Monday, September 1, 2014

The Thriving Cultural Rock Scene of Amsterdam: A Review of the Uitmarkt

            On Friday, August 29th, 2014, rock bands Tinseltown, Slow Jeff and the Tears, and Unbekant gave rousing renditions of their most notable works at the ABN AMRO Podium in Museumplein for the opening of the Uitmarkt, a vibrant three-day celebration of the Netherlands’ cultural scene.
            The first band, Tinseltown, was a quintet that exhibited a common rock band set-up— vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and drum set. The rhythm guitarist also sang back-up vocals in some of the pieces. The band performed a five-song set, with all of the lyrics in English.

            The first two songs had extremely fast tempos and were highlighted by driving drumbeats (with extraordinary amounts of hi-hat cymbal crashes) and guitar with mild distortion. The vocalist had an impressively wide vocal range and could sustain high notes with extreme precision. Consequently, she stood out, and the lyrics were easily discernible. By contrast, the rest of the instruments seemed lackluster; they were buried behind here charismatic and gregarious projection. The vocalist’s clarity more than made up for the band’s uninspiring instrumental presentation, however, and allowed for the songs to be enjoyed by all immensely. The third song was a cover of Venus’s “Yeah Baby, She’s Got It.” After a rhythm guitar chordal introduction, the drums, bass, and guitar entered the picture together.  The song seemed unfamiliar until the vocalist’s crooning revealed the familiar lyrics. The fourth song was distinct in that it was the first one of the set to utilize the “wah-wah” pedal in the guitar solo. Before, without the “wah-wah”, the guitar solos sounded drowned out, and would have benefitted from a forte dynamic. However, this time the “wah-wah” cut through the texture, and allowed the guitar to be the star instrument (at least for the duration of the solo). The pedal also afforded new sonorities: the guitarist alternated between a sharp, twangy “wah” and a rounder but duller “wah.” The band played one more song, and the set ended to enthusiastic applause from the smattering of concertgoers at the stage.
            The second band, Slow Jeff and the Tears, was a quartet composed of lead vocals/organ (Jeff), guitar, bass guitar, and drum set. The drummer and bassist also sang back-up vocals occasionally. The band played a six-song set, all of them in English.
            Slow Jeff’s energy was immediately apparent. Whether he was singing or just listening to his band-mates, he was constantly moving and dancing around stage, consistently working up a sweat. Also immediately evident was the fact that Jeff sported a suit and tie; by contrast, the rest of the band wore black t-shirts and jeans. This sharply divided Jeff from the rest of his ensemble and, together with the astronomical amounts of energy, left no doubt that Jeff was solely the front man of the band.
            Upon singing, it became obvious that Jeff’s lyrics were difficult to comprehend. Whereas Tinseltown’s vocalist’s singing was clear, Jeff mumbled into the microphone, making it challenging to understand exactly what he was singing. The second song was swung, the first time of the night that a straight eighth note pulse was not utilized. The synthesizer expanded the texture of the third song, and this sonic diversification served as a welcome break from the conventional rock instrumentation. The guitarist incorporated the wah-wah pedal, but did not stick out as much as Tinseltown’s guitarist did. Whereas Tinseltown’s guitarist soloed at a forte dynamic, Jeff’s guitarist soloed at a mezzo piano/mezzo forte dynamic; similarly, the rest of the Tears continued to play at a mezzo forte volume level. Since the guitar solo was not featured, it was not as effective as it could have been, and created an unfortunate lull in the music. The fourth song, titled “Space Bar,” incorporated ethereal, “spacey” sonorities (played by the synthesizer). In the fifth song, Jeff intoned animalistic, monkey-type sounds— “ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ah-ooh-ah—” for the first time of the night; he mixed those periodically with his normally sung lyrics. The guitarist employed different effects such as distortion during his solo, and as such popped out more than in his previous solo. This greatly excited the crowd, and upon their collective enthusiasm, Slow Jeff’s body language and posture instantly perked up. Feeding off the energy of the audience, the band played thunderously, creating a richer musical product (for, at the least, myself).
            After this animated performance, Slow Jeff and the Tears performed their fastest song of the night: “Grizzly Bear.” Jeff and his companions traded licks in the first verse, with Jeff announcing musical calls and the rest of the band responding to those calls. The intensity and volume ratcheted up during the pre-chorus and exploded in the chorus. Halfway through the piece, to the surprise and ecstasy of the spectators, Slow Jeff crowd surfed while the rest of the band continued instrumentally. As Jeff surfed around the throng of viewers, the crowd chanted and cheered. As the lightning rod of excitement returned to stage, the crowd went wild and applauded vociferously for Jeff’s courageous (but possibly idiotic) act. Still high off adrenaline, the band played an outro highlighted by the “wah” pedal, and the set ended to roaring applause. This ovation validated the band’s performance, even though musically the performance was rather spotty. The audience was clearly happy, which made Jeff and his band beam deeply.
            The third band, Unbekant, was also a quartet consisting of lead vocals/guitar, bass, organ (on a keyboard), and drum set. They performed a five-piece song set, again in English. Like Slow Jeff and the Tears, Unbekant exhibited an extremely high number of stage antics; essentially every song included some combination of “head banging,” doing the splits, and making flamboyant gestures. However, the band backed up their antics with incredibly proficient playing: they demonstrated an exceptionally tight sound, with no instruments out of tune or time at any point during the performance.
            The first song incorporated a swung pattern and was highlighted by the organ solo (the first time all night that the organ took the solo role). The second song utilized a heavily distorted bass (also the first time all night that distortion was used on the bass). During the guitar solo the lead guitarist moved around the stage countless times, while showcasing flying fingers—he moved up and down the fret board with extreme ease and speed. The third song saw the guitarist playing with a slide to increase variation, and the organ and bass played more prominent roles in the music by trading off solos. The final song of the night was the group’s fastest, with each instrument taking a solo. After they finished playing the crowd bellowed and tried to coax an encore out of the group. Alas, it was not to be, and the concert ended, much to the disappointment of the crowd.

            Overall, the concert was extremely successful, and the audience enjoyed all three bands immensely. Due to their technical proficiency and precision in playing together, Unbekant was the star attraction. Both Tinseltown and Slow Jeff were not far behind, but with its superior singing, Tinseltown was musically stronger than Slow Jeff. However, what Slow Jeff lacked in musical clarity, he made up for with his high-octane energy and lead man stage persona. Due to the overall success of the triumvirate of bands, the concert was an excellent way to start off the Uitmarkt in style.

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