On Stage: David Torn, the best guitar player you’ve never heard of

By Denny DyroffStaff Writer, The Times


David Torn, who performs on May 14 at Philadelphia Art Alliance, might just be the best, least-known guitar player in the world, if not the most versatile.

There is a huge array of genres in popular music today and, within each of those genres are many excellent guitarists.

There are rock greats such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Derek Trucks. There are jazz virtuosos such as Larry Coryell, Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery. There are metal guitar gods such as Tony Iommi and Randy Rhoads.

The list goes on through a variety of diverse genres — country, blues, folk, bluegrass, fusion and more.

One of America’s most innovative and most interesting guitarists is also one of the least known to general audiences — David Torn, who will be performing on May 14 at Philadelphia Art Alliance (251 South 18th Street, Philadelphia, 215- 545-4302, www.arsnovaworkshop.com).

A big reason that Torn flies under the radar for so many potential listeners in that he is impossible to classify. He can handle virtually any genre yet no genre can contain him. Torn is billed as “a film composer, texturalist, guitarist, and producer of international stature, renowned for his unique musical voice which spans a broad range of idioms and styles.

A brief look at Torn’s musical resume provides a glimpse of what he has accomplished.

He has recorded and/or performed with David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Sting, David Sylvian, John Legend, Tori Amos, Tim Berne, Madonna, Jan Garbarek, Jarboe, Manu Katché, Laurie Anderson, Don Cherry, Tony Levin, Dave Douglas, and many more.

Torn was educated by Leonard Bernstein, John Abercrombie, Pat Martino, Paul Weiss and Arthur Basile.

Torn’s recording have been featured in a number of films, including “Friday Night Lights,” “The Wackness,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Adaptation,’ “The Big Lebowski,’ “The Departed,” “Fur,” “The Hoax,’ “Traffic,” “Reversal of Fortune,” “Tibet,” and “Three Kings.”

He has released 15 solo albums in the last 30 years — the most recent of which is the groundbreaking disc ‘only sky,” which was released last week on ECM Records.

“I practice in highly-focused spurts,” said Torn, during a recent phone interview from his home in upstate New York. ‘Even if it’s only three or four minutes, I’m focusing really hard. Those couple minutes mean a lot to me.

“With the new album, it was sort of a process — improvs that had a certain meaning to me that I had done at home. I wasn’t really thinking about a release. Manfred (Eicher, founder of ECM Records) wanted me to do a solo album. I thought this might me a project.

“Then, the people from TEDxCalTech called me to speak about the subject matter — the brain. They wanted someone who knew first-hand about the brain.”

Torn is much more knowledgeable than thwe average layman about the working of the brain. In 1992, he was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma — a life-threatening form of brain tumor. The surgery that followed left him deaf in the right ear but he recovered sufficiently to maintain the ability to compose, record and play.

“They wanted me to talk and perform at TEDxCalTech,” said Torn. “I thought — that’s cool, I’ll put a band together. But, they wanted me to play solo. I thought I’d play the solo I had just been working on. They announced the piece as ‘only sky.’

“I got up onstage and told them — I don’t think I’ll be playing that piece. I didn’t want to play it stage. I wanted to play to the room more — to improvise. That performance cemented this record. You can find it on YouTube. I was playing to scientific researchers and that’s not the audience I’m used to.”

Torn told the audience — “I’ll be premiering a piece for solo guitar, oud and live-sampling/modifications. It’s entitled “only sky.”  Ongoing, incredible neurological research engages and stimulates and is likely of inestimable worth.

My internal, primarily musical sensibilities, though, lead me to wondering about our brains’ indelible interdependencies w/things ephemeral, things mysterious, maybe ‘mystical’: interests which folks may deem ‘spiritualistic’ or ‘religious’, but for which I, myself, have no concretizing words-of-weight.

“only sky,” while composed, is purposefully made flexible to its environment, for performer and audience; it can never be performed, again, as it will be, here. This reflects how I’ve come to perceive music, life, and my own wee brain . . . which apparently exhibits a neurological “peculiarity” with which I live, momentarily and happily.”

