Neil Preston If you're a fan of Led Zeppelin, you're familiar with…
- Posted on Apr 26th 2011 10:00AM by Steve Hochman
Of course, it was a musical journey, not a travel adventure, but it covered a lot of ground last week with Dengue Fever, Paul Simon and Ghazal on consecutive nights and then, after a one-day break, Robert Plant -- each representing ambitious global perspectives, creative and often iconic approaches to culture-crossing and, crucially, voracious appetites for new sounds and experiences.
And how better to represent that than with the Mastadong? That's the Frankensteinian concoction that these days is as much the calling card for Dengue Fever as is singer Chhom Nimol's smile. The Mastadong splices a Fender JazzMaster with a chapei dong veng (a two-stringed, long-necked lute), a perfect representation of the band's ever-evolving blend of Cambodian pop and California psych-surf. When Zac Holtzman brought out the Mastadong midway through the concert at West Hollywood's Troubadour club celebrating the release of the band's new album, 'Cannibal Courtship' -- which features the Mastadong on the cover -- it brought the show into sharp focus.
The hybrid clearly shows the continuity between the notion of a bunch of SoCal alt-rockers hiring a Cambodian-born singer who survived the Khmer Rouge to recreate the pop sounds of '70s Phnom Penh (how the band started) and the same bunch making exuberant, twisted globo-rock, sung as much in English as Khmer (the emphasis of the new album). He'd play modal lines of pipeline twang on the guitar neck and then suddenly shift down to the other fret board and, wham, a loamy rumble would utter forth. For that matter, would be very cool to hear him have a go at Link Wray's instrumental classic 'Rumble' on that thing.
The rumble Paul Simon created 25 years ago with his 'Graceland' album (and has been revived, in a sense, by Vampire Weekend) is still shaking things up. It took about three beats into the opening song at his first of two Pantages Theater nights -- 'Crazy Love Vol. II' from the 'Graceland' opus -- to reaffirm that. The burbling guitar interplay of Cameroon's Vincent Nguini and US axester Mark Stewart over the slipper bass of 'Graceland' original Bakithi Kumalo drawing excited coos and claps from an audience of fans, many of whom, were it not for Simon, likely never would have heard the mbaqanga/high-life grooves in the first place, let alone be craving them today.
But with the very next song he demonstrated that he's just as committed to expanding his reach, with the hypnotic water-droplet tabla beats of 'Dazzling Blue' from the new 'So Beautiful So What' album. An acoustic slide guitar joined in soon, at once evoking such Indian slide innovators as Debashish Bhattacharya and linking it all back to the Delta-Appalachia folk-blues that in part inspired Simon way back when -- which in turn came on strong two songs later with the new album's swampy title song. Later he skipped to Jamaica with a simmering version of Jimmy Cliff's moving protest song 'Vietnam,' which Simon introduced as what had led him to go to Jamaica and record 'Mother and Child Reunion,' which of course he segued into from the Cliff song. And there was West African lilt on the new 'Rewrite' and Brazilian drum punch on 'The Obvious Child,' a highlight from the oft-overlooked 'Graceland' follow-up 'The Rhythm of the Saints.'
'Graceland,' though, anchored the set list nearly as much as the new album, with 'Boy in the Bubble' still mind-bending after all these years from the portentous accordion to Kumalo's slip-slidin' bass to the amazingly more-pertinent-than-ever observations of just how surreal reality has become. (And, tangentially, 'Still Crazy After All These Years' was perhaps the only song in the set that seemed out of place, with its slick lounge-lizard sounds and relatively trite sentiments.) Throughout the set, there was an undercurrent of the '50s doo-wop and rock 'n' roll, a love for which launched the approaching-70 Simon on this journey in the first place, no less explicit in several new songs and the South African harmonies of 'Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes' than on the loose '50s medley of 'Mystery Train' and the Chet Atkins instrumental 'Wheels.'
Nothing against Peter Gabriel and David Byrne and other rockers who dabbled in world sounds before 'Graceland' and have continued exploring, but the most enduring, most arresting, most nuanced and personalized global meld may well belong to this living boy from New York. And yes, he did perform 'The Only Living Boy From New York' this night, perhaps because it's featured in a current car commercial, but heck, who cares? It's a great song. It was also one of just two Simon and Garfunkel songs in the concert, the other being a solo acoustic version of 'The Sounds of Silence' that played up the Spanish guitar grounding in a way that could almost have served as a haunting number at the close of a spaghetti Western. The one other dip into that time period came in a lovely encore duet with Stewart on George Harrison's 'Here Comes the Sun,' a tribute to another icon who helped turn us on to non-Western sounds.
