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Barry Adamson, Michael Formanek, Elliott Sharp & Rokia Traoré

Martin Longley By

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Barry Adamson
Rough Trade
March 21, 2016

Hot on the heels of SXSW in Austin, Barry Adamson turned up for a lower-key solo show at NYC's Rough Trade store. His reputation was made as a bassist with Magazine and Nick Cave, but in the three decades since then he's had ample time to build up a persona as composer of movie soundtracks to imaginary flicks. Not that this is his only mission, but it's the best way to encapsulate where Adamson's at, even when appearing here, singing, playing guitar (fed through midget amplifier) and being boosted by a laptop backing. It's a surprisingly direct, no-frilled performance, as Adamson jokes that he was just expecting to be playing in the corner of the shop, instead of being perched on the rear venue's main stage, with a fulsome crowd in place. Well, given his position in the rock pantheon, and the fact that this was a freebie show, it was disappointing that the joint wasn't even more crowded.

Due to this lone troubadour manifestation, the Adamson songbook was less cinematic, more rock'n'roll, with a skeletal sound, muscled up by his sheer exuberance as a reluctant frontman for a non-existent band. Much of the guitaring was quite tinny, but around the halfway point Adamson started to unleash some more savage effects-pedal extremity, cranking out increased distortion, thickening the layers. It was a shame that he wasn't joined by a band, but this set enthralled the audience just as much with sheer personality and sense of occasion, even if some of the music suffered from its digital origins. A particular stand-out was "Jazz Devil," utilising the core beat-riff of David Bowie and Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing," from back in 1977 ("I'm Barry Hellafonte," intones Adamson, as part of his beatnik rap). A quote from Captain Beefheart's "Low Yo Yo Stuff" reared up during "Cine City," which comes from Adamson's latest album, Know Where To Run. In each case, these hijacks added to the original material, as desired embellishments rather than inappropriate steals.

Michael Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus
Jazz Standard
March 22, 2016

A two-night stint at the Standard showcased bassist Michael Formanek's compositions from The Distance (released by ECM Records, earlier this year), re-uniting most of Ensemble Kolossus from the recording sessions. Fellow bassman Mark Helias conducted, with the assembled ranks crammed onto the club's stage, the frontal tables rammed up close, their inhabitants glorying in a very close-proximity big band assault. Formanek's totally solo bass led into a growing of tonal colourations, swelling to a crescendo, then cutting sharply to a piano trio. Staccato strikes were made, easing into a rolling procession, Loren Stillman's alto saxophone wending its way on a bluesy drag-foot path. Chris Speed invoked Coleman Hawkins on tenor, licking the lobes of the front rows. Kirk Knuffke sent out a sparkly cluster, giving Duke Ellington a respectful sideways jolt.

A winning solo of this first set on the first night was given by trombonist Ben Gerstein, his palm muting his bell, left alone for an astounding bout of tonal exploration, followed by the re-entry of the sections, glistening brightly. To the side of Ralph Alessi's trumpet solo, Mary Halvorson issued guitar surges to delineate his patterns. A fully-involved Halvorson statement emerged, gaining dominance, scrabbly, then gliding and merging into the ensemble, providing the set's second triumphant solo. Somehow, this music sounded harder, more extreme than the album recording, as the players have doubtless come to grapple further with the compositions, winkling out their deeper potentialities.

Elliott Sharp's Bootstrappers
The Cornelia Street Café
March 22, 2016

A swift subway ride downtown ensured catching Elliott Sharp's second set at Cornelia, with a rare appearance by another incarnation of his old Bootstrappers trio. Accompanied by David Hofstra (double bass) and Don McKenzie (drums), Sharp began on tenor saxophone, gnarled gobbets littering a number that was constructed as an extended horn solo, goaded by his 'rhythm team.' Sharp became aroused, and then contemplative in turn, duck-calling, or fluttering low. For the second piece, he switched to guitar, introducing a very different funk-blues freedom, flecked with Jimi Hendrix signatures. Adding some e-bow clouding, the resultant stinging mist was interrupted by the clamping action of metal bar, clapped down hard on the strings. Meanwhile, McKenzie was driving hard, with some suitably complicated funkiness, making this a short, but energised set.

Rokia Traoré
Highline Ballroom
March 23, 2016

The Malian singer and guitarist Rokia Traoré was set to fly from Brussels on the very morning of its airport suicide-bombing attack. The band got delayed, and would probably have been caught up in the explosions. Instead, they flew in on the morning of this gig itself, but there was not a shred of weariness evident in their performance. Close to the end of her set, Traoré halted the proceedings to speak of that day's events, how she returned home, and heard stories of missing friends and family. Traoré settled on an appropriate tone, avoiding sensationalism, judging calmly, not being too stridently outraged, but speaking up for peace and unity, singing a song that again adopted a firm tone of togetherness and solidarity. She didn't directly capitalise on tragedy, but she didn't side-step it either. A tricky manoeuvre, and one of the 'best' (if such things can be graded) speeches ever heard during a music performance. Perhaps we should call it 'magnetising' rather than 'best.'

Earlier in the set, Traoré divided her time between singing with a guitar, and letting her band carry the music, free to roam the stage, concentrating on her vocal delivery. Her guitar style diverges from conventional electric forms, being translated from the melodies and structures of kora and n'goni lines. It's less technically flashy than the solos of her band's lead guitarist, but more compelling to hear, as she coaxes out unusual and angular riffs and solo licks on her axe. Traoré's voice has a wide range, strong and low, but sometimes crying out high, leaping up to the rafters. Her demeanour is authoritative, but with a natural relaxedness. She's a natural star, and easily one of the best performers emerging from the African continent during the last decade or two, writing original songs that resonate with tradition whilst forging ahead into an Afro-rock uniqueness that knows no compromise.

Photo Credit: Cristina Guadalupe

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