Undercover Presents is a startling Bay Area-based music presenter that curates concerts based on seminal studio albums. The organization invites a few different local ensembles of assorted musical sensibilities and genres to present one song from an album in front of a live audience. Previous series have been presented on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, among other rock music history gems.
Last night I attended a sold-out soiree dedicated to Radiohead’s Kid A at The Rickshaw Stop in Hayes Valley, San Francisco. I won’t forget the experience in a hurry. What I loved about it was the wild eclecticism of the offerings. The scope ranged from a kinetic flamenco/Balkan take on “How to Disappear Completely” performed by the evening’s guest music director Elizabeth Setzer (of the Eastern European women’s choral ensemble Kitka), flamenco dancer La Tania and band, to a trippy, gamelan-infused version of “Kid A” from the Burning Man-esque ensemble Gamelan X.
The album came alive for me in a new way last night. It wasn’t just that the groups involved in the presentation strove to put imaginative, personalized spins on the songs from Radiohead’s great 2000 album while paying homage to the original. It was the exuberance of the performances that made me smile broadly as I watched. No one played an ondes Martenot on stage last night (an eccentric early electric instrument that the band’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood brought back into the public conscience through incorporating on various tracks on this album.) Nevertheless, I think Radiohead would thoroughly approve of the way in which the instrumentalists approached its music in a spirit of loving experimentalism. Besides the gamelan (played by eccentrically-costumed musicians), vibraphones, synthesizers, percussion instruments of all kinds, classical string instruments, myriad ways of using the voice and regular pop instruments were employed in service of the project.
Other things I love about the Undercover concept:
It celebrates the album, a form which has largely been undermined since the advent of iTunes with its singles focus. Like a novel’s arc, albums have a specific trajectory. To bring that aspect of the craft to the fore is commendable.
It puts all kinds of musics on an equal footing in a concert program. Because the tracks are performed in the order that they appear on the album, the idea of the “headline” and “supporting” act is removed. It was great, in the case of last night’s event, to see classical musicians performing in the second half of the show. Normally, when classical (or other ‘acoustic’ / rarified) music is incorporated into a mixed-genre event, it appears near the start of the performance, the idea being that people would prefer to get the quirky stuff over with in order to leave the “real” business of a rock concert towards the end. Or they might choose to skip the “artsy fartsy classical nonsense” completely, grab an extra drink at a bar, and then walk through the club doors once the string quartet is clearing out. How refreshing it was, then, to attend a music event where so many different kinds of sounds were so gloriously mixed up together, and whose presence at any particular point in the proceedings was dictated by where the track they chose to play appears on the source album.
Just one quibble: It takes too much time for the changeover between bands to happen. The issue is that each band plays about five minutes worth of music and there’s a good 10-15 minutes of turnaround time between each one. The predictable interstitial DJ sets and creative, if pointless, short video interviews with the artists don’t quite work as solutions to this problem. It’s hard to know what a good solution might be as part of the fun of the event is the variety and the fact that so many different types of instruments are involved. Setting up a gamelan takes time, yo. If I hadn’t been on my own or if I’d had more to drink, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed the slow-ticking minutes between album tracks.
Undercover Presents is finding a wonderful niche for itself and I am looking forward to attending many more skillfully-curated concerts. It’s a great way to explore music history while exposing audiences to many amazing local artists. The album I want to see them do next time around? U2’s The Joshua Tree. Or maybe The Smiths The Queen Is Dead.
PS Check out musician and blogger Brian Bergeron’s blog post about the Kid A event here.