon. Although they dismiss themselves as a ‘novelty band’, Oops-a-Daisies played an enjoyable set of country & bluegrass standards, very "Flowers In The Wildwood ". Then that evening it was to Subbacultcha @ Bitterzoet to catch the energetic Check 1-2 headlining a benefit gig to raise funds following an accident that destroyed their van and much of their equipment. Venerable Dutch indiepoppers Bettie Serveert were also on the bill, but we arrived too late to see them. Bitterzoet is located just around the corner from my new home so hopefully there’ll plenty of good stuff to see there in the future!

On to Sunday, and the ‘main course’: before my arrival in Holland I’d clocked that Six Organs Of Admittance would be playing at Paradiso ‘s small bovenzaal at the very sedate time of 4pm, and so had earmarked this as being my inaugural Amsterdam gig.
Paradiso is a large converted church, close to Amsterdam’s ‘party square’ of Leidseplein, and the upstairs bovenzaal (upper hall) proves to be an excellent live room: intimate size, great sound, stage raised to a good height, and replete with stained-glass windows. The support band Jean Parlette (from the northern Dutch province of Friesland ) impresses – a Friesian Tunng , with their warm vocals and glitchy folk (or as described on their website : ‘huis-tuin-en-keuken-elektronica’) – but I’m impatient for Six Organs’ Ben Chasny to take the stage (move over Albini, Broadrick, Sparhawk, Falco et al , the NarcoAgent has a new guitar hero…).

When Chasny does appear, he is accompanied by a primly-dressed woman, hair tied-up in school-marm fashion – this (as it turns out, enchanting) young lady is Elisa Ambrogio of Magik Markers , and if I’d known anything about Magik Markers beforehand I might’ve been prepared for what follows a couple of songs into the set…
The first song is Chasny solo, his impressive guitar playing conjuring up the sound of several guitars and a bass, not just a lone instrument. Ambrogio fiddles with her amp then stands watching impassively, guitar in hand, before joining in for the second song. As soon as she hits her first power chord she becomes a woman possessed, bashing out swathes of noise to a confounded audience who no doubt expected something more wallflower-esque in the folk venacular.

Six Organs Of Admittance live @ Paradiso (12-08-2007)

Although much of the Six Organs output appears superficially to be delicately fingerpicked folk songs, there is an undercurrent of noise and drone to most of Chasny’s work (check "Black Wall" from "The Sun Awakens " as an example), and tonight he and Elisa get to explore that to the full. Together they transform "Hum A Silent Prayer " (on record near-acapella, albeit with an ominous drone hovering in the far distance) into a frightening psych-rock dirge. The rest of the set fits perfectly with the Chasny/Ambrogio duelling guitars dynamic – songs like "Home" and "Sum Of All Heaven" having their drone-drenched innards turned inside out to compelling effect, with Elisa giving form & meaning to the phrase "letting your hair down". She and Chasny seem perfectly in sync, and the sight of them fronting up to each other, straining as they wrench beautiful noise from their instruments, is an exhilarating one.

Six Organs Of Admittance live @ Paradiso (12-08-2007)

All this sturm-und-drang noise-und-drone is sharply contrasted with moments of fragile beauty, like "Words For Two" and "All You’ve Left" where Chasny’s expressive voice and amazing playing cause some sort of reaction in me which could only be described as spiritual in nature (it may be in part the setting, my first proper gig in my new home, the smell of sense-heightening substances on the air… but this Six Organs experience brings tears to my eyes). In Buddhist doctrine the six organs of admittance are the five senses plus the soul. Chasny’s take on this is that the sixth organ is not the soul, but rather the active imagination that accesses the ‘mundus imaginalis ‘ (coined by Henry Corbin ), "that place where visions and prophetic dreams exist between the corporeal world and the world of the spirits."

Six Organs Of Admittance live @ Paradiso (12-08-2007)

Halfway through the set Chasny offers up a new song from forthcoming album "Shelter From The Ash" (out 20 November on Drag City ), which as the name suggests is more darkly apocalyptic than his previous work (too much time spent hanging with David Tibet no doubt, although to give Tibet his due there’s no escaping the fact that we are all fucked! :). The set ends with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s "That’s Alright", here transformed into alternating passages of delicate vocals and wigged-out guitar noise in keeping with what has gone before (I used to have a childhood crush on Stevie Nicks but Elisa Ambrogio can now step in – what’s not to love about a woman who can wield a guitar with such twinset venom?). Definite contender for gig of the year (Bruno Banani – who was one hell of a lot more prompt in getting his review up – concurs ).

 

Here is a ‘live on air’ version of "Thousand Birds" from the "Gold Leaf Branches " compilation on Digitalis .

 

Six Organs Of Admittance – Thousand Birds (live on air)

 

Recent Six Organs Of Admittance recordings can be sourced directly from Drag City . Older Six Organs recordings are available on the Holy Mountain label, where you can listen to some sound clips.

 

PS: check out the "cookbook" section of the Six Organs Of Admittance website for some interesting recipes – I particularly like this one from Chasny for "Butterfly Wing Cakes":

  • 1 cup Flour
  • 2 cups Redwood Forest Mud
  • 8 Black Butterfly Wings for garnishing
  • 3/4 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 cup Water from a Broken Well
  • 1 Tibetan Horn
  • 2 Eagle’s Eggs
  • Skull of Cattle
  •  

    Mix mud and flour together. Give 3 blows on Tibetan Horn. Loud like the shrill of a dying crustacean. Pour in Well Water. Mix. Smash something that bothers you. Proceed to mix eggs and sugar in. Mix well. One long blast from Tibetan Horn. Loud like Thunder through a Marshall. Talk to Skull. Tell it you are not scared in the least of Death. Pour into cupcake pan. Cook until done. Garnish with Black Butterfly Wings.

     

     

    * this reminds me of a quaint expression used by Afrikaner South Africans to describe their English-speaking countrymen: soutpiel (literally "salt cock"). The soutpiel has one foot in South Africa and one foot still in England, with his cock dangling in the salty sea…

     

     

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