These are the performances that moved me the most in 2015. Full disclosure: I was involved with many of these shows, but I’m involved with multiple shows weekly if not daily. This list spans most styles, but it’s no secret I’m inclined toward more adventurous music. All performers are local to the venue if not indicated otherwise. Follow links for more info about the performer.
January 1, Mudsex in Chattanooga at Ziggy’s (punk/ rock)
Let me tell you about Chattanooga. True to form, I had no reassurance that the show I booked for myself was happening at all, let alone lined up for success. I think I had a three week old text message that said “yeah, cool.” Fast forward to midnight on New Years Eve: Mudsex is on stage, the pinata is busted open and little liquor bottles, joints, condoms, and firecrackers spill forth almost all of which are used recklessly on the crowded mosh pit. I can’t say if any condoms were used on the dance floor but everyone was making out and dancing wildly. Mudsex’s music is like a heavy, fast southern punk so unpretentious it probably just calls itself “rock” or maybe not even that, just “Mudsex.”
January 9, Rivka in Pittsburgh at Secret Warehouse (avant-ambient- electronic- chill acoustic)
This was one of the stranger curatorial opportunities I’ve had. I adore pianos of all kinds, and i’m always encouraging keyboardists and pianists to make use of pianos in DIY spaces. I was introduced to a friend’s practice space, which was in part a gesture of patronage from a wealthy and eccentric (but not nearly weird enough) art dealer who owned a lavishly renovated warehouse complete with tens of thousands of art pieces and a nine foot Steinway concert grand. While I mostly got what I expected from the other performers, Reggie’s improvisation of piano with electronics was ambient yet direct, dark yet pleasant. While the instrument (and opulent space) gave the other performers a degree of severity, Rivka was earnest and even suggested playing a short set or bowing out entirely. Without a sound check or experience with the kind of rig he was working with, he explored and resolved the dynamic sounds, attitudes, and aesthetics of the evening.
Jan 24, A Catamaran Animist Vigor by tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE in Pittsburgh at Babyland (indeterminate, avant-garde, experimental)
tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE is probably the most “out there” artists in Pittsburgh. His aesthetic and my own are quite different although we both share an interest in many avant-garde styles, especially free improvisation. So often the invocation of John Cage in underground or academic scenes is a subterfuge for whimsical performances that require little effort. But this work took Cage’s most stubborn and contradictory notions and built something fresh and just as challenging. I’m actually not a big fan of Cage and I am awful at presenting his music. But I enjoy things that are confusing to me, and I like to marvel at absurdity, contradiction, and therare kind of creature that grows out of a work like “A Catamaran.” Essentially the performance was for a large chamber ensemble performing musical passages based on a lengthy series of anagrams (over 3,000 I believe) of the title. Almost all of the material was developed by chance, process, or computer. However, the execution required incredible skill and practice. There was practically nothing resembling a climax or expression. This is an aesthetic that is very far from my own, but the rare strength of will required to bring about such a performance will always win me over with tENT.
January 24, Night Vapor in Pittsburgh at Gooski’s (no-wave, lounge metal, prog)
This was technically the Brown Angel reunion show, which was excellent in it’s own right, but also the first show I saw of Night Vapor. It is probably the best Pittsburgh band I could describe as “no-wave.” This group is crafted from excellent musicians with a really good sense of outsider aesthetic, and use excellent musicianship and bold performance to execute it. They pretty much kill it every time, from metal show to house show to punk show.
February 13, Couch Slut (Brooklyn) at Vassar College (noise rock, stoner metal)
Couch Slut have been my friends for a long time, and I’ve heard many of their bands but this was the first time I saw Couch Slut properly. My collaborations with their various members have been the most compositional relationships I’ve had in years, insofar as we all notated music for each other. I believe all of us have moved past this to explore more visceral and ephemeral music. While on first listen you might think that Couch Slut is about whiskey-and-dabs drenched thrusting noise rock riffs, you can hear how this vibe is created with some sophisticated musical elements. Most likely you will be too captivated by the violent tornado of their singer. Couch Slut’s vibe oozes the energy of tough bitchy feminism, but rather than use their raw immolatory voice to shout at the patriarchy they strip away all semblance of “safe space” and leave you to grapple with cruel nihilism by yourself.
February 15, New York 69 (Adam Caine and Kevin Shea) in Brooklyn at Muchmore’s (contemporary improv)
This was possibly the coldest I have ever been. I was on tour and supposed to play in Providence but there was a state of emergency so the show was canceled. As I was not wanting to waste a day on tour, I rallied some friends who came out to meet me at another touring friends’ performance (which was also excellent as I expected). I often strive to develop the ability to improvise ferociously fast riffs and melodies with grace and precision but often fall short by my own standards. It’s a distasteful attitude according to much of the avant-garde, and of course there is a fine line between such playing and a masturbatory aesthetic. But I believe that anyone who denies wishing to possess such a skill or an outlet to explore it with restraint is lying. New York 69 really blasted off into a shamanic plane where they could disassemble and reassemble the cosmos in dazzling fashion.
