CHICAGO LIVE REPORT
point between this issue and the last, financial reality
caught up with me and I pretty much quit going to shows
completely. I was going to see at least two shows a week,
usually three. Admission is $7-$10, and I like to have a
few beers when I go to a show, which neatly tacks another
$20 on the bill. Thus, I was spending over $50, sometimes
more like $70, on live music every single week. Even cable
TV was starting to sound like a pretty fair deal after that,
but don't worry, I didn't sign up for it, I just quit looking
in the Chicago Reader to see who was playing every night.
I've been playing more Scrabble and listening to records
at other peoples' houses instead. Sometimes someone mentions
the two or three shows that we're missing that night, and
we all chuckle.
But ya can't miss everything,
and occasionally there is a way around the money problem.
For example, during the warmer months, Chicago offers many
free festivals. A couple days after I moved here, I saw
the Go-Go's for free at the Petrillo Bandshell in Grant
Park, during a festival called Taste of Chicago. They opened
with the glorious "Head Over Heels" and I completely
forgot the fact that I was watching them from 100 yards
away through a chain-link fence at a 'festival' where little
plastic cups of Miller Lite cost $5. Their next couple songs
were from their current comeback album, and while they were
still pretty punchy, I could no longer ignore my surroundings.
Even Jane Wiedlin's ultra-tight gold lamé pants couldn't
keep me there, so I split to go see Lightning Bolt.
I returned to the Petrillo
Bandshell a couple months later, this time for a more tasteful
affair: The Chicago Jazz Festival. Most of the names I didn't
have too much interest in, fearing a sort of tepid intellectual
middle-of-the-road sound. You know, much more 'authentic'
than Kenny G but not a whole lot more invigorating. I was
thinking about going to see Dave Brubeck just to see if
he was still as mellow as he was on that Take Five
record, but I didn't make it. Another headliner was Chicago-based
vocalist Kurt Elling, who initially struck me as some sort
of grunge Bobby McFerrin, so I didn't go. I have read more
about him since that would suggest he's a little deeper
than that, so I might try to see him one of these days.
However, there was one
set and one set only in the Jazz Fest lineup that I knew
I had to see. That was the Ritual Trio, led by Kahil El-Zabar,
featuring Malachi Favors Maghostut of the Art Ensemble on
bass, and joined by a special guest on tenor saxophone.
How special, you ask? Well, how special does "Pharaoh
Sanders" sound? Thing is, the Ritual Trio would be
a hot ticket without Pharaoh. Even when I lived in Lincoln,
I was well aware of composer, master percussionist, and
AACM member Kahil El-Zabar, as he would regularly come to
the University of Nebraska to perform and conduct workshops.
I saw him perform twice there, once solo and once in a trio
with trombonist Joseph Bowie and saxophonist Ed Wilkerson.
Forgive me for playing the x plus y game, but his music
weaves African drumming into the sound of the small American
jazz combo; call it the extended groove of Fela Kuti's Afrika
70 woven into the holy avant-gospel quests of The John Coltrane
Quartet. Add ex-John Coltrane Quintet member Sanders to
the mix, and charge no admission? I'm there.
The group was scheduled
to start around 7PM and play for an hour. It was a beautiful
late summer evening, and a few friends and I hopped on the
El (no pun intended) and buzzed down there. By the time
El-Zabar and his magic band had taken the Petrillo stage,
the sun was starting to set behind the bandshell's backdrop:
Chicago's gargantuan downtown cityscape. Even in front of
this symbol of ultra-modern speed and industry, the Ritual
Trio Plus One was
about to inject some serious peace into our lives. They
played for just under an hour, and it was as if they were
able to quiet the buildings, and turn all their little circuitboard
lights into a great flickering campfire for all of us Chicagoans.
end, the reveredly bellicose Sanders was in 'relaxed' mode,
exploring his roots in a hard-bop ballad style as played
during his former bandleader John Coltrane's 'middle period.'
This was so as to not overwhelm El-Zabar's exquisite percussion-led
jazz ragas. Sanders appropriately kept his lines singing
instead of screaming, simmering instead of boiling. Still,
the urgency was there, in the the old "Love Supreme"-derived
extended and circular motific development of minimalist
two-or-three note gospel melodies, and some occasional and
very nice 'gurgling drone' technique. He also did a short
a capella introduction to one song where he blasted out
a freaky heraldic note or two, and then actually just quit
playing sax and screamed at the audience for one more theatrical
note, so well-sounded that it got applause.
overall Pharoah kept it chill; he knows The Ritual Trio's
show is a groove thing. The way Maghostut seems to play
mostly two-note ostinatos subsumes the bass role into that
of the drums, just as many hand drum setups are based on
two-or-three note scales. El-Zabar's large setup and intricate
technique get the drum scales well into pentatonic (five-note)
territory, and the result is extended 'African raga' (or
is 'tala' more accurate?) that is both mellow and bad-ass,
both calm and insinuating.