Torn reflected on that performance.

“The focus I felt was great,” said Torn. “So, I decided to do the record. I realized that I wanted to do it in a big room so I went to EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) in Troy, New York.

“It was more of a process than an event. It was a 1,500-seat room with lights low — just me and my friend Daniel in the room. We just kept recording on ProTools continuously without stopping.

“That’s the bulk of the record. There was no shredding — no country tunes. I just let it roll — really let it roll. I did do some editing but it was contiguous editing. I wanted to respect what I did.”

Torn’s work over the years has always been well-crafted but hardly predictable.

“I respect what I do and I respect it enough to put it out,” said Torn. “But, I don’t have to like everything I do. It’s not summum and ultimum. Music is a continuum. It’s about process and its moment of creation.

“My live show will be exactly the same process I used to make the record — similar and dissimilar. I’ll use loops and it will be improvisational — creating form while I’m improvising. I keep working on looping projects but not a simple four-beat repetitive thing or something to solo over. Looping is great for improve and it all goes back to Terry Riley.”

Video link for David Torn at TEDxCalTech — https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hMy1pv3-tw4.

The event, which is sponsored by Ars Nova Workshop, will get underway at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $20.

todd rundgren

Todd Rundgren

Without question, Todd Rundgren is one of the best musicians ever to have come out of the Philadelphia area.

The Upper Darby native is returning to the Delaware Valley for a show on May 16 at the World Café Live at the Queen (500 North Market Street, Wilmington, 302- 994-1400, www.queen.worldcafelive.com). And, for the first time in a while, he is touring in support of a new album — a sparkling new disc titled “Global.”

Rundgren’s “GLOBAL TOUR 2015 — featuring DāM-FunK!” began on April 2 in Denver, Colorado and will conclude on August 24 in Pensacola, Florida.

The versatile musician/singer/songwriter/producer is also a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and will join the former Beatle on a month-long national tour in October. Prior to that, his focus will be on supporting his own new album.

“GLOBAL” is Rundgren’s 25th solo studio album. His discography also includes two albums he recorded with his first band The Nazz, and nine albums he recorded with his band Utopia.

His new album is billed as “a contemporary fusion of styles — rock, soul and EDM — which continues the tradition of boundary-breaking works.” It has been released on Cherry Red Records’ label Esoteric Antenna.

“I started working on it last Thanksgiving Day,” said Rundgren, during a recent phone interview from his home in Kauai, Hawaii. “The last Ringo tour ended on Thanksgiving Eve.  I had just one song competed before that.

“It didn’t take me long to do the album because I had to deliver it the first week in January. I recorded it at my own studio — which is my laptop. I have it all on the road with me.”

Even though Rundgren’s roots as a recording artist go back to the days of the rich sounds associated with analog recording and vinyl albums, he has no problem accepting and employing modern digital technology — despite its sonic limitations.

“There are people like Neil Young who are always complaining about digital sound,” said Rundgren. “Maybe he can hear a difference. The most important thing is the context in which people listen.

“The album on a turntable is substantially gone. It’s unrealistic for me to deny how people listen. So, I don’t rue the demise of vinyl. People now listen on their digital devices. So, I have to mix it so it sounds right in that context.”

“Global” is Rundgren’s first record release since 2013’s “State” album, which was also put out by Esoteric Antenna.

“The process I used for writing the songs on ‘Global’ is a little hard to describe,” said Rundgren. “There were two strands that got woven together at the end. I’ll work on music until it gets to a point where I think it is substantially finished. Then, I’ll write the lyrics.

“I try to turn it over in my subconscious as much as I can. It has to integrate. A lot of times, I come up with the arrangement before I come up with the song. I don’t force it to happen.”

Video link for Todd Rundgren — https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=sOuIOBbS9ck

Rundren’s show at the Queen will start at 8 p.m. on May 16. Tickets are $34 in advance and $37 day of show.

Other upcoming shows at the World Café Live at the Queen are Upstairs shows on May 14 with Noah Guthrie and May 16 with Tinsley Ellis.

butcher babies

Butcher Babies

Butcher Babies have a new album ready to be released at the end of the summer and will be mounting a huge tour in support of their sophomore album. But, the L.A.-based metal band is not about to sit around at home waiting until then.