March 11, Thousandzz of Beezz in Pittsburgh at Howler’s (pop, songwriter, electronic)
Thousandz of Beezz has had several names, and is one of my earliest friends in Pittsburgh. It’s a natural and correct phenomenon that a person grows as an artist, but unfortunately so many artists seem to stagnate. So after hearing several incarnations of Hunter’s solo project and booking him as an opener for a show it was to my delight that this performance slayed (and every one since). While still essentially a pop project, the vocals had a viscerality behind the vulnerability. Virility behind the sadness. Noise behind the rhythm. Gesture over the song.
March 18, Sun Riah in Oklahoma City at Bad Granny’s (acoustic black metal, ambient noise, experimental songwriter)
The tension of American divisiveness all seems to be amplified in Oklahoma. The scenes are diffuse and self-consciously small, with just enough pride to maintain friction. I had been tipped off to Sun Riah’s existence and was extremely pleased to invite her to join me. Solo black metal songs on an electrically-augmented orchestral harp plus vocals from a woman with legit activist credibility and close relations (if not involvement) in one of America’s most well-organized Satanic churches is clearly something I’m into. The fact that it could be so comforting to such a turbulent place is a testament to hear artistry, heart, and soul. I expected to be impressed but was moved even more than I anticipated. It was ambient and heavily electronic, but not loop-y. The harp was an orchestra or a metal band more than the tool of a singer-songwriter. The set was varied and dynamic, with plenty of risk.
March 22, Kyle Evans in Austin at SUX BY SUXWEST (performance art, hacker, experimental)
It is remarkable that of the dozen or so aggressive noise, power electronics, and industrial music that I heard that day, the thing to grip me the most was perhaps the most subtle. Kyle Evans has a modified television that he wears on a strap and holds facing the audience. I believe it was from the 1980s and I suspect that it is not really modified that heavily, or at least the performance made it appear so. All I could really tell were that there were various contact points installed where he held the TV and that manipulation mostly came from rotation, tilt, and direction. All of the sounds and sights (which looked like some kind of oscilloscope or other visualization) seemed to come from the position of the television alone. The use of this consumer appliance, whose glowing rectangle is both symbol and weapon of the frustratingly cynical oppression of the American middle and lower class, gave it a more brutal feeling than any of the masks or torn flesh at the festival.
March 23, PLXTX in Houston at notsuoH (digital hardcore, noise)
Coming through Houston on a Monday after SXSW I fully expected a touring band bottleneck. I got on a gig organized in part by Bradley of PLXTX. It turns out that I was friends with all of the other touring bands as well. But what really slayed me was Brandon’s act. It was primarily digital hardcore (which is quite an oddity as a genre) but with not only excellent vocals but excellent noise manipulation and an enormous, ENORMOUS aggressive synchronized lighting rig. It was the kind of gig where a bunch of touring acts (and a few eager attendees) were just glad to play for each other, and it was funny that what felt like a routine Monday of chill bands trading sets culminated in this all-consuming and blindingly intense sensory blizzard, performed by the chillest personality of all those present.
March 24 Isabelle Duthoit and Fritz Hautzinger (Paris/ Vienna) in New Orleans (contemporary improv)
This acoustic duo of trumpet and female voice stands as possibly the best freely improvised performance I have ever seen. The voice is of course such an apt referential medium that moving beyond language, theater, song, superficial emotions, and sound effects is outrageously difficult. One cannot simply walk in the back door as an outsider in the way that one can avoid the idioms of the violin by picking it up without training. And so many orchestral instruments tire me as free improv media because of the tendency for instrumentalists to develop a vocabulary of cliched “extended techniques.” This duo was horrific and ecstatic. It was fragile and invincible. It was a kind of existential amplification that I imagine one experiences after living deep in a cave for a year and is somehow overwhelmed by their own deafening body and blinding consciousness. There were thousand-tongued medusas, shivas with millipedes for fingers, and a deluge of transparent locusts all in my mind, but on stage there was only a pair of gorgeous childlike European veterans that somehow escaped the boring cult of adulthood and worthily hefted the timeless flag of New Orleans darkness.
March 26, Autumn Electric (Seattle) in Birmingham at Mono (prog-rock opera, psychedelic)
This was a show I was fortunate to stumble onto. I had the venue booked for months, and when the promoter told me that they added another touring act last minute I was gracious, but I couldn’t help but grumble to myself: “great, more rockers en route to try and ‘make it’ at SXSW trying to book a tour as an afterthought.” But that feeling went away pretty much as soon as I saw their touring van with Washington plates and the dopest 60’s mod camper I’ve ever seen. And when I met them I was glad they hopped on the bill. But when I heard and saw their performance I knew I was lucky to cross their path. It was a true psychedelic prog rock opera with synchronized art and video projections. The instrumentalists were all on point and skilled but performed with unhinged youthful energy. The bandleader was the kind of animalistic soul that could just as easily be living under a bridge or leading a cult, and would probably be happier as the former.
