Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Catching up, part two

(Continued from part one.)

On Thursday (May 17) I woke up on the early side (night-time back pain can be a powerful alarm clock) and immediately set to confirming how we were going to get to Amsterdam (about an hour away from Den Haag) for that evening's gig at the world-famous Bimhuis (and here I must extend gratitude to Wolter Wierbos, whose longstanding connections with this venue are, I am convinced, what got us the gig). The festival folks had informed me that they'd be able to provide us with transportation to Amsterdam, but this seemed almost like too much to hope for, given the distance involved and the fact that our Bimhuis show had nothing to do with our festival shows. Rien, the transportation coordinator (who, incidentally, epitomized that Dutch tendency toward what I can only call "gruff good cheer") had assured me the night before that we'd be able to work it out, as long as I gave him our schedule in advance. We had already discussed departure and return times, but knowing the way these sorts of things can fall apart in a moment's notice, I was still trying to be proactive.

My worries were unwarranted. The vans (driven by Hans and Jo) picked us up (with Josh Sinton now in the mix) at around 1 PM, and we made it to Amsterdam without incident. Actually, once we got there, we did have some trouble finding the venue, but in our travels we got better acquainted with the city, which was nice. Somewhere along the way a third leitmotif of the tour emerged: the question that has haunted me (and flummoxed many an unsuspecting Ministry fan) since the inception of the group: "What exactly is Industrial Jazz"? In this case it came from Hans, I think, and if I have ever fretted about trying explain the group name to a fellow American, in this case the task seemed more daunting because of the cultural differences at hand (even though Hans spoke perfect English). Truth be told, "Industrial Jazz" has had multiple different personal meanings for me, and I have more or less rotated them depending on the interview or conversation. But at this point it's just a term that refers to the music this group makes (as Zappa once said when asked about the goofiness of his titles: "Well, ya gotta call 'em something"). Anyway, I'm no longer interested in definitions per se. I told Hans the group name had to do with chocolate, and we left it at that.

Outside the Bimhuis: stairway to heaven. (L-R: Rosenboom, Schnelle, Schenck, Canniere, Francis.)

We arrived in time for a quick bite before our sound check (at which point I discovered two quirks in Dutch restaurant culture: 1. You never need to wait to be seated. You just sit. 2. It would probably be impossible to have a "power lunch" in Holland. Cuz, like, no one seems to be in a rush to get anywhere). From there we infiltrated the stage.

I have to say, the Bimhuis is a trippy place. The venue itself is ensconced within a larger structure (the MuziekGebouw, itself a performance space for classical music), which sits right on the River IJ. There is a gigantic window behind the stage so that from the audience one can see the city, and more specifically the trains that regularly stop across the street. (For our show these windows were covered by curtains, because I had decided to do a full-on multitrack recording and we were trying to cut down on unnecessary reflections.)

A room with a view: the Bimhuis stage, viewed from the audience, pre-show.

Most of you probably know that the BH moved a few years ago. The original space, where the venue established its world-renown, had actually been receiving noise complaints (sound familiar?). According to Wolter, what the original lacked in high falutin' appearance, it made up for in a more musicianly vibe -- it was, apparently, the place for jazz musicians to hang out in the city. But I don't know; I for one didn't have much to complain about regarding the new incarnation. The entire venue was beautiful and clean. We had a spacious green room, bowls of fruit and candy, plenty of beverages, a few practice / warmup rooms, access to a computer, and a generally comfortable and relaxing environment. Oh, and all this was supported by the freakin' government.

Anyway, we had a team of maybe four or five people to help us with our stage setup, blew through a good soundcheck (though I stupidly neglected to run through "Yo, Jimbo!," our "extra" tune, because I thought we had more than enough material to play), and took a short break before dinner.

There are of course many things to do in Amsterdam (I'll have more to say about some of them by and by), but I ended up playing it pretty low-key in the interim between soundcheck and dinner by heading across the street with Jill and Matt to get a (tiny) cup of coffee at a mysterious place called "11." Here was the schtick, if you must know: the place was a restaurant located on the eleventh floor of an abandoned (condemned, in fact) building. Since the site was scheduled for demolition at some point in the near future, someone (the proprietor of the restaurant? the city itself?!) had given the green light to a general paint-off, and as a result much of the building was decorated in some of the most beautiful (and some of the bleakest) grafitti I have ever seen. (The restaurant itself actually seemed sort of lame in comparison, even though they were clearly trying to extend the artistic vibe to their dining experience.)