The loud and talented quintet — singers Heidi Shepherd and Carla Harvey, guitarist Henry Flury, bassist Jason Klein and drummer Chris Warner — is currently in the middle of a nationwide tour with In This Moment, Upon A Burning Body and The Nearly Deads.

The tour will make two stops in the area this weekend. On May 16, Butcher Babies are playing at Reverb (1402 North Ninth Street, Reading, 610-743-3069, www.reverbconcerts.com) and on May 17 will play Underground Arts (1200 Callowhill Street, Philadelphia, undergroundarts.org).

“The new album is in the can,” said Harvey, during aphone interview Thursday afternoon. “It’s ready to go. It will be out in late summer. We had a cathartic evening one night on the last tour when we sat in the bus and listened to the album in its entirety. It sounds great.”

Shepherd said, “The album was recorded up in Logan Mader’s studio in the Hollywood Hills. It was cool to be up there — to be able to look at the sunsets and look down at the city. Logan is a producer we really trust. Together, we were able to capture that raw energy.”

Harvey said, “I think we were in the studio for about two months. We had weekends off. Are we perfectionists? You have to be perfectionists in the studio. Heidi and I always want to do the best we can. The new album goes more back to our thrash roots.”

While it has only been four years since the release of Butcher Babies’ eponymous debut EP, the band’s roots go back much longer.

“Carla and I started writing together eight years ago in a punk rock cover band we were in L.A.,” said Shepherd. “We wanted to do something different. In 2009, we created the band in L.A. That was the start of Butcher Babies.

Harvey said, “Heidi and I both were metal kids. We were there in the pits. I was thrash and she was more nu-metal. Playing covers was fun but we wanted to write our own songs. We found the perfect gig. Five years later, we’re living the rock-and-roll dream.”

Shepherd said, “We were lucky that we didn’t have to do the pay-to-play thing in the L.A. music scene when we started Butcher Babies. We had already gained a reputation with our own cover band. With that band, we had played major venues like the Roxy and the Viper Room.”

Butcher Babies has evolved to a high level even more quickly than the pair expected.

“When we started this band, the original plan was to have a great time together,” said Harvey. “It’s really grown since then. We offer something unique with two females fronting the band. We both have different styles. I grew up listening to Pantera and Slayer while Heidi was more into bands like Slipknot.

“A lot of metal fans are tired of the regurgitated stuff. We have something that’s very different. My vocals are more the high screams — death metal. Even in the nu-metal world, there is a lot of high screams. There is room for both styles.”

Shepherd said, “Sometimes, we write with our vocal styles in mind. Most of the time, we just write the songs and let the vocals happen naturally. We even have some harmony screams on the new album.”

Shepherd and Harvey list a number of female rockers that influenced their music such as P.J. Harvey, Siouxsie Sioux and Lita Ford but the two with the biggest influence have been Joan Jett and the late Wendy O. Williams from the Plasmatics. They took the band’s name from the Plasmatic’s song “Butcher Baby.”

“We grew up loving Wendy O. Williams,” said Harvey. “She definitely gave women a break. She has the attitude that she was going to do want she wanted to do and she wouldn’t accept ‘no’ for an answer. We used to play ‘Butcher Baby’ in our old band and had so much fun playing it.”

Video link for Butcher Babies — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nbsgWJTHPc&feature=player_detailpage.

Tickets for the show in Reading, which gets underway at 1 p.m., are $15 in advance and $17 day of show. Tickets for the Philly show are $13 and show time is 8 p.m.

mac mccaughan

Mac McCaughan

Underground Arts will also present Mac McCaughan on May 15. The show will feature McCaughan, who is known for his work with Portastatic and Superchunk , along with opening band Flesh Wounds.

On May 5, McCaughan released “Non-Believers,” which is his first solo record under his own name. McCaughan uses “Non-Believers” to explore his attraction to that early-’80s era of music when punk evolved into something more introspective, focusing on themes of isolation and eventually turning into post-punk and new wave.