April 4, Naked Roots Conducive in New York at Dixon Place (experimental song, cult-lieder, contemporary chamber)
NRC have been some of my favorite people for many years. They’re on my shortest of the short list for best new music made by string players and have encouraged me to explore some songwriting directions that I otherwise would not have explored. They might even have missed this list because I’ve been such a fan since well before 2015. But the Dixon Place show was a full stage production featuring all of their songs, plus a tour de force of their Brooklyn network at large with a dozen collaborators joining them on stage. It is above all, two badass women playing the shit out of their instruments nearly to the point of vulgarity, all with precise and sophisticated harmonies and rhythms with desperately belting lashes of vocal melody. It’s like if Gustav Mahler heard Full of Hell and dropped out of conservatory to write a virtuosic duo for his goth muses.
April 11, Teleportaterz in Pittsburgh at Spirit (DIY musical theater)
The people behind this production are invaluable treasures of Pittsburgh and have managed to put out more than one of these sprawling productions. This was an original musical about growing up, traveling, loving in a gender-screwed way, and probably other concepts that I missed. I should have seen it twice, and I would have enjoyed it. The performance featured an original score performed live, puppetry, acrobatics, innovative sets, and dialogue that was clearly informed by our shared experiences but instead of winking at them it used them as motifs to create characters and experiences that we were immediately invested in.
April 20, Linear Downfall in Pittsburgh at The Shop (noise rock)
Linear Downfall is a band that I’ve seen a couple times in Nashville for performances of songs and improvised noise. As time has gone on, I began to recognize that this was one of the few bands I work with that is a likely candidate for commercial success without compromising their risk-taking practice (and yet I still can’t seem to get a crowd for them in Pittsburgh, what’s up guys?). The band is a quartet of multi-instrumentalists with massive amplification and processing. There is no feeling of obstruction between the audience and performers. Each electronic gesture is bold and each instrumental gesture is brutal. Singer Charlee Cook’s performance is dramatic spastic and drummer Will Hicks is aggressive and powerful. The whole outfit is literally blindingly bright but with an apparently vast dark side in an undeniable rock and roll groove.
April 19, Frederic Rzwski plays “The People United” at Wholey’s Fish Market (contemporary classical)
This was a word-of-mouth only concert organized largely by the composer’s chance visit to Pittsburgh to see family. Apparently his son works at this iconic fish market, which has never hosted a musical performance and does not even have a suitable performance area except for a small seldom-used dining room. Alia Musica co-produced the event, a new music chamber organization that has been quick to respond to unusual and daring opportunities to make new music in new ways. The piece is a milestone of his output. I sometimes wrestle with work that can so easily play into superficial liberal bourgeois fetish for unwashed socialism, but this most authentic manifestation shows the work in earnest. It was powerful, immediate, elegant, and propulsive. Part of me likes to think that this was all just an accident, that it’s some weird Pittsburgh magic that makes this sort of thing happen. But I think the truth is that everyone involved is a stakeholder with a keen sense of Pittsburgh’s exclusive fashion, and made aesthetic choices to cultivate the “Pittsburgh-ness” of this event.
April 24, Golden Retriever (Oslo) at Station P
This band hit me up out of the blue and it was my pleasure to accommodate them for a house show in Pittsburgh. It was not as strong a turnout as they deserved but as I came to discover, what we call an “ordinary house show” scarcely exists in Europe. So for that reason I was not disappointed, especially since there were many other outstanding acts on the bill. Golden Retriever really goes all out, with blood-spattering snare hits arched back execution, and string-shattering picking. But if that wasn’t enough, signals from all instruments are fed back through each other while the drums and guitar duo is trading ideas. Station P is a place where the audience is inclined to sit on a carpet square and patiently listen to a lengthy set before politely and thoughtfully discussing the artistry. And Golden Retriever gave us much to stroke our chins over. But next time I hope I can stick them in the middle of our most disrespectful 40-ounce swilling crust punk scene and watch them whip up a frenzy.
May 1, Polish Hill Mayday, Pittsburgh PA (parade, festival, marching band, acrobatics)
This is often regarded as the finest day in Pittsburgh all year, at least for one of Pittsburgh’s most excellent DIY scenes. Haters will hate, but Pittsburgh punks age thirty and older have crafted a pretty tight community of families and homeowners who stay rad. The city is changing dramatically and the group of people who were able to buy houses in a desirable Pittsburgh location on artists’ budgets and raise a family will probably never happen again, except maybe for some outlying neighborhoods. The G20 protests and early 2000s crust scene gave those families a punk pedigree that’s not worth questioning and doesn’t to be flattered. Those who were late to the game have to define Pittsburgh radical culture their own way, but everyone can come together to celebrate on Mayday. The unpermitted march, maypole, acrobatics, floats, and general parade vibe is proof that we share the same waters as New Orleans (and indeed most of the marchers have spend a good deal of time there).
