Fandom: Here, There, and Back Again

I attended the second night of Tool’s two-night run at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena last Tuesday, and it proved to be far more consequential than expected.

The last time I saw the band was nearly eight years ago in January 2012. That Toledo, OH show was a bit underwhelming. Danny, Adam, and Justin were at the top of their game, collectively and individually, but Maynard seemed disinterested at best. To say nothing of his blasé vocals throughout, he was the last one on the stage and the first one off. Sure, people have off nights (myself included, not that I’m in the same league), and the show wasn’t bad overall. But what a bummer, especially after a long drive, the cost of the ticket and merchandise, and having not seen the band for several years before that. It was disheartening. I mean, I’ve seen less-than-great shows before by many bands—some downright bad (yes, Iron Maiden, thinking of you)—but not by an artist or group I hold in such high regard. More than that, as lame as I know it seems, as a fan I took it personally. And it festered.

Following that, I continued to listen to and love the band’s music, but a part of me did it at a distance. Some months after I moved from East Lansing to Buffalo, I passed up trying to see the band in either Rochester, Hamilton, or Detroit during the brief 2017 run. Even though I had a lot going on in my life at the time and didn’t need another event on my plate, I know that had that 2012 show gone differently then I wouldn’t have thought twice about whether to attend in 2017. (I would’ve been there without question.) But I had a chip on my shoulder and considered my passivity an act of defiance, particularly for a band that tours so infrequently. (My ~15 shows in 22 years is notable only because of that infrequency.) I thought that, if nothing else, I had a lot of good shows under my belt and didn’t need to go out on a limb at that time. Plus, it’s not like my emotional investment in the band was a waste. After all, that May 2001 show at Detroit’s State Theater is arguably my favorite concert I’ve attended. It’s in my top 3 or 5 (of everything) at least.

Even in 2019 I was hesitant, more so than in previous years. When Fear Inoculum, the band’s first album in thirteen years, was officially announced, I was skeptical. Would it be worth the wait? Should I even bother with the expensive deluxe packaging of the studio album or just buy it digitally? Will the live show be worth not only the wait but also the expense? I knew I’d go to a show if the opportunity presented itself, but there was a part of me that felt obliged to do so. Partially out of principle, but also out of procrastination, I avoided really listening to the album’s title track before the album’s release. (It was made available to stream weeks in advance.) I considered it best to just hear the entire album with fresh ears once available. Coincidentally, Fear Inoculum was released the same day as Bon Iver’s i,i. (Also coincidentally, I saw Bon Iver at the same venue as Tool ~6 weeks ago.) When I made a trip to the store that day, I knew immediately upon seeing Fear Inoculum and its oversized packaging that I had to go big or go home. If nothing else, I had well over two decades of emotional investment to honor, which outweighed my weird little grudge. (Yes, I wore it like a crown…)

Skittish, I listened to i,i first that day. But eventually…

I listened to Fear Inoculum. Then I listened again. And again.

My boys were back, I thought. I really liked it the first time through. By the second listen I loved it. And more with each full listen. Hot damn. A lot of hype surrounded the album. Not only was it the first album in over a decade—many of us fans thought it’d never happen—but there was also seemingly endless discussion about how it was a big album (the shortest song being over ten minutes long) that covered new ground for the band. Plus, given the amount of time that had passed since 2006’s 10,000 Days and Fear Inoculum, there was a lot of concern that the band just wasn’t as invested as before, not to mention the music industry itself being a whole different beast than it was in 2006. But I wasn’t the only one who got sucked in. Enough people did for Tool to dethrone Taylor Swift on the Billboard charts.

But the hesitancy remained. The tour was announced and I didn’t try to get a close seat. Furthermore, I figured I’d play it safe and only go to one of the Toronto shows instead of both. I considered writing a full album review, going so far as to start multiple drafts but abandoning them.

Without making this a full album review, suffice it to say that it’s a great next step in the band’s evolution. There’s been some back-and-forth among the fans as to whether it’s heavy enough, but I think that misses the mark some. Maynard’s vocal stylings aren’t as aggressive as in previous albums, but instrumentals certainly contend with the rest of the catalogue. The blending of those two aspects is part of the band’s secret sauce. Tool was never going to release a direct-to-video sequel to Undertow, so it’s lame to hear when people expect it. (Just as Miles wasn’t going to treat his audiences to an acoustic rendition of “My Funny Valentine” after 1970.) As far as a review is concerned, right now I’ll note that if you like Lateralus‘s “The Patient” (as I do—one of my favorites from the band’s output), then Fear Inoculum is right up your alley. For me, “Pneuma” and “7empest” are the album’s MVPs.

