Sunday, February 18, 2007

Compass Shatters Magnet

The Vandermark 5
Johnny D's - Somerville, MA
Tuesday, February 13th

It's been almost four years since I last saw this band play live. They are still one of my favorite bands around and I hope that another four years doesn't elapse between now and the next time I hear them perform. Though I wasn't too excited about make the drive up to Boston for a Tuesday night show on the eve of the huge winter storm that turned out to be something of a dud, at least in southeast New England, it was fun to be back in my old neighborhood. I had only been to Johnny D's once before, for a Marc Ribot concert back in 2001. The crowd wasn't as large as the one at the Ribot show, but they were a lot more attentive, and with good reason.

The show got off to an unexpected start. I arrived around 8:45 (the show started at 8:30) and the band was already playing by the time I got there. I can't remember the last improvised music show I went to that started within 30 minutes of the published starting time. This was the first time I heard the band play live with their new cellist, Fred Lomberg-Holm. I was sad to hear trombonist Jeb Bishop was leaving the band. I thought his playing added a really interesting dimension to their sound and I had my doubts as to whether or not a cello could really replace that. I'm still not sure I feel about the addition of Lomberg-Holm. On the positive side, he can do some really interesting things with effect pedals. At times, it almost sounded like he was playing an electric guitar, which brought back some good memories of band prior to Acoustic Machine. Bishop's electric guitar was used sparingly in the days of the electric Vandermark 5, but I really liked the way it was used to give the music a harder edge On the negative side, the cello is not a trombone and it doesn't really bring the same kind of energy.

The first set was a lot more jazzy than I was expecting. Most of the numbers they played were upbeat and swinging, which is something that this band hasn't been doing as much of over the past few years. Vandermark picked up the clarinet for at least one piece in first set and parts of two more pieces in the second, which was a lot more clarinet than I am used to hearing from him. His clarinet playing is always very expressive, more so than any of his other alternate horns, so it was nice to hear more of it. Unfortunately, he didn't bring his tenor sax with him for this show. I asked him why he wasn't playing any tenor between sets and he explained that the band was getting ready for a European tour and carry-on luggage restrictions preclude him from brining his tenor and baritone saxophones as well as his clarinet and bass clarinet. The perils of being a multi-instrumentalist, I suppose. Dave Rempis split his time between alto and tenor sax so it's not like there was no tenor representation, but it would have been nice to hear Ken play a few licks on his most powerful horn.

The music in the second set was a lot sparser and tended to highlight individual group members instead of featuring full-bore group improvisation. The one exception was the last piece prior to the encore, a new song entitled "Compass Shatters Magnet". It started out with a Tim Daisy mallet solo on his drum kit which led into a hard-driving group improvisation with Kent Kessler laying down some particularly vicious bass lines which served to both keep the group anchored and help push them over the edge at the same time. It was an incredible piece and I hope it makes it onto their next album. The Vandermark 5 is a working group in the purest sense of the term. I've probably seen them play at least a dozen times over the past nine years and I can't recall ever hearing them play anything that predates their current album. This concert was pretty typical in that regard, about half of the music was from their latest release, A Discontinuous Line, and the rest were new songs.

Overall, it was a great show. It was also great to see the Boston Phoenix publish a review of the show. I found their coverage to of the local improvised music scene to be spotty at best when I lived in Boston a few years ago, it's nice to see that they are paying more attention to it.

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