May 16, Thantifaxath (Toronto) in Pittsburgh at House of Low Voices (experimental black metal, prog/noise metal)
Black Metal is of course a carefully-guarded and elitist genre. Of course, there are so many ways to set out to make black metal and come out with glorified cock rock, post-y garbage, or some other genre with the word “blackened” merely in the description. To be an innovator like Thantifaxath takes a fundamental vision and malaise that you can’t simply develop from collecting records. What I love about Black Metal is the horizontalism of it, how you can intensify a slow moving passage. Thantifaxath was horizontal and symphonic in form but crafted from complex and cumbersome mathematical riffs, hewn into asymmetrical shapes in response to the dynamism of the melody and given accentuation to their asymmetry. With noisier and more ambient passages but generally using the meters a prog-rock band, stripped all of the wittiness, classical showmanship, whimsey, and fusion-esque sensibility and presented the intensified odd-metered riffs and dissonant harmonies with sickening groans and zero eye contact.
June 4, My Name is Ann in Prague at Cross Club (experimental pop, chamber rock)
MNIA was very helpful for me in securing a few tour dates in Czech republic. We had never met, but she worked very hard to get me at least two solid shows. Booking my tour it was a whirlwind of inquiries, and I rarely got much beyond my typical ten second screening of a couple tracks to determine if I like a band or not (this rarely fails me, by the way). I thought MNIA was a well-produced solo electro-pop online project, but it turned out to be a costumed, choreographed, full ensemble multi-instrument tour de force with synchronized video. Lenka is an artist with a voracious appetite for quality who demands, earns, and receives resources to operate at the highest level. MNIA’s aesthetic is spectacular and grotesque, like a band that might have gotten a break at First Avenue Nightclub if such venues were still around today.
June 12, Johnny Chang (Berlin) in the train station at Karlsruhe (virtuoso classical)
I’m kind of a busking snob, at least I hold myself to snobbish standards. The violin has it’s roots in the music of street musicians and will always have a foundation in the practice of busking. Sadly, what *really* works is often terrible pop covers, which I can’t bring myself to do. Or you can go the clown route and make a spectacle, which is just not in my nature. And of course, a big band will do the trick. For these reasons, the hours I spend playing traditional fiddle music in the street generate more frustration for me than money and I don’t make a habit of it. Seeing this unpretentious and ferociously talented musician playing every piece in the virtuoso encore repertoire from Wieniewski to Sarasate, Kreisler, and Ysaye with elegance and bravado (and enviable tone) was inspiring. But just as heartening was to see dozens of passers-by (3-10 per minute in a busy train station) casually deposit money in his case: not superficial photo-plunderers or patronizing spare change dumpers but busy people showing their appreciation with a solid gesture of money and a few minutes of attention that they likely can’t spare. *I didn’t know this was Johnny Chang until someone tagged him in my photo!
June 18, North African drum, song, and dance in Marsailles at the park (traditional music)
Marsailles is an overwhelmingly Muslim city, and while French tension over Islam, segregation, racism, and imperialism is well-known the experience I had that night after my show was unlike my experiences with these politics in USA. This was the first or second day of Ramadan, and from what I understand people are forbidden from eating or drinking in the daytime but may partake at night. Therefore, everyone young and old can be found out and about in the wee hours, and the inclination to celebrate is strong. As it turned out, the drummers who spontaneously gathered in the park were acquainted with the venue I played. The 6-12 musicians performed for at least a full hour, with a number of vocalists taking the lead, some lead dancers, and everyone else dancing, drumming, or singing responses. There were a couple somewhat melodic drums, but it was mostly just infectious and cyclical rhythm with words everyone seemed to know (or at least knew the responses). It was one of the most satisfying dance parties I’ve encountered and there wasn’t even an open case or hat for a donation.
June 20, Schlaasss in Toulouse at Myxart Myrys (experimental pop, rap/ techno)
I had already seen an extremely large squat in Slovenia, but due to politics, culture, and population this squat was fairly tame, at least for my humble last-minute noise show. The squat I played in Toulouse was only the size of a small school but was highly reputable, and served as a well-groomed community playground (with a badass jungle gym) as much as a noteworthy music venue. After a multi-course vegan meal at a well-laid table (as one should expect in much of Europe), the show went on with an admirable crowd and excellent bands. Despite my satisfaction, the venue was apologizing for the small turnout, and mentioned a number of conflicting events including a tenth anniversary at a nearby squat. I decided to check this out after my gig, and while a new friend escorted me there we crossed many people who had been turned away because the venue was over capacity. So I was expecting something like a raging house party, but this space turned out to be a massive industrial complex packed with approximately 15,000 attendees. Fortunately my friend was well-connected and got us in. I poked around the various performance and installation areas, stunned and excited but none of the performers really set me off. And I don’t even know why i decided to position myself so close to the main stage before the next act went on but I did. And while I feel sorry for making such a direct comparison, all I can say is that Schlasss has only a few minor differences with Die Antwoord (and I am pretty into Die Antwoord). The crowd got lost in the music and the party went to another level. While I didn’t understand most of the words it was pretty evident from her closed-fist hand gestures and other peculiar dance moves that the female rapper was as turned on by women as the male rapper.