"11" graffiti, exhibit A.

"11" graffiti, exhibit B.

Made it back to the venue in time for a kick-ass buffet dinner (this is what we musicians call the "royal treatment") and then general futzing around before the show. Somehow in the process of said futzing, I was jarred out of my pre-gig mellow and drawn irresistably toward a manic burst of music-making that was coming through the theater door (the Bimhuis restaurant is separated from the performance space by a wall). This was the duo of Tatiana Koleva (on marimba and percussion) and Rutger van Otterloo (on saxophone), the first act of the evening. Two things blew me away as I stepped into the theater to get a better hear:

1. Koleva's marimba playing was great, but it was really when she moved over to the drumset and began playing it while simultaneously triggering a whole array of profanity-laced samples (from what source, I dunno), all in the kookiest rhythmic combinations and in extreme tightness with Otterloo, that I had that all-too-rare feeling of not being able to tear myself away from a performance. It was stunning -- and it was all the more successful because, cynic that I am, I generally approach any "art music" involving samples with extreme caution; usually I get the sense that folks who indulge in this sort of thing are trying too hard to convince me of their hipness. But I never once got that "forced" feeling with this duo.

2. There were, uh, people in the audience. Not sold out, but a pretty healthy crowd for a Thursday night after 9 PM (perhaps the turnout was affected by the fact that in the Netherlands, the sun is just setting at 9:30). Phil Rodriguez, who was also drooling over the Koleva/Otterloo performance, remarked that a show like this would bring out maybe ten people in New York, and three people in Los Angeles. Maybe that was a little bit of an exaggeration, but there was an essential truth underneath it, and I consequently stole the observation for some of my between-song-banter later in the evening. In any case, as we (and a few of the other IJG folks) stared incomprehensibly at the numerous couples and friends out for an evening of dinner and crazy music -- well, there was a bit of a kid-in-a-candy-store thing going on. (I'm sure we looked like idiots.)

All of this was a great way to kick off the evening. I must admit that I more or less couldn't focus on the second act (a trio called Spoon 3) -- not sure if it was something inherent in their performance or just that I was anxious to play, but I spent the next hour or so (we were the final act of the evening) pacing, as is my wont, and watching the antics of my fellow Industrials; antics which included a "clash of the titans" moment between a crab, a lobster, and a chicken:

Phil Rodriguez, Katharina Thomsen, and Brian Walsh work out their artistic differences.

The performance itself flew by (we went on at 11 PM). Blah, blah, blah, we got an encore (would've been nice to have rehearsed "Yo Jimbo," n'est-ce pas?), we almost got another encore (but we had nuthin' else to play) -- you can get more of the details at Jill's recap post. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of our portion of the evening (confirmed later when I started working my way through the recording) was the emergence of a unified looseness in the group sound. In the past I have generally aimed for precision when it came to the execution of my written charts. I have tended to shy away from recording the band's live performances, because I was always concerned with things staying as "close to the ink" as possible... and the ink is, well, difficult to execute. But I have never subscribed to the "benevolent dictator" model of the composer-conductor, and I think everyone in the band has known that, and with this show there was a strange transmogrification of the set, in that the majority of the players knew the music well enough to be able to play it as if it were all improvised. In other words, the group as a whole started to develop some of the suppleness -- in terms of well-placed and judicious interpretive liberties that never sacrificed the cohesion of a given piece -- that is usually only possible in a smaller configuration (a quartet or quintet, say). They owned the music -- an exceedingly difficult thing to do in a big band setting. Once again, my hat is off to the cats involved: I am humbled and in awe.

Trusty Hans and Jo picked us up at around 1 AM, and it was back to Den Haag for a little shuteye. And that's the wrap-up for day two. Next: IJG live at the World Forum Convention Center.

No comments: