The Month in Weird: March’s Best Avant-Garde Concerts

Pussy Riot, Straight Outta Vagina, 2016.

Pussy Riot in their video for “Straight Outta Vagina.” YouTube

The month of March is a mind-blowing treasure trove of concerts running the schizophrenic gamut from drone metal, to big-band jazz, to techno dub, to noise-rock to goth-folk. But there’s even more intrepid sounds to feast upon.

Three festivals will take over New York City over the course of March, kicking off with the month-long Spring Revolution on March 1 held at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust. Highlighted by Philip Glass, plus an overarching female empowerment and cultural dialogue theme, which fittingly includes the world premiere of a music-theater piece based on the story of Russian activist-punks Pussy Riot, this one’s a surefire hit.

Next there’s guitarist Joel Harrison’s long-running Alternative Guitar Summit, which features a trio of star-powered events: “Celebrating Pat Metheny” at (le) Poisson Rouge on March 10 with Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman and Rez Abbasi and more, “Solo Voices & Communal Raptures” at Nublu with Cline and Adam Rudolph on March 11and “Guitars of Heaven, Guitars of Hell” at National Sawdust on March 15 with Dither Guitar Quartet playing Fred Frith and The debut of The Resophonic Guitar Orchestra led by Joel Harrison, with Elliott Sharp, Brandon Ross, Dither, Dave Tronzo and more.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also the seventh annual Ecstatic Music Festival going down at Merkin Concert Hall on Saturday, March 4 starring Vijay Iyer.

You know what to do: dive in to these stellar performances and get your weird on.

Travis Laplante: A Dance That Empties, Battle Trance: Blade of Love at Roulette on Wednesday, March 1

Observer favorite Travis Laplante has been transcending hearts, minds and ears in his main vehicle Battle Trance, the tenor saxophone quartet he steers alongside fellow outliers Matt Nelson, Patrick Breiner and Jeremy Veiner, who perform music miracles that heal with the power of music.

On last year’s righteous Blade of Love and 2014’s Palace of Wind, Laplante and his crew of ace hornsmiths weaved drone-y, bucolic and zigzagging landscapes, conversational and lyrical layers and circular breathing techniques that birthed an unspoken language akin to a religious rite of passage.

Tonight, the four out-of-this-world voices convene to recreate Blade of Love. First, Laplante will kick off the festivities with the premiere of A Dance That Empties, a long-form piece where he will be joined by drummer Gerald Cleaver, a protean sound scholar in his own right whose credits include leader of Black Host and the collaborative force along with bassist William Parker and pianist Craig Taborn as Farmers by Nature.   

Earthen Sea, An Act of Love record release with Bookworms at Commend (172 Forsyth Street, Ground Floor, New York) on Friday, March 3

Bushy bearded beats-layer Jacob Long first made his mark in chaotic post-punkers Black Eyes, a D.C.-based outfit whose two records (2003’s self-titled and the following year’s Cough) remain absolute essentials in the Dischord Records catalog that carried the neopolitical torch from Fugazi in their all-too-brief establishment-railing arc.

After a pit stop with the tribal-centric Mi Ami, Long, a recent New York City transplant, continues his ambience-swathed pulsations as Earthen Sea. On the new and plenty addictive An Act of Love (via the Kranky label), Long continues his calling as knob-twiddler and programming whiz, unloading chilled-out techno dub histrionics that throb and thump with atmospheric abandon.

Conceived by Long as he roamed the desolate city streets at night, the all-instrumental An Act of Love perfectly captures the vibe of ghost town dystopia: its bass-vibrating, rhythmic clatter suggests dance music and drone while awash in outer-space synth-heavy swooshes and semi-harsh noise.

For this record release show, Long stays true to his staunch DIY roots has he hits the community-minded and artist-friendly downtown spot Commend.   

Michael Foster Solo, W/2, Luchansky Shea, Michalowska Dahl Walter at Muchmore’s on Saturday, March 4

Sax and electronics shredders Michael Foster and W/2’s Sam Weinberg and Chris Welcome are helping spearhead a raging Brooklyn DIY avant movement with a thick splatter of free jazz, noise and experimental music.

Foster, fresh off performing the big-band warfare Igneity under the direction of Weasel Walter at Roulette last week, just self-released There’s a First Time for Everything by his trio The Ghost and its brutal measures are off the charts.

With its gory dose of grind-jazz horn terror, junkyard percussive clink and clank frenzy and bass-string scratch, Foster proves well versed in wrangling a skronky bloodbath.

On a similarly merciless kick is Weinberg and Welcome’s W/2, a duo whose decibel-leveling self-titled set from last year (recorded by trumpeter Jamie Branch) harkens back to the basement no-jazz of NYC’s Borbetomagus.

Evan Caminiti, Toxic City Music release with Jefre Cantu Ledesma at Commend (172 Forsyth St Ground Floor, New York) on Friday, March 10

Meandering through likeminded sonically blurred planes as Earthen Sea’s An Act Of Love, the latest solo effort from electronics composer and guitarist Evan Caminiti (also half of experimental desert-rock duo, Barn Owl) oozes New York vibes, albeit ones on the verge of the apocalypse.