A key presence
is the trio's other member, Ari Brown, on piano and saxophone.
He plays more piano than sax, in a lightly percussive modal
ballad style that extends on Bill Evans as much
as it does Sun Ra, all in service of El-Zabar's exquisite
'drum circle' concept. His hushed comping on the final song,
which he composed, had concert-goer Mark Truex-Wolberg walking
away saying "Who was that pianist??" and declaring
him that night's band MVP. I was also down with Maghostus's
role as a MSP, most supporting player. He looked good too,
sporting a bald haircut and a relaxed pants-and-dashiki
ensemble. From where I was sitting, he looked like he was
about 20 years old. When I walked up to the stage for a
few minutes, he looked like he might be 70, but he still
looked just as good. (I later found out that he had turned
64 just a few days before the concert.)
of jazz, and the AACM, and incredible percussion, I also
went to a show where master drummer Michael Zerang invited
master violinist and AACM member Leroy Jenkins into his
house, which doubles as a performance space. The two played
a duet that kept my jaw firmly on the ground from note one
to note last. I will say that the mix could've been better
-- the percussion, brilliant as it was, firmly out-volumed
the violin throughout. Methinks Zerang might just play a
little loud, but at least he's really good, and it didn't
mean Leroy Jenkins wasn't playing his ass off too. Despite
the minimal setup (Zerang just played three different hand-drums)
it was dense, high-energy music, streaming Coltrane-worthy
The show was also
fun because I brought two visiting Nebraskans, eager to
see some 'underground urban culture.' They were a little
put off by the ten dollar cover charge and the opening performance,
an ultra-gnomic one-act monologue called First/Last,
in which author Sandra Binion read the first sentence and
then the last sentence from thirty or so books in a row.
In between each first/last combination, she would strike
a small gong next to her and let it ring out before going
on to the next. It was nice to be able to mark the change
from one book to the next, but something about it was not
only pretentious, it was outright portentous. Same goes
for the inclusion of Lou Mallozzi as 'the page turner',
who just sort of stood in the background, tragically holding
a book while looking up towards the ceiling. Laying the
multimedia on thick, Binion also had video playing behind
her, 'collected images' from her travels in Italy, Portugal,
and...Java? (I should've kept the program.) And to top it
off, the night's star attraction, Leroy Jenkins improvised
violin along with it all. Despite all the portentousness,
Jenkins acquitted himself well, and I'm sure it was a nice
warmup for the blazing duet that followed. He wove calm,
spidery soul melodies and created pure sound interludes
that concert-goer Matt Focht describes as sounding like
"dirty air." I can't quite say that Jenkins singlehandedly
saved the piece, though. It was just a bit too precious.
At least the sentences read were decent poetry in their
own right, and the performance was tastefully brief at 30
minutes. Also noteworthy was Binion's documentary video,
intentionally mundane images from three different countries
-- people sweeping convenience-motel balconies, sitting
around at vacant bus-stops, that sort of thing -- which
added up to a refreshingly subdued 'global culture' statement.
I think the whole thing would've worked better simply as
an unpretentious video documentary.
All in all, it was
still a worthwhile night as far as the underground art sweepstakes
go. The more free jazz-inclined of my two guests figured
the Jenkins/Zerang duet alone was worth eight of the ten
dollars charged at the door, and even the less free jazz-inclined
of the two fully admitted that the duet had been "outstanding
Chicago, $10 seems to be the going rate for any sort of
"art" music show. It cost $10 to see Leroy Jenkins,
it cost $10 to see Harvey Sid Fisher, it cost $10 to see
Alan Licht, and it cost $10 for me to see Derek Bailey last
night. This is ridiculous. If Derek Bailey is $10, Harvey
Sid Fisher should be $7, and Alan Licht should be $5. In
fact, I've never wanted $10 back so quickly in my life as
when I walked into Chicago's 6ODUM and watched Licht play
Fahey-wannabe guitar licks over very basic loops for something
like an hour-and-a-half straight. 6ODUM, when they're having
some sort of "art" show, is a very oppressive
place. Sure, you can bring in your own six-pack and drink
it without any hassles, but they might as well have a "no
applause" sign posted on the wall behind the performer.
Well, that's not entirely accurate, because the audience
always whoops and whollers when the interminable art performance
is finally done (the only sign that anyone there is enjoying
anything ever). I guess a more appropriate sign would be
"while the artist is performing, make no sounds and
show no emotion of any kind, please, and even if you turn
your head to get that crink out of your neck, we'll hear
it and frown at you." After Licht's first piece, he
summoned up a whole bunch of Chicago music celebs for guitar
orchestra performance of his 'composition' "Betty Page,"
which, as it appears on the Siltbreeze album Sink The
Aging Process, consists of him twirling the handle of
a screwdriver onto the strings of a guitar sitting on his
lap. At 6ODUM, Licht gave a screwdriver to all kinds of
Chicago celebrities: there was Bobby Conn, Sam Prekop, Rick
Rizzo, Archer Prewitt, Casey Rice, Kiki Yablon, maybe more.