June 21, Jealousy Mountain Duo (Germany) in La Roche Sur Yon in front of La Gatarie (math rock, experimental country)
This was a strange gig in many ways. I had gotten there just in time after my Toulouse gig, and after being swooped from the train station was taken to a downtown gallery, hosting performers as part of the town’s street music festival. Jealousy Mountain Duo are accomplished DIY touring artists in the United States, and while I haven’t been surprised to have a few friends in common with every artist or organizer I met in Europe, JMD and I quickly became bored talking about who we know where because it’s all the same people. Their style of math guitar + drums sparkling and spazzing draws and lends much to the instrumentation. The tranquility with which they accept passages of beats and meters that are mutually recognized but individually treated is the kind of jazz sensibility that I never developed. The bold moments of unison hits and riffs are chosen carefully, and give a feeling of serenity to riffs that others in the genre might treat as athletic and urgent noodling. The harmonic choices are austere and give a folky/ twangy feeling to the music. The reserved moments of looping give a feeling of nostalgia and patience rather than claustrophobia. The crowd was elusive, and it had that capricious “art walk” vibe in which people are partly looking to sample the arts but mostly want to hang with familiars. It created a cinematic contrast with the focused storytelling of JMD.
June 24, Groupe ToNNe in Saint Mathurin for Rondez-Fous (circus, street theater, performance art)
This was an excellent theater/ performance art group that I had been interacting with for a day or so (or at least as best as my embarrassing french would allow). I saw them do several other pieces after this performance, each of which was moving, funny, and relatable despite being dialogue-driven in a language I didn’t understand. But the first performance I saw of theirs embodied much of the spirit of a particularly-crafted festival. There is some uninspiring art that comes from traveling street theater that means to tailor their work to each city. But Groupe ToNNE are not only versatile and dynamic actors and musicians, they have a shrewd sense of broader performance art considerations. The festival organizers took extraordinary risks as curators and producers, often creating uncomfortable obstructions or messes and Groupe Tonne followed suit. I came to believe that this was not merely for spectacle, subversive aesthetic, or classic carnival practice (although it was all of those), but to *truly* revitalize an aged town with art, not simply to host a bougie art fair. Against their will, if need be. Furthermore, the town is bisected by a heedless highway and the traffic interruptions were perhaps the first time many daily commuters gave Saint Mathurin a second thought. It’s hard not to when a half-naked actress covered in red pigment flags down a random car and insists on being driven half a kilometer to the final setting of the play.
June 28, Chiens in Rennes at Tapette Fest (grindcore)
Tapette Fest is pretty much the defining rendezvous for French experimental DIY. There were many “stars” of the scene booked, but also many curatorial risks and curiosities. The crowd’s varied response was a testament to the scene’s responsiveness. There was freak-out dancing during psychedelic bands, stomach-clutching gaping for performance artists, beer sipping post-leaning for chill acts, headbanging for metal acts, and when a couple acts fell short of a strong performance the crowd vacated. So when you expose a sensitive and energetic crowd like this to positively wicked grindcore, you get an orgiastic mosh pit of melted faces. Chiens seems to come from the crust end of grind (rather than the metal end). I usually think of this spectrum having at the punk end a sense of energy and flailing wrought from passion over discipline, where you play as fast and loud as possible by loosening the tempo and rushing through the phrases and exaggerating idiomatic accents. Which I actually prefer to the metal end, which is metronomic and more controlled, and generally more consistent dynamically (although quieter and possibly slower). Chiens’ style and song construction seems to be crust in nature and their musicians exhibit wild and disrespectfully energetic performers. But their skill seems to have brought them to the point that rather than relying on idiom and loose tempo for speed and volume, they are able to play at blinding speed with metronomic accuracy and maximum volume for every hit. Every single hit is accented as hard as possible, even for 32nd notes with alternating 32nd note triplet riffs at immortal tempi. But to seal the deal, their vocals are mostly of the shrieking variety, which is the only grindcore vocal style I care for.