Then Tuesday came. And the band DELIVERED. The boys are indeed back, and I still float on a cloud when I think of it. Some thoughts on the show, in no particular order:
• The band was TIGHT. Everyone, including Maynard, was locked in and the ensemble worked as one unit.
• Maynard seemed as into the performance as his bandmates. I dare say he even seemed jovial at times in his own way, interacting with the others on stage as well as the audience.
• The sound mix was excellent. That particular Tool concert may have been the best the band has sounded live. Even with it being so very loud (always wear your earplugs), everything was crystal clear. Considering Tool’s wide dynamic range and sudden juxtapositions, this really put things in welcome relief.
• Justin’s bass really cut through the texture in a tasteful way. Sometimes bass guitar can be muddled in such an environment, but thanks to the live mix it was clear as a bell.
• The phone ban was a dream come true. (Kudos to the arena’s staff for strict enforcement.) It’d been years since I’d watched an arena show with an audience that was free of phone screens due to photos and video. Of course, I do admit to taking one photo for posterity when the ban was lifted during the final song, but it was otherwise lovely to just take in the show without such distractions.
• The set list was an interesting mix, and only one song from 1992’s Opiate and 1993’s Undertow combined was included. “Part of Me” was such a surprise and a real treat. It was only the second time I’d heard that live, I think. Given the band’s penchant for mostly static set lists for a single tour, I’m glad I completely avoided looking up the shows prior to mine. Each song was an unexpected turn. (Consequently I won’t post the set list here.)
• “The Pot” hit me like a ton of bricks. For whatever reason, that had long been for me the weak link on 10,000 Days. Chalk it up to the euphoria from that night’s rekindling of the flame if nothing else, but I’ve been making up for lost time with that song over the last week.
• It never ceases to impress me that a band can rock such a large crowd so hard for two hours and yet only one six-minute song is in a continuous, steady 4/4 time.
• Some tweaking of the older material was a nice touch. For example, the extended jam during “Jambi” and the extended double-time during the bridge in “Schism.” (I thought Danny’s drumset would explode.) I did miss the “Suspicious Minds” interpolation in “Stinkfist,” but you can’t have it all.

All this is to say that my Tool fandom has gained a second wind of sorts. Not that it ever went away. Certainly not. But since the show I’ve been caught off guard at just how much it affected my spirits and how I see my relationship to the band’s music. It’s refreshing to know that after so many years I can still get that giddy, deeply connected feeling to it. And, without question, I now can’t wait for the next show.

Though the band didn’t perform it at last week’s show, it’s only fitting I include a live video of “The Grudge,” this from ’02. The lyrics are here.


Remediation

2019 has shaped up to be an invisibly productive year thus far. I say that because I haven’t much to show for it. Save a couple pit gigs and a one-off crashing of a Forgotten Prophets show, my itinerary has been empty. That said, in some ways I’m in the best musical shape since my son’s arrival over four years ago. I’ve made a conscious effort to batten down the hatches and consistently practice with an eye toward goals both big and small. Some tangible victories include:

  • My clarinet playing being the best it’s been. It’s an instrument I’ve never really enjoyed playing, doing it only when I must. But I did have a few days this year where—gulp—I had fun playing it.
  • Reacquainting myself with a number of forgotten jazz standards. A decade ago I could do a 4-hr. jazz gig and barely need charts except for the original tunes. That said, I haven’t had a regular jazz gig in a number of years, and therefore no need to retain or practice them. It’s been nice to wake those particular muscles.
  • Progressing with some long-intended transcriptions.
  • Learning some new classical literature. Putting together a recital or something similar at this point would be completely impractical, and nothing I’m that interested in doing. However, it’s been great to be able to get back in that mindset to some degree.
  • Glacially paced improvement in music technology matters, including some recording here and there.

So, those are some wins. Of course, there have been drawbacks:

  • Ensemble performance. The pit gigs were fine, but I definitely felt caught flat-footed a couple times on stage with the Prophets. Even though I was just sitting in on the show with little prep, I definitely felt rusty at times when it came to playing in a live, improvised setting. I don’t know how it sounded or appeared, but I definitely had some internal unease. It’s a scenario that, years ago, would’ve been a non-issue.
  • External momentum. While I’ve been diligent about sheddin’ in the basement, I can’t say the same for playing beyond my property. Much of that has been because I’ve hit a brick wall with trying to make inroads locally. The union is a social and political network that I can’t seem to crack, despite having joined years ago and making and reaching out to contacts over the years. In other words, “Seat’s taken!” Turf wars and the cold crossfire of competitive self-interest. Such is life in a metropolitan area where seemingly everyone’s a townie or close to it.

Still, I suppose I should focus on the silver lining. There have been improvements, even if only I know about them. And, playing aside, I’ve made a point to do much more active listening these last several years. One consequence of that—or was it the other way around?—is that I’ve gone on a CD-buying tear since moving from Michigan, increasing the frequency I’d already been maintaining. In the beginning, I’m sure part of it was retail therapy to go along with the move. But also, for a time, I was just a few miles from Buffalo’s Record Theatre, a local institution that I’d been frequenting for nearly a decade. Of course, it was just my luck that it permanently closed the following year. Anyway, the shopping has generally continued nonetheless. I’ve yet to get into vinyl, so CDs are my physical copy of choice. I know, it makes me a ridiculous luddite, yada yada. I still think there’s value in curating a personal library. Also, it’s nice to not be completely reliant on the cloud for all my needs.

Eventually my schedule and availability will lighten up some, particularly when the little guy goes to school, at which time I’ll be able to plant more irons in the fire. And when that happens, I’ll be glad to have spent this time buffing out the wear and tear—taking the time to actually work things out as opposed to maintaining between gigs.