“I recorded the album in my home studio last summer,” said McCaughan, during a recent phone interview from his home in North Carolina. “I mixed half of it with Beau Sorenson in Portland (Oregon) and I mixed the other half with Brian Paulsen in Chapel Hill.

“Initially, I had a couple songs. I thought I had half-a-record. I started recording new songs and then threw the old ones out. I liked the new ones. I think I made a cohesive record.”

McCaughan released “Non-Believers” on Merge Records, a label he formed with Superchunk bandmate  Laura Balance in 1989. The label has a roster of top-flight artists including Arcade Fire, Portastatic, Spoon, The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel and, of course, Superchunk.

Another Merge band is Flesh Wounds, a rock band from Carrboro, North Cartolina that features Laura King on drums along with Dan Kinney and Montgomery Morris on guitars.

“I’ll do the first half of my set solo — just me on guitar — with songs from Portatstatic and Superchunk as well as from my new album,” said McCaughan, whose discography includes a dozen Superchunk albums and a half-dozen Portastatic LPs.

“The second half will be with my backing band called the Non-Believers, which is actually the three musicians from Flesh Wounds. It’s two guitars, bass and drums — pretty straightforward. I didn’t want to drag around keyboards and drum machines. As much as I liked recording with keyboards, I liked to stay with my natural habitat.”

Video link for Mac McCaughan — https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=__nXD3LaBrA.

The show at Underground Arts on Friday will start at 8 p.m. Tickets for the show are $12.


Matt Pond

Matt Pond is a musician from New York who formed his band Matt Pond PA in Philadelphia in 1998.

Since then, the band has released eight albums and eight EPs. Pond now lives back in New York and is bringing his band back to Philly for a show on May 14 at Union Transfer (1026 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia, 215-232-2100, www.utphilly.com).

The Philly show on the 14th and a show on May 15 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York will wrap up a six-week tour nationwide tour. It hasn’t just been another tour or a tour to support a recently-released album. This tour is the 10 Year Anniversary tour in support of one of one of Matt Pond PA’s most popular albums “Several Arrows Later.”

“We did a tour like this last year for our album ‘Emblems,’ which came out in 2004,” said Pond, during a recent phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. “It’s not something we planned on doing again.

“I like our albums but I never wanted to play one in front of people in total. But, audiences asked me to do the same kind of tour for the ‘Several Arrows Later’ album that came out a year after ‘Emblems.” So, that’s what we’re doing.”

Obviously, the songs will sound a little different a decade after they were initially recorded.

“I have a weird thing — the tempo and feel can change nightly,” said Pond. “Audience energy changes things. But, I’ll probably be more faithful to the album than I was back then. It’s kind of like they’re new again.

“The tuning has changed. Originally, I used eight guitars with different tunings. That was a headache I never want to have again. There are other tiny arbitrary changes that I have to acclimate my mind to. And, there is a change in the overall sense. Before, I had a different perspective on life.

“It’s a job — not a bad job. If people pay to see us play, we’re going to work. We practice a lot more now. We take these shows seriously. The only thing we’re going to do is put everything we have into every song — just like we always have.

“We’ll be playing the album front-to-end in our live shows. I do like writing albums. I still believe in albums. If an album is great, it’s really amazing.”

Pond has been the only consistent member of Matt Pond PA since its formation and the band has a list of former members that is close to 30 right now. Chris Hansen is a longtime band mate of Pond and a core member of the group. The band has a new album titled “The State of Gold” that will be released later this year.

“Chris and I played mostly everything,” said Pond. “We used a lot of different drummers. The album is finished and will be released later this year on Doghouse Records.”

Video link for Matt Pond PA — https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=f0_jAT_ZBKM.

The show at Union Transfer will start at 8:30 p.m. with tickets priced at $15 in advance and $17 day of show.

shaman's harvest

Shaman’s Harvest

Shaman’s Harvest, a rock band from Jefferson City, Missouri, is out on the road touring in support of its latest album “Smokin’ Hearts & Broken Guns.”