But just how is it that these unexpected rhythms and cultural borrowings continue to elicit and illuminate Simon's ever-whimsical-yet-subtly-profound narratives and musings on living, dying and -- on one of the new album's most whimsical/profound songs, a bureaucratic vision of 'The Afterlife' (with it engagingly giddy Africanized guitar lines and shifting-sands percussion) -- beyond? Well, to reach back to another S&G song (that didn't get played this night), it's all part of a globally dangling conversation he's been conducting for a quarter of a century now, breaking down the borders of our lives.
"A conversation" is exactly how one night later sitarist Shujaat Husain Kahn described his occasional collaborations with kemancheh master Kayhan Kalhor at the start of their concert at UCLA's Royce Hall, a recording and performing conversation that under the name Ghazal started 15 years ago –- just 15 minutes after they first met. This was their first in-concert chat in seven years, but with tabla player Samir Chatterjee kibitzing this night they sounded like they'd been sitting down together every day.
This is on the surface not the border-leaping feat of Simon or even Dengue Fever. Iran and India are nearly neighbors (and the Persian empire extended to India), their classical and folk music traditions are related. Yet the stylistic and cultural differences give a true blend challenging. But, Kahn explained, Ghazal has never been about any tradition, per se. It's about him and Kalhor, and each has on his own reached well beyond and particular discipline. Kalhor in particular is one of the co-founders and core composers and musicians in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and his 2008 'Silent City' teaming with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet (featured in an Around the World column) is a striking, uncategorizable landmark.
The three pieces played at Royce -– two long excursions sandwiched around a more compact interlude -– in particular showed off Khan's fluid playing, often playing off his mellifluous vocals and Khalor's stunning improvisational skills, the musicians clearly delighted with the unfolding surprises provided as the pieces played out. The venture's namesake, the ghazal, already bridges the cultures, a form that spread throughout Islamic South Asia 900 years ago and well outside of that in more recent times, with names from Rumi to Goethe among devotees and practitioners. If anything is a common human experience, it's the pain-pleasure paradox of love that fuels the ghazal, and was on the surface throughout this concert. But Ghazal the group is not about crossing cultures. Rather it's about creating a new one, right there in front of an audience, a thrilling and moving experience for the creators and the observers alike.
Perhaps it was a mistake to go into the Greek Theater show by Robert Plant and his current Band of Joy outfit with an ear tilted in a world-music direction. Even with his long advocacy and embrace of, in particular, North African music via bringing in Egyptian musicians to back him and Jimmy Page on their UnLedded project in 1994 and his serving as superfan to the Tuareg trance-rockers Tinariwen in recent years, it may have been wishful thinking to try to find that prominently here.
But still, didn't the groove behind concert opener 'Black Dog' -- rearranged radically not just from the original Led Zeppelin stomper, but also from the prog-grass version he did on the 'Raising Sand' tour with Allison Krauss a few years ago -- have a desert blues grounding straight from the Sahara? And couldn't one hear the following song, a reworking of the 1993 Plant solo effort 'Down to the Sea,' as English folk-rock shaded with at least a touch of Berber rhythms and modes?
The thing is, for the rest of the show other elements were explicit. That English folk-rock very much so, prominently in 'House of Cards' written by Richard Thompson, one of the field's giants, and then again in a snippet of 'Come All Ye,' a classic by Thompson's old band Fairport Convention, tossed into Plant's rendition of his own old hit 'I'm in the Mood.' (On the Krauss tour, there was a reverse to some extent, with 'I'm in the Mood' inserted as a digression during 'The Battle of Evermore,' the Zep original of which had featured haunting guest vocals by Fairport singer Sandy Denny.)
With the Band of Joy there was also very specific uses of Delta blues, hill-country folk and rock 'n' roll -- the things that provided the foundation for Led Zeppelin, but mixed up in new ways by Plant in a matured, playful mélange, not so much a reinvention of him as a true renewal and revitalization. The respect, even love, he and his bandmates seem to have for each other is clear, with co-pilot Buddy Miller (who'd played guitar on the 'Raising Sand' tour and produced the new Band of Joy album), singer Patty Griffin and multi-strings player Darrel Scott each given ample time in the spotlight. Scott was perhaps the revelation, leading a gorgeous group sing of the old Porter Wagoner country-gospel hit 'Satisfied Mind.'
Maybe the North-African sounds were a desert mirage. But then as the show's end approached, midway through a slinky revision of the Zep chestnut 'Ramble On' Scott started wielding an octave mandolin as if it were an oud or saz, the rest of the band hushed, attention on him as he ran around scales that could have (may have?) been from a classical Arabic maqam. Now that was no illusion.
Cornered backstage after the show, Scott confirmed: "Robert always pushes the North African stuff. Even when I play banjo he wants that."
Quick! Give that man a Mastadong!