Music (mostly) aside, I’ve also made a point to consistently read more for pleasure. Not only has that been good for the eyes to lose the screens for a bit, but it’s just been good for the mind to focus on longer narratives, fiction or otherwise. (This does include re-reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Of course.) Right now I’m nearing the end of Dr. Mark Berry’s new Schoenberg biography, which I’m quite enjoying.

Additionally, I’ve been working on a lead from the Redoubt premiere, as the River of Fundament obsession continues. More about that if anything ever comes of it.

And here we are: June 2019. I only really know that from looking at the calendar. That’s fine. The seasons keep changing and the work continues. Whether it’ll amount to anything is an open question. Admittedly, my not-quite-suppressed nihilism make me think it doesn’t really matter either way. But at least I’m enjoying doing it.

Matthew Barney’s ‘Redoubt’ at Yale University Art Gallery

I was fortunate to attend Saturday’s premiere of Redoubt, Matthew Barney‘s new film and accompanying exhibition, at Yale University Art Gallery, the artist’s alma mater. The intimate new work is smaller in narrative scope and scale than its predecessors River of Fundament (which still has me under its spell), Drawing Restraint 9, and The Cremaster Cycle. But that in no way diminishes it. The multimedia collection is powerful, engaging, and promises to stay with you long after you leave.

https://vimeo.com/319603163

Redoubt, the 134-minute film, features only six characters. (There are also four others, a bartender and three bar patrons, who tangentially appear for several minutes.) Its name literally means a defensive fortification, but the word is also used regarding political movements. Specifically, American Redoubt is a survivalist movement in the northwest region of the US, including Idaho, where the work takes place. The entire wordless film is set in and around Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, not far from Barney’s childhood home of Boise. It’s visually and sonically subtle to an effectively unsettling degree. A minimalist but enchanting score by Jonathan Bepler accompanies the mostly stark imagery: snow-covered panoramas, slow pans, careful and deliberate gestures, and extended slow-to-moderately paced physical sequences. Peter Strietmann‘s cinematography captures the essence of the wilderness’s micro and macro elements—from the privacy of a hammock or shared gaze to the vastness of an untamed wilderness in which you can easily be lost and forgotten.

The complete absence of dialogue further emphasizes the work’s physicality. Movements and gestures ordinarily ignored when accompanied by spoken word are exponentially magnified when the primary mode of communication. The that end, four of film’s main cast (2/3 of the six) are portrayed by dancers. Of those four, three of them execute their choreography in challenging external conditions, a nod to Matthew Barney’s trademark Drawing Restraint series. Such conditions include knee- and waist-deep snow, sub-zero temperatures, working within tight spaces (e.g., in a hammock or on a small tarp), and while scaling and descending from trees.

Just as Barney worked with operatic language in River of Fundament, he addresses dance head-on in Redoubt. I should note that much of the choreography is done by cast member Eleanor Bauer, who performed a dance sequence in Act III of River of Fundament as one of the Little Queens in Usermare’s court.

As a brief synopsis, I’ll simply quote the one on the Yale University Art Gallery’s website:

Set in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range, the film layers classical, cosmological, and American myths about humanity’s place in the natural world, continuing Barney’s long-standing preoccupation with landscape as both a setting and subject. Redoubt loosely adapts the myth of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a hunter who trespasses on her and is punished… [T]he characters communicate through choreography that echoes and foreshadows their encounters with wildlife.

Yale University Art Gallery

In this abstract adaptation of the myth of Diana, Barney also addresses the reintroduction of wolves into Idaho, hunting, weapons and artillery, survivalism and its relation to regional politics, Native culture and its relation the state, the land management bureaucracy, and more. Continuing his tradition of casting practitioners over actors to fill the roles, the cast includes:
Diana, goddess of the hunt: Anette Wachter, record-holding champion sharpshooter
Calling Virgin, attendant of Diana: Eleanor Bauer, dancer and choreographer
Tracking Virgin, attendant of Diana: Laura Stokes, dancer, aerialist, and contortionist
Electroplater, alchemist and assistant to Engraver: K. J. Holmes, dancer
Engraver, a U.S. Parks ranger: Matthew Barney, artist
Hoop Dancer, Native dancer: Sandra Lamouche, Native performer

The narrative is divided into six hunts (days) plus a prologue, stemming from a conversation Barney had with a hunter who claimed that tracking and hunting a wolf would take at least six days. Over the course of the work, Diana, accompanied by her attendants, tracks and hunts a wolf. Being the goddess of the hunt, Diana’s actions are portrayed as more of a sacred duty—something she must complete—rather than a sport of choice. She portrays arguably no emotion at all in any of her actions. Meanwhile, the Engraver (Actaeon), roams the wilderness, capturing scenes with his engraved drawings, returning each evening to his shared home (a trailer adorned with survivalist trappings) with the Electroplater, a maternal figure of sorts who both transforms his engravings via electrochemical baths as well as ritualistically and cosmologically translates his work and the story at large into part of the Cosmic Hunt mythology. Eventually, the Engraver happens upon Diana’s hunt, at which point he is drawn to capturing her image. As punishment for this, wolves eventually descend upon his trailer and destroy his art.

Reintroduction: State five

In Hunt 5, the Engraver briefly leaves the mountains and drives to a nearby town, where he happens upon the Hoop Dancer while she quietly prepares a private performance of her own. Notably, she is in an empty American Legion hall that is heavily decorated with US military paraphernalia. And when she dances, we, the audience, cannot hear her music, as she is listening to her iPhone with headphones. We can only watch. Some early reviews have remarked on how out of place this seems to be, but to me that’s the point. The one Native character is removed from the land, surrounded by four militaristic walls (and yet leaving the door to the outside open), and must conduct her ritual privately, whereas the five non-Native characters are allowed to carry out their own rites with abandon throughout the land. And the Engraver, who does briefly observe the Hoop Dancer, ultimately chooses not to capture her image.

The use of dance as a narrative device, much of it including contact improvisation, was quite effective, and the choreography and execution was engaging and thought-provoking. The dearth of sudden or quick movements in the film, both conveying the limitations of the harsh conditions in which its performed and illustrating the patience required when tracking and hunting, provided a subtle tension throughout. From the Virgins’ minimally adjusted gait—graceful and intentional, yet contrived to the slightest degree—while they follow Diana through the woods, to the manner in which they move their heads and limbs while looking for Diana’s prey, the smallest gestures often have the most lasting effects.

Additionally, dance is present throughout a vast majority of the film, even if not in the foreground. As an example, there is a scene in Hunt 2 in which Diana sits by a river and slowly cleans her handgun (in a manner later ritualistically emulated by her attendants toward the end of Hunt 6) while her attendants slowly bathe (through dance) in the water. Much of the time the camera focuses on Diana’s deliberate process, while the attendants can be seen slowly moving while partially submerged in the background.

In a directorial move that reminded me of River of Fundament, the Electroplater engages in an extended dance “monologue” in the film’s final scene, which is her first dance of note in the film (save for a cosmic pose struck in the prologue). In River of Fundament, Joan La Barbara, a legendary vocalist and master of extended techniques, portrays Norman Mailer’s widow. As such, she is present in most of the five-and-a-half-hour film, but she doesn’t sing until deep into the third act. When she does, just as with the Electroplater’s dance, it’s both surprising and powerful.

Further emphasizing the economical use of action, Diana herself discharges a firearm only a handful of times over the course of the story: twice to harm the Engraver’s work, and only two or three times directed toward prey (deer, a wolf). Instead, much of what is shown of Diana is her patiently tracking, waiting for, and considering her prey and rituals. It wasn’t just the jaw-dropping accuracy of a sharpshooter that Barney wanted from Wachter, but also to convey just how natural and instinctual Diana is with her tools and methods, and she more than delivered.

Jonathan Bepler’s minimal, mostly consonant score, which he performed himself along with some haunting vocal work by Megan Schubert (also of River of Fundament), provides an engaging, non-diegetic aural layer. While not tonal by any means, moments of heavy dissonance are few and far between, and are mostly saved for the wolves’ destruction of the Engraver’s art at the end. The sparse percussion, keyboards, synthesizers, and voice often imitate or complement the natural sounds captured in the wilderness, such as the crunching of snow, the howl of a wolf or flapping of a bird’s wings, a bubbling brook, and the snapping of branches. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the natural sounds end and the artificial ones begin.

[I’d be remiss to not mention a possible operatic allusion from the prologue. In what I believe is the first aerial view of the river flowing through the mountains, Bepler’s score is briefly—a few seconds at most—reminiscent (intentionally or not; I don’t know) of Richard Wagner‘s Rhein leitmotif as used in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung (particularly the latter’s French horn choir in the prelude to Act III). If intentional, it’s a clever nod to the past. If coincidence, this Wagnerian appreciated it nonetheless.]

Accompanying the film is the exhibition of sculptures, engravings, and electroplated works, which also debuted this weekend. The collection’s composition of metals, wood, and chemicals is a continuation of Barney’s processes he began exploring in River of Fundament. The engravings, which are featured in the film, are also show in various states of (d)evolution: with and without patina, and having undergone the electroplating process to varying degrees. The large-scale sculptures include molds made from and/or using burnt, felled trees from the Sawtooth Mountains.

Elk Creek Burn
Elk Creek Burn

I’d recommend both the exhibition as well as the film individually, but they’re best absorbed together if you can plan your visit accordingly. Redoubt will be at Yale University Art Gallery through June 16, and will subsequently show at Beijing’s UCCA at the end of 2019 and at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2020.


UPDATE: Below is the artist talk that occurred immediately after the premiere screening. It features Matthew Barney in discussion with Pamela Franks. It’s probably for the best that the top of my head didn’t make into the bottom of the frame.


‘Siegfried’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Siegfried is a triumph. Considering the production as a whole, it’s the strongest installment yet of the company‘s new Der Ring des Nibelungen, all of which is directed by David Pountney.

Pountney’s Siegfried continues tropes and themes from earlier installments while also, occasionally and more boldly than before, cleverly punctuating the story with his own narrative decisions. In my review of Die Walküre, I wrote:

In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously.

