June Music: What Do You Think I Am, Some Kind Of Idiom?
Photo: Pharoah Sanders (1981) by Wojciech Soporek
June 20-25, five shows in six days. Let’s save the best for the first, on Tuesday, June 20th Pharrell ‘Pharoah’ Sanders, one of the last titans of jazz still with us, concluded a three-day run at Seattle’s Triple Door dinner club. At 76, he continues the journey that he began by the age of 21 when he left Oakland for New York, playing spiritual jazz all the way. He played with Sun Ra, who nicknamed Pharrell Pharoah. Such gorgeous and pure music, accompanied only by the empathetic, complex, pulsing piano of William Henderson. One cannot and should not and why would you not revel in his love letter from the early 60s, when Sanders helped John Coltrane shape a new form of jazz. As much as that era and that idiom is evoked, it’s just as true that the Pharoah rides that jazz to an idiom-free eternal spring of Music and Spirit, and his 90-minute set was pure bliss. Four of us—Theresa, Dan, and a zombie from the set of 28 Days Later—soaked it in and our souls smiled.
The next day a friend and I drove down to Portland to witness Nick Cave at ‘The Schnitz’, a great old theater in the mold of San Francisco’s Warfield or Seattle’s Paramount. Cave takes you on a thrill ride through hell. He preaches the gospel of the dark passions of love relationships, the hurt and the exultation. He restores, re-creates, refreshes our faith in the great frontman who sings his songs in supra-animated sky, combusting with the fans, all this to the music of The Bad Seeds, a band bold and creative. DIG those crazy vibes. The Bad Seeds have all the tools of any of the great rock bands, but they use them like no other: dynamics, distortion, bone-crunching basso vibrations, solos…all in an idiom all their own. Cave loves you madly and welcomes you with open arms into the warmth and rabid teeth of his soul. Jumping into and out of the audience, leading our thrill ride…he’s an adventure!
On Friday, Steve Earle did one of his pretty regular in-store performances at Silver Platters (I think that this is the third one I’ve gone to…), and then he sells his new record. This one honors the late Guy Clark, hotshot forest firefighters, love, and all the ways Steve Earle sings so sincerely. He led us in a rousing This Land Is Your Land to lead us off, and then told his warm stories between tunes. Earle is still writing great ones, and he is an outlaw country and folk singer and songwriter, a soldier on our march to freedom. Within a few sentences, he’ll talk about how he lines up with Willie and Waylon and Johnny and then remind us that, when he lived in Seattle in the 90s, he was more into Alice in Chains and Soundgarden than Nirvana.
But Paul and I had to leave early to get to Benaroya Hall, where Ludovic Morlot, who we now know will leave after two more seasons, conducted the Seattle Symphony in Ligeti’s Requiem and Mahler’s 5th Symphony. The Ligeti piece was clear and away the trippiest music I heard all week. Segments of it grace Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a very difficult piece to play, as the music emanates more from the randomness of the universe, of sound effects, than from even the most radical reinterpretation of an established art music idiom. In other words, it’s as close to ‘pure’ music unaffected by culture or tonality as one is likely to hear. I loved it.
After the intermission, Morlot channeled a highly-appreciated interpretation of Mahler’s Fifth Symphont. The musicians seemed happy to be back on earth, and having roamed the cosmos with Ligeti, their re-entry brought a freshness to the Mahler piece. Those familiar with the symphony already know the soaring beauty of the Adagietto, the fourth of five movements. I like this symphony very much, if not in its entirety. Its 65 minutes have more than enough beautiful, expressive, German-ish angst-ridden and narcotically swooning phrases to make for a great musical experience. My companion Paul discovered portals into previously unknown places through this great Romantic symphony.
The Golden Age of Rock began with the Beatles’ Please Please Me in 1963, and concluded with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon ten years later. Roger Waters has kept that torch lit, and to attend his magnificent 2017 show was less about seeing a classic rock dinosaur and more about a jumping into a living monument to the apex of psychedelic rock: iconic songwriting; Surrealist visual art; postmodern politics of alienation and resistance; and taking that message of progressivism to as broad a swath of America as rock can, as Wonder Woman did with feminism and movies this same summer. Simply a brilliant show. I commented to my music-mate Michael that Waters has been playing to very large audiences for the past 45 years. He knows what he’s doing. He methodically drew the somewhat rowdy crowd tuned only to the hits into a deeper sphere of influence, music, listening and message.
And maybe I lied. Maybe the best was saved for last, in the Tacoma Dome. I’m now ready to fry some people’s grits and go on record as saying that the Tacoma Dome has better sound than Key Arena. Even though he’s probably only been to the Dome a few times in those 45 years, his sound crew and musicians sliced the air with Pink Floyd heaven for 3 solid hours, they owned the crowd and they owned the sonics of the Dome. And the visual artists who are as much the show as the music are the best in the business. All this psychedelic perfection confection, drone-powered orbs and pigs, surround sound, screens that bisect the room and drop artistically, perpendicular to the stage. All this and enough time to relentlessly attack war and oppression, and the world’s most hated leader of the moment. It’s not Waters’ fault that Donald Trump showed up to perfectly fill the bill as Pigs and other songs from the second-set featured album Animals. And for me, Animals live was more creative and entertaining than the studio version, I think I finally got it. And Waters was relentless in his skewering of Trump and his call to resistance. This did not go down well with everyone in the Dome, but probably with 90%…despite the occasional ‘fuck you’ from Trump supporters, such dissent was pretty much overwhelmed with the imagery of the suffering in the world and our predilection for bombs not food. It was a remarkably satisfying show and a beautiful end to a week-long string of pearls that made my June Music Swoon of 2017.
Roger Waters 2017 performance of Pigs in Mexico City, this year: