Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Brian Blade and Mama Rosa - Blue Horse - Sept. 11, 2012

Brian Blade and Mama Rosa - Blue Horse

Sept. 11, 2012

The evening begins with the clarion call of a coal train whistle in the distance. Brian Blade and the Mama Rosa Band are assembled on the revamped stage at the Blue Horse listening, smiling as the sound fades into a slow dirge on the keyboards. Blade is singing there is “no fear of darkness with you by my side.” Only moments into the performance and there is a sense of experiencing something extraordinary. There is a beautiful gospel intensity filling the room, a sudden spiritual quality. Then, the songs is over, a fragment from a lost rock opera, opening up the possibilities of the music, reconstructing the expectations of the night. The capacity crowd is transfixed.

A recommendation by Julian Macdonough, never to be taken lightly, brought me down here. Blade is a well-known jazz drummer and composer who performs with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, as well as leading his own band, The Brian Blade Fellowship. Mama Rosa evolved out of a series of intensely personal recordings he made at home. At the encouragement of Daniel Lanois, he shaped with into an evocative and lyrical song cycle. I was curious to see how Blade’s jazz sensibilities translated to a more singer-songwriter oriented format. The current iteration of the band features Kelly Jones on keyboards and vocals, Goffrey Moore on guitar, Chris Thomas on bass and Steve Nistor on drums.

Three songs in, there are soulful echoes of Bobby Womack, elements of Across 100th Street. Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. Something there of Beck from Sea Change. The songs trail off, segueing into each other seamlessly, underlining the interconnectedness to each other. The qualities of gentle and accomplished experimentation with structure and form lead me to slightly muse what Jimi Hendrix would have sounded like if he were still alive and performing.

What follows is the deeply spiritual, Mercy Angel.  “Feel the sunshine on my skin / It must be you smiling within / From above, I feel your love fall downward / Troubled waters wash over me.” Beautifully accompanied on vocals by Kelly Jones. Blade’s guitar has a sharp, percussive quality. Moore’s lead creating unexpected whips and wails of sound almost of time, transcending time signatures, rising from deep spaces with the music and then moving out front and center. Thomas and Nistor constructing solid architectures of sound around them. There is a slow build from plaintive solitary exploration to a communal celebration. Then the return to the solitary singer addressing his angel. There is an intimacy here, like witnessing someone say their prayers. It is beautiful and transcendent.

These songs are vignettes into the spiritual world of the singer. They are studies in sonic textures and modes, as a means of self-exploration through musical expression. In an interview, Blade said, "Revealing more of ourselves is always daunting, but I feel like I need to keep challenging myself and peeling away layers to get to the core of who I am and what I have to offer."  

After a short break, the second set resumes the atmospheric gospel tones with rounded, soft sculpted chords. The phrase “come down to the old country” evokes a small country church choir. This builds up through ecstatic repetition into musical vocalizations that move beyond language and pure sound. Expressive sounds, chants, the speaking in tongues. The band is more relaxed. The music is more open. Song structures are broken apart and there is space for a sort of dynamic improvisation to occur. At one point, Brian says to the audience: “Being with people you love and trust allows you possibilities of chance taking, that you have shoulders to lean on, so let’s take a chance....”

The extraordinary song, At the Centerline, quotes the Serenity Prayer, following with the sublime line: “mercy hold us when we fall.” The crowd at the Blue Horse seem to be hanging on every note, intent on following the narrative of the music all the way through. There is rare and beautiful intensity of quiet participation in the unfolding of the performance.

Penultimate is a cover of Fire and Brimstone by Link Wray, which sets ablaze all of the introspective spiritual intensity and provides a cathartic release for the room. Images of the Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God dancing to the devil’s music in a small country church a hot summer night.

An encore comes without question. Steve Nistor rumbling the drums darkly. Chris Thomas’ deep bass voice balanced beautifully with Kelly Jones’ and Brain Blade in the middle singing: “they tell me of a home.” Goffrey Moore’s guitar is blistering the air up on the stage. A supreme moment held there, sustained, harmonious. And then, in one of those poetic and magical moments, the distant whistle of the train rises out of darkness to announce the end.


Brian Blade - Black Drop Coffeehouse - 2012

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Jeffrey Foucault - Redlight - September 8, 2012

Jeffrey Foucault - Redlight

September 8, 2012

A few Saturdays back I was walking past the Redlight on the way home and, noting there was space at the bar, decided to go on in and have a couple of drinks. I vaguely remembered that someone named Foucault was playing there. I amused myself for a moment imagining what a post-structuralist folk singer might sound like. A quick online check revealed that Jeffrey Foucault, no relation to the French philosopher, was performing. 

The Redlight is always a good space for intimate shows. Chairs and tables were arranged in a circle around Foucault, who performed without amplification. An appreciative group had gathered around him. Foucault, who grew up in Whitewater, Wisconsin and spent Sundays either going to church or ice fishing (according to his press release), played with a quiet intensity, engaging audience in dialogue and telling amusing anecdotes between songs. In an interview during the Sound Pass Sessions, Foucault spoke of the “magic number for a room” as being the required number of people in the audience to get a feedback look and establish a connection, to have a sense of community. It was clear that the magic number had been reached on this evening. Everyone there felt as if there were witness to a special performance. 

Foucault’s voice has a warm lived-in quality that captures your attention. His songwriting skills, as evidenced on songs such as One for Sorrow and Ghost Repeater, are extraordinary, as is his guitar playing. You sense a narrative thread weaving through his music. You listen closer with each new song to try to figure out its traces. His music explores some of the darker aspects of the 21st century American Dream with an honesty and integrity to the Word. Think of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Anais Mitchell, Jay Farrar. Here’s hoping that the next time he comes through Bellingham, that magic number of his will be much higher.