While this largely applies to Siegfried, Pountney asserts himself narratively a bit more than before, and for the better—first, via the production’s visual language, and second, through the stage direction.

In stark contrast to the overall more muted tones of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the curtain opens for Siegfried to reveal a bright white stage and neon colors aplenty—greens, reds, yellows—with childlike writing and drawings on the wall and floor (visible to those in the balconies). Also visible is a crib (or cage?). Alas, we are in Siegfried’s room. Mime’s workstation, which is more practical and less playful, is also visible, but, as with most any child, the little one has the run of the place: toys everywhere, their room or designated play area spilling out into the rest of the abode. And when Siegfried finally appears, the infantilization is complete. Our nascent hero wears a baggy striped t-shirt, baggy cargo shorts, and sneakers. Instead of leaning into the young and strapping, but naive and simple, warrior, Pountney and the rest of the production team lean into Siegfried’s youth and naive confidence.

Adding to the caricature of an infantilized Siegfried is Mime, the Nibelung dwarf who raised him after the death of his parents Wälsung parents. Here, he’s wearing a dirty, tattered dress and, when we initially see him, work gloves that closely resemble rubber (dish-)washing gloves. He appears to the audience as both mother (visually) and father (vocally) to Siegfried, toiling away both forging swords and cleaning the kitchen. And while I could take umbrage as an at-home father of a toddler, I understood the visual caricature the team was going for—seeing Mime and Siegfried go back and forth in the messy play area was almost cartoonish.

The production team includes original set designers Robert Innes Hopkins and the late Johan Engels (who also designed Lyric’s Parsifal in 2013), costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. It’s worth mentioning this team not only in relation to its work on Chicago’s new Ring cycle, but also because this is a team that’s worked together for years. Throughout the evening, I was regularly reminded of the same team’s (sans Hopkins, before Engels’s death) production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2013-14, which I saw both years while teaching in Bregenz. Pountney et al. took that approach of heavily emphasizing the fairy tale elements and perfected it for Siegfried. (Complete with growing grass and a dragon in Act Two! I felt like I was sitting on the Bodensee shore, only watching a better production and performance.)

For quick reference, here’s an image of Siegfried confronting Fafner in Act Two of Siegfried:
chicagosiegfried
And here’s an image of the same team’s set for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the 2013-14 Bregenzer Festspiele:bregenzzauberfloete

Other light-hearted visual cues abound throughout the first two acts and a little of the third. A prime example, pun intended, is the reforging of Nothung, Siegfried’s sword. Instead of using Mime’s workstation, the little tike receives packages (delivered by stagehands-as-couriers) from “Rhein Logistik,” complete with the familiar logo of a black background, white font, and that familiar orange arrow. Fafner is also given cartoonish treatment that is rather effective. (It’s certainly better than trying to seriously portray an onstage battle with a dragon.) Once again, he’s operated by the visible stagehands.

In the program’s Director’s Note, Pountney emphasizes Siegfried’s place as the Ring‘s “Scherzo,” and that “it is the story of a child.” The end result is an entertaining romp for two acts that is capped off by an emotionally anguished third.

Act Three, by contrast, is much more visually subdued. Although Erda’s emergence and dress are a sight to behold, the red/white/dark motif is reminiscent of the final act of Die Walküre, and of course both acts end in the same place: Brünnhilde’s rock. Also, Siegfried’s appearance is made to seem that much more out of place when his youthful outfit is juxtaposed against the austere background and Brünnhilde’s formal, minimal attire. She’s clearly more mature, both emotionally and in age.

Separate from the set design and costumes, Pountney’s direction for Wotan gives the aging god a more malicious bent, particularly in Act Two. As an example, when Siegfried is able to understand the forest bird’s song after tasting the slain dragon’s blood, it’s not simply a conversation between our hero and his woodland acquaintance. Instead, Valhalla partially descends from the top of the stage, and we see Wotan working the forest bird’s voice (sung beautifully by Diana Newman) like a hand puppet while Siegfried interacts with the bird below. This, along with other appearances in the second act, make more explicit Wotan’s scheming and behind-the-scenes machinations, particularly when Siegfried is viewed as a standalone work instead of in conjunction with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, both of which feature Wotan more prominently.

The musical performances were strong across the board. Burkhard Fritz‘s Siegfried was energetic and youthful, but also quite moving when in dialogue with Christine Goerke‘s Brünnhilde in Act Three. Goerke was soaring and passionate, and offered a nice complement to Brunnhilde’s much younger soon-to-be lover. For me, it was one of the standout performances of the evening. Mattias Klink portrayed a frustrated and tired yet scheming Mime while maintaining a full and resonant sound. Vocally, Act Three is hard to beat. Not only does it end with Brünnhilde and Siegfried, but it begins with Wotan/The Wanderer and Erda, and here Eric Owens and Ronnita Miller really upped the production’s already strong musical game, eventually giving way to Goerke and Fritz to bring it home. Although Owens now feels very comfortable and powerful as Wotan, Miller’s anguished Erda nearly stole that first scene. And though their parts are small by comparison, Samuel Youn continued to entertain as Alberich, Patrick Guetti‘s Fafner was formidable and rich, and Diana Newman’s forest bird was playful and elegant, offering a nice respite from the male-heavy first two acts. Enveloping it all, of course, was the Lyric Opera orchestra, led by Sir Andrew Davis.