The fractured doom and gloom atmospherics that engulf Toxic City Music (released via Caminiti’s own Dust Editions label) mirrors its underlying theme of a capitalism-rampant landscape.

Here, Caminiti plays the ostensible nomadic drifter, roving deserted city streets as his earsplitting loud and hellishly murky soundtrack of mega death-drone and wasteland static plays out with an end-of-the-world melancholia.   

Ingrid Laubrock, Ava Mendoza, Damon Smith, Michael Evans & Michelle Yom & Weasel Walter, Joanna Mattrey, Tamio Shiraishi at The Flat’s BkSpeed Coffee Saturday, March 11; Sandy Ewen, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter & Peter Evans at The Flat’s BkSpeed Coffee on Wednesday, March 29

Hulking double bass badass Damon Smith originally flashed his mettle as a crucial chip of the Bay Area’s vibrant free improvisational underground, calling pioneering guitarist Henry Kaiser and extreme-music heavyweight Weasel Walter frequent partners in fire music crime before trading his West Coast digs for a longtime stint in Houston.

Just recently, Smith relocated to Massachusetts and since his move, the ace improviser has been making his presence felt in Brooklyn’s avant scene. This month the bassist celebrates with two gigs at South Williamsburg’s cozy coffee joint and experimental music space, The Flat’s BkSpeed Coffee.

Both sets represent reunions of sorts for Smith, who also runs an excellent label, Balance Point Acoustics, whose bevy of releases is a free-improv junkies dream.

On March 11, Smith reconnects with Brooklyn-via-Oakland guitar eclectic Ave Mendoza in a quartet with local forces of nature, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Michael Evans in what’s sure to be a firebreathing showdown.

Later in the month, Smith reunites with ol’ pals Walter and Houston-based experimental guitar noisenik Sandy Ewen as the punishing trio revisit the natural chemistry found on the no wave, fragmented free-rock and speedballing grind-jazz mayhem of 2012’s untitled and 16’s Live in Texas.

Noveller at Saint Vitus on Saturday, March 11 with Egyptrixx and Eartheater

The cinematic rainbow of entrancing drones and riffs that dreamscape guitar artiste Sara Lipstate, a.k.a. Noveller, has gushed from her strings and pedal heap has been nothing short of majestic.

On records such as Fantastic Planet, No Dreams and Glacial Glow, the magical labyrinths Lipstate painted were steeped in gorgeous melody, ambient abstractions and gripping theatrics one would conclude was meticulously weaved by a guitar army instead of a lone guitarist toting loads of effects.

Riding high from a recent stint opening shows for Iggy Pop, Lipstate’s newest LP, titled A Pink Sunset For No One, finds her crafting her most sonically epic and cohesive mediations to date. Her spacey, minimalist sound-worlds achieve mesmerizing beauty and ecstatic peace, making for one of the best releases yet in 2017.

Tortoise at (le) poisson rouge on Wednesday, March 15 and The Hall at MP on Thursday, March 16

Nearly a quarter-century after carving post-rock into the independent underground history books, Chicago institution Tortoise are still pushing the sound envelope with their mind-bending electro-rock-oriented hodgepodge of jazz, dub and prog.

In what seemed like a lifetime in between records (2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship being their last), the longstanding quintet of Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire and Jeff Parker made their triumphant and long-awaited return on wax last year with the groove-drenched, synthesizer-thwacking sonic pleasure, The Catastrophist.

After hitting these parts just last year with a terrific show at Gowanus’ Littlefield, the post-rockers are back with a pair of local gigs. In the live setting, Tortoise are a must-see. A wisecracking bunch hypnotically tripping on beloved tunes from both their ’90s heyday and recent cuts (oftentimes with a super-heavy twin-drummer attack), they trade off instruments and welcome special guests into their psychedelic fray like Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, who lent her dreamy whisper to The Catastrophist’s “Yonder Blue.” 

Glenn Jones with Laura Baird and David Shuford at The Knockdown Center on Thursday, March 16

With the American Primitive guitar aesthetic that late great finger-picking folk icon John Fahey birthed in the ’60s inspiring an exciting crop of players like Nathan Bowles, Ryley Walker, Rob Noyes and everything thing on the all-acoustic VDSQ label, the living legends continue to trail blaze their own fresh vision of Americana.

Legendary U.K. tunesmith Michael Chapman is currently experiencing a resurgence with 50, produced by guitarist firebrand Steve Gunn and is making cameos in his videos.

Old-school maestro of the six-string Glenn Jones was a Fahey collaborator and pal and now well into his 60s, and this American Primitive journeyman remains busy as ever on the acoustic circuit.

The ever-eclectic Thrill Jockey label has served as a launch pad for his pastoral plucking genius with last year’s Fleeting, the January reissue of 2004’s This is the Wind That Blows It Out and the Record Store Day release of live album Waterworks, which sees Jones pitting his guitar and banjo against the synthesizer and harmonium of Matthew Azevedo. Here Jones is joined by fellow backporch pickers, Laura Baird and Rhyton’s Dave Shuford. 