July 3, Chassol (Martinique) In Tournan-en-Brie at La Ferme Electrique (musique concrete, experimental jazz, samba)
La Ferme Electrique is a well-established festivel at a conservatory located at the governer’s house (i don’t know if this is functional or symbolic). The event featured noteworthy performers from around the world, and Chassol was one of the better-known performers. I was not previously aware of this act, but it was programmed after dark in front of an enormous projection screen. It was evident immediately that the concept of the act was a duo performing melodies and rhythm against music concrete loops. The most immediate frame of reference for me is The Books, but this was far different. Whereas The Books are about a witty pastiche of found sounds, this was all very thematic and patient. It was entirely based on videos that represent Martinique. There were birdsongs, conversations about birds, men playing cards, and a samba parade. The intimacy of the keyboard + percussion outfit (with an improvisatory style) gave it a cohesive voice.
July 6, Antez (France) in Rotterdam at Wolfart (contemporary improv/ performance art, acoustic noise)
This was a performance that I wasn’t sure was going to happen until a couple days prior. I think one reason the show happened was because Antes wanted to perform as well and the curator seemed to know that this show had to happen (so to speak) and all of the performers would be happy for any opportunity. Antez is a well-traveled artist who has been aggressively touring with a piece called “continuum.” This piece consists mainly of a bass drum covered in rosin set horizontal on a stand. What is accomplished is that the performer walks in a circle around the drum and places excitable objects on the drum creating a perpetual tone that shifts dramatically in timbre. There are also interludes of bowed objects in which the performer leaves the hypnotic circle and walks ritualistically through the audience. It was a simple, immediate, and brutal piece.
July 11, Headwar (Lille) in Rotterdam at Portgebouw (no-wave, noise rock, math rock)
As so often is the case, Headwar are wonderful as people as well as artists. I had been in touch with some other side projects for a while, and in any case we became good friends and prepared several tour dates together. I knew they were fantastic musicians from their other projects, but I was not prepared for the incredible explosion of talent channeled through outrageously multi-instrumental, multi-vocal, post-punk/ noise that I heard from Headwar. I love the outsider-ness of no-wave, especially insofar as one who scorns training achieves harmonies and rhythms that a classically trained composer would envy. And while irreverent teenage desperation is the coin of the post-punk realm, there is a pretty wide spectrum between bored suburban nihilism and devastated fucked-for-life nihilism, and it was evident from the performance that Headwar is the latter. The show was at an excellent squat where we were given limitless booze and food and invited to sleep on beds upstairs, and the frenzy that was whipped up by Headwar ignited into a dance party stoked on by the anarcho-hedonist staff.
August 2, Sneers (Italy) in Berlin at XB (shoegaze)
This was a solid day off at the end of my 11 week EU tour, and although it was sold out before I even knew about it I couldn’t help but feel regret for missing a chance to see Bjork in Berlin for 50 Euros. I decided to binge on DIY shows in the same neighborhood, starting with XB. I would be playing there a few days later and they were hosting what appeared to be a good no-wave show. The performance was booked in the garden, where the sound reflected off the adjacent buildings for a towering and wide open ambience. Sneers is an Italian duo, whose heavy tumbling psychedelic drumming and simple yet jarring shoegazey guitar is a platform for the female singer’s monumental voice. I took almost a dozen photos (which I didn’t realize is frowned upon in Berlin squats) and while editing noticed that every photo showed the drummers arms above his head and the singer’s mouth wide enough to easily swallow the microphone.
August 23 Eel in Pittsburgh at The Shop for Skull Fest (crust, noise-punk, experimental hardcore)
Eel is a band that I have kind of been trying to book for a long time. I had only seen them once in a disappointingly empty basement and had never been to Skull Fest. This kind of self-consciously glamorous trashy idgaf Appalachian punk scene (see January 1) was something I could not find in Europe. So here I was, back in the country for just a few days and our most exclusive scene was now in prime form. Most of the touring or international bands that I heard were good, or really good, or just OK. It was heartening that the hometown kids were a highlight. With energetic and grimy crust riffs augmented by excellent noise manipulation and power tools (!), in front of several hundred supporters who mosh *correctly* while firecrackers go of underfoot and mostly-empty cans come in from overhead.
August 30, Hivelords (Philadelphia) in Pittsburgh at House of Low Voices (noise metal, ritual metal)
This was an excellent performance that I walked into at a friend’s house, mostly to see a local friends’ band. This was a band whose many different projects I have been pretty into over the years but didn’t recognize them while they were slaughtering. The heavy noise, vocals, dynamic classic metal performance, and intense rhythms of the group sounded bold, ritualistic, and unpretentious and casual even in the odd and inappropriately shaped house venue.
August 31, Wild Torus (New York City) in Pittsburgh at The Button (performance art)
This show was a pretty satisfying opportunity: an outdoor guerilla show at a well-established community spot. The performers that contributed ran the spectrum from high school dropouts to people with art degrees, but it was mostly the former. Wild Torus performed a couple separate works, largely based around the ritualistic severing of a dozen greased watermelons, which were passed around the audience. In any case, the freedom of hosting such a show at an outdoor secret place meant that they were quite free to do whatever they wanted. Their original plan to build a raft out of the watermelons didn’t work out but I happened to have built a raft for my performance. So after hacking the melons in twain with a machete, the naked performers paddled out over the river and set off fireworks, all with great difficulty.