After three successful productions, I’m quite looking forward to seeing how next season’s Götterdämmerung unfolds, as well as then seeing this new full Ring cycle in its entirety in early 2020.

Dave Matthews Band in 2018: ‘Come Tomorrow’, Tour, and More

It’s now been a decade since saxophonist LeRoi Moore‘s passing. Thinking of that this past weekend has pushed me to finally jot down some thoughts on the band as a whole, and how 2018 has seen DMB fully realize what, in my opinion, it has been inching toward for well over a decade. While LeRoi’s passing didn’t kick-start this evolution, it arguably accelerated it to a degree. And, given that it was such a (tragic) milestone in the band’s history, it’s natural that it played at least some sort of factor, even if not as large as one as may initially seem.

Equally noteworthy, at a minimum, in the band’s evolution was the 2008 tour itself, which of course coincided with Moore’s accident and subsequent death and Jeff Coffin‘s joining the band partway through as a replacement. Even before Moore’s accident, the 2008 tour included:
– Tim Reynolds’s return as a touring member and, though unknown at the time, a full-time member in his own right. (In years past he was an “unofficial sixth member,” along with Peter Griesar from the early 90s and Butch Taylor in the late 90s through 2007.)
– Butch Taylor’s sudden departure on the tour’s eve.
– An explosion of cover songs in rotation in the set list (e.g., “Money,” “Money, That’s What I Want,” “Sledgehammer,” “Burning Down the House,” etc.).
Some Devil songs regularly joining the setlist rotation.
(- Jeff Coffin eventually joining the band partway through the tour after Moore’s accident.)

I won’t re-hash old posts here, but a brief word on each of those points. I’ve written about this before, but Tim Reynolds’s guitar stylings while playing with the full band ’91-’98 are vastly different from ’08-present. (This is entirely separate from his playing with Dave on their acoustic tours, which continued throughout this whole time period, including the early ’00s.) In that first decade, even though he played electric guitar with a mostly acoustic ensemble, his playing fit within the band’s overall sound—part of the texture, often felt instead of heard. Upon his return, however, he cranked up the volume and gave the band a much more explicitly “rock” sound, and his presence couldn’t be mistaken.

Tim’s approach strongly complemented the new cover songs that debuted in 2008, both in style and arrangement: “Money” (Pink Floyd), “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel), “Burning Down the House” (Talking Heads), “Hey Hey My My” (Neil Young), “Money, That’s What I Want” (Berry Gordy & Janie Bradford), “Bitch” (Rolling Stones), and “Thank You” (Sly & The Family Stone; formerly covered by Dave Matthews & Friends but not by DMB). Also noteworthy is that most of these cover songs lack a non-guitar solo (like the original), save “Money.” I write “style and arrangement” because these covers, unlike their most well-known previous covers performed with varying regularity (“All Along the Watchtower,” “The Maker,” “Long Black Veil,” “Angel From Montgomery”), were pretty straightforward. 2008’s then-new covers were less about being new versions of existing songs than they were with creating a fun vibe to add to the party-like atmosphere. Those that remain in 2018—e.g., “Sledgehammer” and “Burning Down the House”—haven’t much changed in arrangement over the last decade.

Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect at work here. Did the band’s approach to covers at all influence Tim’s approach to DMB’s catalogue—the prominent lead guitar needed for Pink Floyd then being mapped to Dave Matthews Band? Hard to say, but I’ve always wondered. After all, it’d be a little jarring to hear the DMB of 2007 or 2000 and then, midway through the set, be blasted by “Sledgehammer.” Even though Dave began selectively playing electric guitar live in 2001, “Eh Hee” or “So Right” didn’t provide the same wailing lead guitar as Pink Floyd’s “Money.”

Of course, it could be that Dave took the reins a little more aggressively and decided that that’s the sound he wanted…

In the past, it’s been noted here and there that the band—or at least select band members—had been pushing Dave to take up some more directional leadership within the group. Around the Lillywhite Sessions fallout and Everyday sessions, I got the impression in interviews that the band was going through the motions and rudderless (before Everyday), and that going into the studio for Everyday with Dave having already written much of the music with producer Glenn Ballard and providing charts to the band put some fresh wind under the band’s wings. And again, before LeRoi’s death, supposedly LeRoi told Dave in a moment of candor that he (Matthews) needed to lead the band and take charge.

Then there was the sudden departure of Butch Taylor for “personal reasons” right before the 2008 tour’s kickoff. It was never made publicly clear why he backed out, but speculation ran wild on message boards.* I felt like I was in the minority much of the time, but I was and remain a big fan of Butch Taylor’s playing, both with and without DMB. Even though I was gaining Tim Reynolds in 2008, it hurt to lose Butch Taylor. Perhaps Tim’s playing was a way to account for both electric guitar and a lost keyboardist? Who knows.

