Live reviews

REVIEW: Donny McCaslin at Scala

Donny McCaslin (centre) onstage at Scala
Phone snap by AJ Dehany

REVIEW: Donny McCaslin
(Scala, London N1, 7 October 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

I love it when a band opens with their major banger. The risk is the rest of the set can’t follow it. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s new single and album opener What About The Body is a superb slice of full-on straight-ahead art rock, with catchy vocals and sax hooks, but the album Blow, released a few days ago, has a convincing range and an intensity that builds with each track. His quartet set at Scala had the pacing and impact of a rock show, and the intricacy and close attention of a jazz gig.

The intensity, passion and intricacy of the synth parts, the hard-hitting drums, thick bass, McCaslin’s distinctive sax tone – incorporating art rock, experimental rock, jazz, hip hop and dance elements – are all instantly recognizable as the sound of David Bowie’s final album (Blackstar). It’s only two and a half years since they recorded that, and the experience of recording it revolutionised McCaslin’s practice, leading him away from genres. In an interview for BBC 6music he reminisced: “I was really inspired by David, his openness, his letting the music be what it is. He was really fearless, and that’s really inspiring to me.”

“File under: alternative rock” it says, tellingly, on the back of the album sleeve. The group would have fitted in perfectly on any billing at All Tomorrow’s Parties. New Kindness sounds like a souped-up Built To Spill versus Yo La Tengo. The Opener, with a demented spoken word narrative from alt-folk artist Sun Kil Moon, could be Errors versus David Lynch. They’re on the jazzier side of post-rock but ‘songier’ than Tortoise, say. I feel if they had just one more album behind them to consolidate their transition into their own genre-defying style, the set might have felt more integrated with a more sustained impact.

Guitarist Jeff Taylor took over most of the vocals which Ryan Dahle had done on the album. He was also great on the achingly wonderful slow number Eye of the Beholder, which on the album has vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey (herself a longstanding Bowie sideman on bass from 1995 to 2016). It’s all the badmeansgoodest bits of Badbadnotgood. The emotional impact is strong throughout. A comment McCaslin made in an interview this week is indicative of his style regarding playing and improvisation: “It was a way to focus my emotions. There was a sense of catharsis through improvising that just drew me in.”

Most of the newer tunes are cathartic art rock in the ATP mould. Great Destroyer is another big-voiced banger grasping toward the anthemic. Lengthier track Break The Bond is atmospheric, emotionally intense, expansive jazz rock reminiscent of the group Steps Ahead, which is where Donny McCaslin honed his chops. Beast is a beast of drilling bass and earsplitting noises, with plenty of weird-ass electronic fx on the sax. Tiny Kingdom reminds me a lot of the whisperier tracks by Nine Inch Nails, but primarily it occupies that same unsettling headspace they mined so recognisably in their work with Bowie on Blackstar.

The experience is clearly vital to his emotional as well as his musical heart. At Scala he shared a poignant moment about how Maria Schneider had told Bowie she was going to auction Donny’s hugs for him. Usually, when you’re thinking about an artist who is in some ways overshadowed by another figure or experience – the 60s, the Factory, being in a band with Jimi Hendrix, that sort of thing – you feel a bit lame about harping on that theme. But Donny McCaslin seems to be enough of his own man and to have such a genuine affection for the late Duke that it doesn’t seem to weigh him down. They even closed the set with a passionate forward-looking take on Look Back In Anger.

Looking back, his reflections on Bowie and the experience of recording Blackstar are heartwarming. “He was a warm person, and humble. Unbelievably funny. The last time I was with him was the first time I had heard Blackstar in its entirety. It was pretty emotional. I opened my eyes near the end of the record, and he was standing in the room, and we embraced. He was so deeply happy. It was a tremendously life-affirming experience.”

Donny McCaslin at Scala
Phone snap by AJ Dehany

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.


Donny McCaslin tenor sax
Jonathan Maron bass
Zach Danziger drums
Jason Lindner keyboard
Jeff Taylor vocals & guitar

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