September 11, Radium Girls last show ever in Pittsburgh at The Shop (noise rock, grind)
I played one of my very first shows in a basement with Radium Girls and had tried to book them often ever since but it never worked out. Their last show ever brought out all of their supporters over the years, which are many due to the quality and intensity of the music as well as the endearing and familiar personalities, united over solid politics and brutal performance.
Sept 28, Author and Punisher (San Diego) in Pittsburgh at Howler’s (solo industrial/ doom)
Author and Punisher was a show I was told I “had to see,” and I was not disappointed. I was first pleasantly surprised by the excellent group Muscle and Marrow (which joined Author and Punisher for a song). The figurehead of Author and Punisher is positioned behind an oppressive rig of industrial machines crafted into instruments, or at least brutally massive midi controllers. The weight of the instruments makes it a not-fucking-around way to create a solo industrial set with little-to-no sequencing. When a solo artist hits “play” on some consumer grade keyboards or presses a few buttons in rhythm, it’s just hard to get a sense of immediacy or heaviness (if that’s what they’re going for). In some ways, the contraptions that Author and Punisher lugs across the country are cartoonishly large and post-apocalyptic, but it’s an industrial bass and snare, synth lead, or noise swell that really hits you hard.
October 17, Timeghost in Pawtucket, RI at Machines with Magnets (transgressive industrial/ performance art/ experimental electronic)
This is a surprising and unsurprising addition to this list. Unsurprising because it’s pretty highly regarded among experimental DIY connoisseurs (if I do say so myself) and I bring up Adam’s performances in conversation often as one of my favorites. But it’s surprising because I’ve seen Timeghost over a span of three or four years and there are still new innovations that knock me on my ass. This was supposedly one of the last performances of my favorite material, which includes a photosensitive mouthpiece that creates a photosonic feedback network with the vocals, noise, and synchronized lighting wall. I don’t know what “photosonic feedback network” means, I just made it up because it’s otherwise indescribable. This time, another spectacularly complex yet astoundingly simple piece involved passing a steady audio signal through a particular chemical suspension that (amplified with a camera and projector) creates a sickly writhing orgy of wet tendrils and vaguely human limbs, a fitting compliment to the sounds.
October 18, Jeff Young in Brooklyn at Torus Porta (contemporary classical, performance art, solo theater)
I have seen Jeff perform in many outfits, and his intelligent, energetic, wry style marks him as a born and raised Brooklynite who just so happens to be outrageously good at the violin. His performance opened with an acoustic performance of kindred spirit Paul Pinto’s short work for unaccompanied scordatura acoustic violin with vocals. It was “young New York composition” comprised of sixteenth note-y patterns that unfold in a systematic way. It’s a type of writing that has become very popular but eludes me as a performer, and often as a listener. But unlike some trendy or whimsical approaches to this style, this performance exhibited the viscerality, darkness, and weight (plus and an unashamed punch line or two) that I’ve come to expect from Paul Pinto. The follow-up was a lengthy tale that resembled an overcaffeinated children’s TV show, with augmentations on violin, electronics, vocals, and performance elements including mushrooms launched at the audience. It seemed to hearken back to performances Jeff and I have seen of Valerie Kuehne or Amy X Neuburg.
October 25, Maruta (Miami) in Pittsburgh at Rock Room (grind)
This was a show that I knew was going to be wild. In this case Maruta stood out for their songwriting and performance but also because of their guitar-drums-vocals stripped down grindcore setup. Having played in some large, heavily amplified bands and also heavily amplified solo setups I know how much the room dictates the potential dynamic of every frequency. There are trick frequencies, directionalities, hums, ghosts, room tones, and feedback ceilings. One can and should fiddle with the knobs, but sometimes a listener’s hears have to pick up each instrument’s part and have your brain reassemble it the way it’s *supposed* to sound. When Maruta hit it (and they hit it hard) the tone was immediate and the audience responded. It was probably not louder than the other bands but certainly seemed so. The songs were built with true grindcore construction, never more than two verses, probably only one chorus, with dissonant harmonies and short cadences to connect them that move you through bizarre key areas that seem as natural as I-IV-V. The writing doesn’t come off as proggy or noisy, but simply violent.
November 6, Bbigpigg (Brooklyn) in Pittsburgh at Spirit (no-wave, post-punk)
There are a lot of really good new no-wavey bands in New York, and I figured I’d be seeing one of the familiar stock, with the loose outsider-y flailing and sneering. And that is off course the allure of so much no wave. And while many bands like openers Night Vapor take prog/ metal instrumental pedigree and compose gnarly riffs with a floppy and slurred caricatured frontman, Bbiggpig was pretty much just youthful energy with instrumental facility. They weren’t trying to be druggier-than-thou, and certainly not proggier-than-thou. It was like The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, if The Beatles had studied and modified Teenage Jesus riffs rather than American R & B riffs.