The band, which features founding members bassist Matt Fisher, singer Nathan Hunt and guitarist Josh Hamler, is sharing the bill with Black Stone Cherry. The month-long national tour visits the area on May 16 for a stop at the Chameleon Club (223 North Water Street, Lancaster, 717-299-9684, http://www.chameleonclub.net).

“Prior to going out at the start of May, we’ve been working in the studio,” said Hunt, during a recent phone interview from his home in Missouri. “We’ve been working on some new material — trying to keep the train rolling.

“We recorded ‘Smokin’ Hearts & Broken Guns’ here in Missouri — at a little studio in the woods.  It was about a two-year process. I had some health problems during pre-production so it took a little longer than usual.

“I had a rare disease called Langerhans cell histiocytosis — an auto-immune disease that took form as throat cancer. I had a lump in the back of my throat and then got more lumps around my lymph nodes. At first, the doctors thought it was strep throat. Then, they did a biopsy and told me that I had some form of cancer. It was a bummer.”

Hunt was down — but not out.

“I went through a lot of rounds of chemotherapy during the recording process,” said Hunt. “Luckily, I had something to do to take my mind off it. I ended up with better vocal performances because I worked hard on it. I had a vocal coach who really helped. Throughout the whole process, I was worried about singing. My oncologist was really good working around it. The bummer about my disease is that it’s so rare that there are not enough people to do clinical research on. The last time I went to my doctors, they gave me the green light — and the bill.

“When I first found out about it, I thought to myself — I’ve got it and now I have to deal with it. I was writing songs as we were recording so all those different feelings went down on tape. On the record, you could tell which phase I was in.”

Fortunately for Hunt, his current phase is “full speed ahead.” Fortunately for his band mates and for Shaman’s Harvest fans, Hunt has recovered and is proving the old adage — “the show must go on.”

Video link for Shaman’s Harvest — https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=V9c44jhm_II.

The show at the Chameleon is slated to start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $17 at the door.

The Flash (102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org) will have Improv Comedy Troupe on May 14, Angelee Gerovasiliou and Paul Zotter on May 15 and Sin City and Mosstins on May 16.

The Steel City Coffee House (203 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, 610-933-4043, www.steelcitycoffeehouse.com) will host Burning Bridget Cleary on May 15 and Christine Lavin & Don White on May 16.

Chaplin’s (66 North Main Street, Spring City, 610-792-4110, http://chaplinslive.com) will present Cris-B, Richie Nice, Sky Valentine, Annie Fisher, and D-Major on May 15 and Rust on May 16.

The Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com) will host the E Street Shuffle on May 14, Lee Fields & The Expressions and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on May 16 and CJ Chenier and Philly Gumbo on May 17.

Burlap & Bean Coffeehouse (204 South Newtown Street Road, Newtown Square, 484-427-4547, www.burlapandbean.com) will present Chelsea Sue Allen, Elspeth Tremblay and Adrien Reju on May 15 and Angela Sheik with Ganouon May 16.

The national tour of “Guys and Dolls” is running through May 17 at the Playhouse on Rodney Square (10th and Market streets, Wilmington, Delaware, 302-888-0200, www.theplayhousede.org).

“Guys and Dolls” is one of the all-time classics of American musical theater. It features music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and is based on a pair of short stories by Damon Runyon.

Video link for “Guys and Dolls” — https://vimeo.com/117971086.

“Guys and Dolls” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on May 14, 8 p.m. on May 15 and 16, and 2 p.m. on May  16 and 17. Tickets range from $35-$79.

“Steel Magnolias” will run through June 21 at the Candlelight Theater (2208 Millers Road, Arden, Delaware, 302- 475-2313, www.candlelighttheatredelaware.org) beginning on May 9.

The Media Theatre (104 E. State Street, Media, 610-891-0100, mediatheatre.org) is presenting “Hello Dolly” now through May 24. The production that features Broadway star Andrea McArdle, who was the original “Annie” when the show opened on Broadway many years ago.

People’s Light & Theatre (39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, 610-644-3500, PeoplesLight.org) is performing Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” now through May 24. The show is Simon’s semi-autobiographical Tony Award-winning classic coming-of-age tale.

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