[*I try to avoid message boards—on DMB and anything else—completely, but this was one of 4 times I dove in to that toxic fever swamp as a reader-only for DMB material. The other three were this year: Boyd’s departure, Boyd’s #MeToo moment, and the 2018 tour kickoff. Every time I left exhausted and needing a shower. Woof. No more.]

[A digression, just to state this for the record: one of my first selfish thoughts upon learning of the possibility of both Tim Reynolds and Butch Taylor touring with DMB in 2008 (before Taylor’s departure) was the genesis and rapid blossoming of my wanting to see what would, for me, be the ultimate cover song that DMB could rip through: Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” Piano-driven rock with a strong lead guitar line, and the horns could provide some solid wall-of-sound harmonies throughout. My hopeless wishing was renewed this summer with the addition of Buddy Strong, but I’m certainly not holding my breath. (While I’m at it, EJ’s “My Father’s Gun” and “Burn Down the Mission” too, and both would be great with The Lovely Ladies…)]

With a few sporadic and rare exceptions, much of Dave Matthews’s solo album Some Devil wasn’t performed with the full band until 2008. And it didn’t take long for those solo songs to find a natural home in the DMB rotation, particularly “So Damn Lucky” and “Gravedigger.” The former quickly transformed early in the tour—the iterations I saw in Chicago (6/6), Detroit (6/9), and Buffalo (6/17) kept getting respectively longer, inching toward the large live jam it became by mid-summer.

Finally, of course, Jeff Coffin joined the band (becoming a full-time, permanent replacement), filling in for LeRoi Moore. I attended Jeff’s fourth show of that run (Rothbury 7/5/08), and it was wild seeing him up there with the music stand for the horn lines and then ripping during the solos. The latter part is notable in the respect that, before his accident, LeRoi Moore seemed to be playing fewer and/or shorter solos at the beginning of the tour, either splitting those duties even more with trumpeter Rashawn Ross or handing some over to Tim Reynolds. (I was particularly struck by his lack of solo on “#41” on 6/17, but those backing horn lines under Tim’s solo scratched me where I itched.) I knew there was talk throughout the band’s history of Roi’s wanting to eventually develop a full horn section. It took ~15 years to add a second horn, and the workload gradually evened out over the subsequent years, with Rashawn regularly guesting in the latter half of 2005, becoming a full-time touring member in 2006. Perhaps with Tim’s returning to the fold, Roi considered it an opportunity to build up the horn section as an entity? It’s another thought I’ve returned to many times over the years.

Along with Jeff’s solos, though, there’s another aspect that caught my eye. With now three virtuosic soloists (Jeff Coffin, Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross) hungry to play and make music with one another, what was violinist Boyd Tinsley to do? Continue with the same old tired and out-of-tune pentatonic scales and lukewarm enthusiasm save his one or two nightly solos? Again, it was around this time that my friend turned to me at the Gorge and remarked, “Where’s Boyd?” Even in 2007, though he was already a musical liability, there was still room sonically for Boyd’s melodies, countermelodies, and solos. In 2008, there was significantly less, with even less each subsequent year.

That was 2008. En route to 2018…

Beyond “new” members, the other original members kept on making music and advancing. Bassist Stefan Lessard particularly comes to mind, having pursued some Berklee College of Music coursework some years back. (I believe he was inspired by Rashawn Ross, an alumnus.) I remember thinking of the Rashawn/Berklee inspiration at night three of The Gorge in 2011 when Stefan opted to play the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite I for unaccompanied cello as the intro to “All Along the Watchtower,” with Jeff and Rashawn watching with particularly rapt attention. That, and Stefan’s penchant for effects and hardware seems to have grown since Tim’s re-joining in ’08.

I’ve documented much of my thoughts many of the band’s developments elsewhere (here and here and here). In short, Tim gradually became a gargantuan sonic presence, Boyd became obviously irrelevant, the horn section evolved and became often a single entity, and the new songs reflected all of these changes. The band that originally went from local Charlottesville phenomenon to commercial juggernaut—the mostly acoustic band with no lead guitar and a sax and fiddle—became a full-on rock band with horns, especially from 2008 to this year. Enter Come Tomorrow, which completed the process.

I won’t write a full review of the album here, but it’s worth at least a surface-level discussion. In short, my thoughts after the first listen were:
– I liked it overall, despite “The Girl Is You.”
– As an album, it’s a bit of an odd entity.
– In context, the transformation was now complete.

I do like the album, and I’ve listened to it a lot this summer. But, to me, even more than Away From the World, Come Tomorrow is almost more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. Almost. The identifiable horns are still there, and it helps that it includes some existing songs—including 2006’s “Idea Of You” and “Can’t Stop” and 2015’s “Virginia In The Rain,” “Black and Blue Bird,” “Again and Again” (formerly “Boblaw”—my personal favorite of the album), and “Be Yourself” (now “bkdkdkdd”). Boyd plays on only one track, “Idea Of You,” and it’s likely that his part was recorded years ago. And there’s only one horn solo on the whole album, a few seconds of Coffin’s soprano saxophone on “Black and Blue Bird”—track 10, deep into the album.

