Monday, June 9, 2014

Austin Civic Orchestra Revisits the '70s

On Friday night Amy and I went to see the Austin Civic Orchestra.  We've been to a number of shows now that have been put on by the ACO.  I have a friend from work, Laura, who plays clarinet in the orchestra, so she's the one who originally told me about it and got us to come out.
We've been to several of their shows now, and we've enjoyed them all.  This is our second annual June ACO concert at Zilker.
The June concert usually features popular music, admission is free, and it's open to the public.
This year's theme was "That '70s Show".  The music included the Star Wars theme, a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar, "Pinball Wizard" by The Who, an Abba medley from Mama Mia, "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas, a Led Zeppelin medley, and some other 70's related stuff. 

(the Austin Civic Orchestra broke out their tie dye for
"That 70's Show")
The Austin Civic Orchestra performances are pretty good.  The concert in the park has its own, unique, laid back feel.  People are stretched out on the lawn in camping chairs and on blankets.  They bring their kids and their dogs and drink wine and eat food. 
This being the second year that I've heard the orchestra play at the Zilker Hillside Theater, it occurred to me that Austin might really benefit from having a permanent band or orchestra shell of some type.  The orchestra sounded good, but the Hillside Theater does not have great acoustics.  It's got a bit of a stage with some scaffolding for lighting, but it's basically just an open area.  Therefore, the sound of the orchestra sort of travels in every direction, and the volume of the orchestra is actually fairly low when you're sitting out on the hillside trying to have a listen.  You can hear the music, obviously, but you lose a lot of clarity and nuance.  It might be nice to have a permanent outdoor venue that was designed with acoustics in mind.  We are, supposedly, the "Live Music Capital of the World", so and having a public structure that helps bounce sound out toward an audience might help underscore the city's commitment to live musical performance.  Plus, people sitting on the hill would like to be able to hear a little better.
But the orchestra's performance was good.  The musicians in the ACO are, obviously, not getting paid, but they're talented folks who perform well together as a group.  There were a few little moments when the orchestra seemed a little off, mostly in terms of timing, when one section wasn't perfectly synced up with another.  I'm guessing that the acoustic issues may not have been limited to the audience.  Spread out up on an outdoor stage in the open air, the musicians probably had a little difficulty hearing one another.  But the music was generally really good, and it was a fun experience.

The weather was nice.  Everyone seemed to really be enjoying themselves.  The kids in the audience were dancing to the music, and I was impressed to see some of them pull out plastic lightsabers and launch into battle when the Star Wars theme began.

(when you're a Jedi padawan, it's hard to resist the urge to practice your
lightsaber skills during the Star Wars theme)

So, I recommend the Austin Civic Orchestra.  Their performances throughout the rest of the year tend to consist of more classical music (as opposed to the popular program that they put together for this performance), but Amy and I have enjoyed ourselves each of the times that we've seen them.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Matt the Electrician with A.J. Roach and Nuala Kennedy

Hey there! Amy and I went to see Matt the Electrician last night with his guest stars, A.J. Roach and Nuala Kennedy.

As usual at Strange Brew, it was a good show.  Matt Sever's music conveys an interesting combination of vulnerability, strength, curiosity, wit, melancholy, and hope.  His voice is strong, but nuanced.  Emotionally, his music somehow manages to contain themes about broken relationships and sad situations, while simultaneously conveying a sort of calm, "c'est la vie" sort of attitude.  His tunes remain a little bit whimsical and hopeful, even when the subject matter isn't really upbeat.
(Matt the Electrician, Nuala Kennedy, and A.J. Roach- with Fred the bass player) 
I like his music.  He played "It's a Beacon It's a Bell", and it made me want to immediately go listen to it again.  I've always liked that song in a casual way, but hearing him play it live at the show really made me appreciate it on a new level.
Sever's also a really good folk guitarist.  He's great with fingerpicking and rolls and hammer-ons, and he gets a great sound from his acoustic guitar (I'm not sure what's going on, but I noticed that he has two different chords coming out of the same guitar, so I guess he's got two distinct pickups in there).  Really good timbre to the sound.

If I had any complaint at all about Matt's part of the show, it might be that he was a little heavy on the banter between songs.  He seems like a nice guy, and he's pretty funny, but there was enough talking at different points that I started to get impatient about wanting to hear more music.  He also made a sort of mild complaint about the fact that Tony Hawk was kicking off the X-Games on a half pipe somewhere across town during the set, and he sort of wished he was there.  Not terrible, but kinda weird to hear a performer tell you that they have somewhere that they'd rather be when you're there to hear their music.  He gets honesty points, I guess?

(Matt y Nuala)
A.J. Roach was a talented guy.  Nuala Kennedy is his fiance, and I guess they've been living over in Scotland for a while.
They played a number of songs together.  They ranged from very good to sort of middle of the road for me.  In truth, I liked Nuala Kennedy's voice and her flute playing a little better than I liked A.J.'s singing or guitars.  Her voice had a lilting, mournful quality to it, but very pretty.  She also skillfully played a sort of Scottish flute, and it added a whole different, interesting dimension to the songs where it appeared.  Some of her flute melodies occupied the space where I'm used to hearing guitar solos, and the flute was a welcome change.  It had an interesting tone, and it sort of altered the feel of certain songs.  Very cool.
A.J. Roach was a capable singer, and he had written some good songs, but his voice seemed heavily affected.  He tended to change accents and singing styles from one song to the next, and he was sort of quick to throw in vibrato and other flourishes.  His technique wasn't all bad and the guy was in tune, but in the sort of intimate singer-songwriter environment of Strange Brew, the affect seemed a little over-the-top and artificial.
The songs were evened out, though, by the bass, the flute, by Kennedy's backing vocals, and by Roach's capable work on guitar.
Between Kennedy and Roach, they had a few songs that I really liked ("Barrio Moon" comes to mind), but I just wasn't a huge fan of Roach's voice. 

Overall, though, a pretty good show.  Matt the Electrician is planning on hosting upcoming Strange Brew shows in future weeks with other performers, including Beaver Nelson, so I might have to go check some of them out.