November 14, Simpatico Ripens in Pittsburgh at Thee Temple ov Thee Holy Whore (performance art)
When I moved to Pittsburgh three years ago, I was seeking performance artists to incorporate into shows and could find very little. I was always trying to talk my friend Guinevere into organizing a performance because she exhibited a terrifying level of talent for performance art. Not only did I recognize it, but any time I asked around for local performance art she was mentioned despite the fact that she had never performed in any capacity. As anticipated, when she did start organizing performances they were brilliant. This was the second time I had seen the piece called Simpatico Ripens, and it revealed the strong, sensitive discipline of the performers as well as the integrity of the concept. The visual and auditory elements were related to the interactions of the participants, particularly costumed and writhing. There was an organic inevitability to the unraveling of the form but it made the work no less fragile.
December 5, Alumni Theater presents The Transcendents, in Pittsburgh at Kelly Strayhorn (musical theater, dance)
Pittsburgh is an especially segregated city, geographically and culturally. And most DIY scenes are overwhelmingly white, by virtue of privilege and microaggression, although people who care know it and try to do the right thing. What this performance reminded me is that the Black Lives Matter movement that I had seen in full strength in many other parts of the country is not some liberal hashtag, political token, or clicktivist banner as so often seems to be the case on the white side of segregation. It is a youth-driven black power movement. And speaking purely aesthetically, it is possibly the most beautiful and potent energy in America. So seeing the black teenagers of Alumni Theater write, choreograph, and sing a daringly honest work forged by racial volatility in dialogue with African diaspora of all generations and locations was breathtaking and inspiring. It’s not as though there isn’t great art coming from people of color on all points of the scene, it just isn’t explicitly BLM. I wish I could help promote this energy through my local artistic work but it seems like they’re doing just fine.
December 9, Non Grata (multiple countries) in Pittsburgh at Thee Temple of thee Holy Whore (performance art)
This was a much anticipated performance, and from rumor and research I expected a wild performance. Having lived in a performance art space and organized dozens of performance art shows I have a pretty broad perspective on the discipline. But Non Grata was the most challenging performance I’ve ever had to manage (other than my days organizing middle school orchestra performances). Like most excellent performance art, each performance is crafted at least in part for the space and situation. This performance in a dilapidated near-cathedral sized church space was an excellent spectacle of body mutilation, religious ritual, boundary exploration, and disorienting sound. The fact that I was left with three books published by the group tells me that whatever I might think I gleaned about their practice through conversation, observation, and interaction is inadequate information for understanding or discussing their art.
December 12, Cuddle Magic (Philly/ Brooklyn) in Pittsburgh at Spirit
I had almost resigned myself to not include Cuddle Magic on this list. When I played a few tour dates with them years ago I saw that it was perfect. Every show was prepared and performed to the ideal. The material had Brooklyn wit and a post-indie chamber-prog sensibility with risks taken in instrumentation, experimental form, and and the shamelessness of singing a beautiful love song melody in a major key. So how could they manage to pull in a spot higher on the list? Well in this case it was ironic because Spirit is a large venue with a big stage adjacent to the bigger bar. For reasons I presume are related to Cuddle Magic’s precarious microphone setup they could not perform as loud as the previous band without feedback. And this was disappointing to me because the chatter from the bar, while inevitable and not altogether distracting, betrayed the heartstopping bliss that the experience should have aroused. But after two songs, the musicians left the stage and conducted a risky “sing-along” exercise while performing at the dynamic of a whisper. This is not a new maneuver, and whether or not it was planned; holy shit did it work. During the next song, the beautiful genderqueer stranger leaned over to me and said “this is my favorite band.”
December 18, Faun and a Pan Flute (Atlanta) in Pittsburgh at Night Gallery (experimental chamber prog)
This was an excellent show that I was happy to booThis was an excellent show that I was happy to book for friends I performed with many years ago. The ten or so chamber musicians of Faun have been in touch to share tour contacts and shows (and odd/ end online comments) but I hadn’t seen them in the flesh for years. I remember it being overwhelmingly good, at a rare moment when I was on tour with someone else’s band that was not that interesting, nor did they play with interesting local bands. I had a strong enough impression to confidently promote but the experience and sound they created was well beyond what I was expecting. It was apparently one of their more intimate shows of tour, space-wise. I remember the band being quite improvisatory, because the music spun out with facility, organic construction, and progressive energy of each piece. On a second and more recent listen, clearly the music is deliberate and carefully considered and often notated. With years of two-a-week practices, I imagine that there have been entire months dedicated to a single verse. The performance was dynamic and focused, orchestral and cinematic, lyric and epic.