I consider it an “odd entity” because not only are some of the songs older, but the album was recorded over a ~12-year+ period and utilized four separate producers (Mark Batson, Rob Cavallo, John Alagia, and Rob Evans). The album’s not as cohesive a unit as others in my opinion, as it goes in many different directions, and the lack of a single producer keeps it from feeling completely unified, at least sonically. That said, it still mostly works, and it’s a rocking good time.

All that said, I like the album (save “The Girl Is You,” which is okay live—it’s the first studio recording I’ve yet to warm to in some respect), and to me it fits in the overall canon. Hell, even LeRoi Moore makes a couple of appearances, having participated in the early sessions for “Can’t Stop” and “Idea of You.” But it’s definitely a statement that this is a band unapologetically plowing ahead with its current iteration, be it DMB 3.0 or 4.0 depending on whom you ask. Whereas 2012’s Away From the World had a veneer of going back to the square one after 2009’s sonic memorial Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King—having Steve Lillywhite produce, including horn and violin solos (Boyd gets the album’s first solo break!), etc.—to me, it still sounded like more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. In fact, I could make the case that Come Tomorrow is as big of a statement about the band’s sound, if not bigger, than Everyday was in 2001. (In brief, just because Dave played electric, the sax and violin still carried the melodic weight, among other aspects. It sounded new, but the structure remained the same. Here, however, the structure is explicitly changed.)

[Song selection aside, the album’s personnel dwarfs Before These Crowded Streets and covers a wide berth: both Butch Taylor and Buddy Strong on keys, the Lovely Ladies (Tawatha Agee, Candice Anderson, Sharon Bryant-Gallwey), and a panoply of auxiliary musicians including some notable names, including the one and only Luis Conte on percussion.]

With Come Tomorrow, however, it’s as if Dave made the decision to stand proud and say “this is who we are now, and we’re happy with it.” And, as far as I can tell, the band agrees and is equally enthusiastic. In fact, the best way I can really describe it is that I see 2018’s DMB as meaning Dave Matthews’s Band instead of (the) Dave Matthews Band. While still a group effort, I get the impression that Dave is more comfortable providing some sort of direction than in the past. Something I’ve noticed in interviews this summer is that he regularly refers to “my band.” While not the first time he’s said it, I didn’t notice that as much in the past. (Perhaps he said it often and it didn’t catch my attention.) And that’s not to say it’s meant at all negatively. Not at all. But it’s different from “our band” or “the band.”

On another personnel-related note, he did finally directly address Boyd Tinsley’s departure in a recent interview on iHeartRadio’s Inside the Studio podcast. In short, he admits to firing Tinsley for not pulling his weight, and that it was a long time coming. (And after the subsequent sexual harassment allegations against Tinsley, I doubt Boyd will be returning anytime soon…)

This may seem like a recipe for a real mixed bag on stage: one near-founding member gone, Dave taking control, and the addition of a new touring member (and what I assume to be full-time member) in keyboardist Buddy Strong. But after seeing three shows on this summer’s tour and listening to others in addition to it, I can safely say two things about Dave Matthews Band in 2018:
– This is the BEST the band has sounded live in AT LEAST a decade, if not more.
– It’s obvious that the band members are having a lot of fun playing together this year.

As an ensemble, the band sounds great. Not once during any of the shows I attended did I remotely miss Boyd’s playing or any of his musical parts. Beyond that, Buddy Strong fits nicely into the band—always felt, even if not explicitly heard. And Tim Reynolds has dialed back the sonic onslaught. He still shreds when required, but when he’s playing rhythm guitar it’s in the background, which wasn’t always the case in recent years. It’s a nice mix of ’90s Tim and early ’10s Tim.

As a quick example regarding much of what’s mentioned above, take DMB’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” one version from 2008 and another from this summer (where I was dancing in the audience).

2008’s “Sledgehammer” with overpowering electric guitar and a superfluous Tinsley at Mile High Music Festival:

2018’s “Sledgehammer” at SPAC:

What’s more, the band members are having fun. I’ve heard Dave say as much onstage and in interviews more times this summer than I have in probably the last decade combined. Not that they’ve been dourly going through the motions in years past. But between cutting loose the dead weight (Boyd Tinsley), bringing in some fresh blood with Buddy Strong, and the focus and clarity involved with incorporating the new album’s songs and arrangements into the rotation, it’s a recipe for success that has worked swimmingly this year.

The onstage enthusiasm around Strong is palpable and reminiscent of that around Jeff Coffin’s joining (despite the tragic consequences that caused it), and also that of Rashawn Ross.

As with any change, there are members of the fan community griping about Strong’s addition, Tinsley’s departure, the band’s sound, etc. I have copious thoughts on those complaints, but it’s not worth wasting the time on it here. Suffice it to say that there’s only one direction to go: forward. Miles Davis wasn’t playing “Autumn Leaves” and “Four” in the seventies and eighties; John Coltrane eventually stopped playing “Blue Train”; and Radiohead likely won’t be playing Pablo Honey front-to-back anytime soon. Artists will grow and evolve, for the better or worse. I’m pleased with where things are headed musically with DMB in 2018 and beyond. While Come Tomorrow won’t knock Crash off its pedestal anytime soon, what it signals is certainly reassuring to this longtime fan.