Toby Driver, Madonnawhore with String Noise at Roulette on Tuesday, March 21

Bassist Toby Driver has been entrenched in Brooklyn’s underground metal and experimental scene for years, heading up avant-goth outfit Kayo Dot and counting membership in both Stern and Jeremiah Cymerman’s Bloodmist.

After the retro-futurist synth-fueled art-pop noir of Kayo Dot’s last two records (last year’s Plastic House on Base of Sky and 2014’s Coffins on Io are must-haves), Driver has dialed down the elegantly weird progressive rock stylings on his debut solo album, the awesomely titled Madonnawhore, due April 21 via The Flenser.

A low-key, crooning affair that maintains Kayo Dot’s shadowy ambience but strips away the wasteland-journeying weird grooves and intricacies, Driver’s Madonnawhore is no less arresting in its blackened and freaky goth-folk tunesmithery.

Fittingly, Driver is joined by Kayo Dot drummer Keith Abrams and occasional Cellular Chaos bassist and keyboardist Kelly Moran, whose haunting piano techniques, as heard on the recent optimist, should serve as a sublime compliment to Driver’s new works.

Tonight’s program also includes the premiere of new pieces featuring Driver and Abrams joined by String Noise, the violin duo whose recent albums of punk covers and miscellany are well worth seeking out.   

Supersilent at (le) poisson rouge on Monday, March 27

The groundswell of mangled noise-bathed textures and patterns Norwegian sound deconstructionists Supersilent bleed from their electronics and woodwinds arsenal hasn’t been Stateside since way back in 2004. But come March 27, experimental music thrill seekers will rejoice as these freedom music renegades make their long-awaited return to New York City.

For two decades, this jazz-trained, avant-garde trio have mastered the art of electro-improv explorations while radiating with a shrouded-in-mystery aura. Supersilent’s oeuvre is all numerically sequenced (compositions and album titles are all numbered), yet conversely, their music is deep-seated in adventurous improvisation.

Perched in front of a slew of laptops, synths and keyboards while peppering their electroacoustic soup with traditional instruments (trumpet, saxophone), last year’s brain-frying 13 sculpted an alien space-jazz-centric gunk thick with glitchy noise, warped barks, videogame blips and bleeps and ambient crash and burn sound waves. Even Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones is a fan.

As an added bonus, Supersilent member Helge Sten performs as his alter-ego Deathprod the following evening, March 28 at Issue Project Room.

Honorable mentions:

Taylor Ho Bynum’s PlusTet at Roulette on Thursday, March 2

Cornetist/composer/musical director and Anthony Braxton collaborator Taylor Ho Bynum brings together his massive avant hall-of-fame collective as they ring in the Firehouse 12 release of his big-band epic, Enter the PlusTet.

Pyrrhon, Skryptor and Xaddax at Trans-Pecos on Sunday, March 5

It’s been a minute—a long minute—since the husband/wife, DIY noise-rock duo XADDAX (guitarist/screamer Nick Sakes and his better half, drummer/electronics whiz Chrissie Rossettie Sakes) terrorized our city with their über-brutal and ecstatic mess of industrial guitar and synth scrape.

Their lone release, Counterclockwork, is a noise-rocker for the ages that came out in 2012, so here’s hoping new material is on the way.

Tonight is also notable for the debut of Skryptor, an all-instrumental prog-punk supergroup of sorts that brings together STATS drummer and music scribe Hank Shteamer, Sakes’ former Dazzling Killmen bandmate, guitarist Tim Garrigan and craw bassist David McClelland.

Tech-metal powerhouse Pyrhhon headlines what will be a dizzying fest of mathy guitar notes and whiplashing rhythms. Not to be missed because who the heck knows when XADDAX will return from their upstate abode. 

SUNN O))) at The Knockdown Center on Friday, March 17

The black robe-draped and hooded noisemakers of Sunn O))) bring their hair-razing hypnotic rumble and distortion-bellowing fusion of metal and drone to Queens.

The Tomeka Reid Quartet at Roulette on Monday, March 20

When the Observer spoke to Matthew Shipp, the pianist praised cellist/composer Tomeka Reid as a vital voice in avant-garde jazz, and rightfully so. Tonight, 2017 Roulette artist-in-residence Reid and her Quartet (bassist Jason Roebke, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson) follow up their appearance at Winter Jazz Fest with a set at Roulette, playing new compositions plus tunes from their excellent self-titled Thirsty Ear release from 2015. Reid, Fujiwara and Halvorson will also appear at Roulette as part of Taylor Ho Bynum’s PlusTet.

Pontiak at Alphaville on Thursday, March 23

Stoner psych-heads Pontiak expertly spew wasteoid riff-rock grime. Tonight the scraggly-haired beardo trio are basking in the weed-smoky slow-burn of two new slabs: Dialectic of Ignorance and the vinyl reissue of 2008’s Sun On Sun.

The Month in Weird: March’s Best Avant-Garde Concerts