Licht started things off with some solo screwdriver twiddle,
then put it on a loop so he could stand up and manneristically
cue each of his ringers to join in, one at a time, at manneristic
two-minute (or so) intervals. The resultant din was certainly
a din, and it was somewhat interesting to hear how different
one person sounded from another when it came to twiddling
a screwdriver handle on guitar strings, but the whole thing
left me with that same empty feeling that I got the first
time I went to the ODUM and spent (you guessed it) $10,
on a show by Mirror that sounded great but was like watching
three guys play a compact disc for an hour. (In fact, I
think that's actually what they were doing.) Licht was touring
with a film he made called Baba O'Wrestling, a montage
of jello wrestling clips (or some such) set to a (ahem,
minimalist) loop he made of the synthesizer part from "Baba
O'Riley." I walked in just in time to see the last
60 seconds or so of this film; something tells me that would've
been the highlight of the night.
Oh well, thank goodness for Derek Fucking Bailey who gave
me my $10 worth in about five minutes. I was dubious about
the fact that he was appearing only in a duet with Casey
"The Designer" Rice. I wanted to see someone a
little more "jazz-oriented" play with him...like
perhaps pianist/synthesizerist Jim Baker. Or hell, Michael
Zerang. Or, someone not so jazz-oriented, but sure to make
an interesting duet: Kevin Drumm! (Maybe in such a setting
I could actually figure out what Kevin Drumm does up there
at his table.) I contented myself by thinking that there
would probably be a solo set by Bailey and then a duo set,
but that hope was dashed by the marquee, which advertised
an opening set by bassist Tatsu Aoki and drummer Chad Taylor.
Spooky flashbacks to Sandra Binion's First/Last came
to me when I read the program, about how this opening act
was going to accompany a video projected behind them. They
did just that, too, and I did not like the way that as soon
as the hour-long video was finished, they stopped playing
too. In reality, they should've stopped well before the
hour was up, because their music, however impressive here
and there, did not congeal as a continuous hour-long piece.
Simply enough, it should've been shorter, they should've
stopped here and there...anything. Taylor is an extremely
remarkable drummer and it was a treat to see him for sure.
Aoki I wasn't so sold on...at times he got into a repetitious
groove-oriented style that I found kind of unique and refreshing,
but mostly he just seemed to be tapping on his bass with
a stick or something while Taylor did all the work. And
either way, it was too long, and the video was for some
reason projected onto a bunch of balloons so you couldn't
even see it.
My friend and I were
sitting in the front row of the auditorium, and rather excited
to see Derek Bailey at work from such a close vantage point.
As soon as Aoki and Taylor left the stage to the usual round
of applause, a horrendously loud screech of feedback came
out of the P.A. speakers. "That is the most ill-chosen
and too-loud intermission music I have ever heard,"
I thought, but it didn't stop or let up in any way. It just
got louder and weirder. And then I started hearing electronics
spitting along with it. And then I realized that everyone
in the auditorium was looking around, over their shoulders,
as confused as I was. And then I stood up and looked back
and realized that Bailey and Rice were set up in the back
of the audiotorium, Rice behind the soundboard and Bailey
sitting in a chair next to it, and that the show had started.
Wow, this was the same thing I saw Lightning Bolt do!
this show was noisier than Lightning Bolt...in fact, this
was the harshest harsh noise show I've ever been too. It
was fucking LOUD, jack...my friend said that there were
several moments where the music literally made his body
hurt, and I agreed. I could feel it in my teeth on several
occasions. Halfway through, I noticed that the program I
had been holding in my left hand had become a wadded-up
and mangled mess. A real white-knuckle affair. People were
holding their ears, and yes, there were a handful of walkouts.
But the rest soldiered through it, and in fact enjoyed the
shit out of it, and for good reason. Seeing Bailey was amazing
-- he's old, but he still looks even somewhat athletic;
a very big guy, tall and gangly, with huge spidery fingers.
His technique is impeccable -- seeing him reveals that he
is not just grabbing for noisy weird notes at all...he seems
to have a huge repertoire of actual chords and he knows
exactly where he's going on the fretboard at all times.
again, the phrase "If it's too loud you're too old"
has no bearing here. Bailey hasn't mellowed one bit; he's
both loud AND old. Of course, I think Rice was mostly responsible
for the earth-shaking volume; Bailey was playing a screeching
hollow-body electric through a loud amp, but Rice was taking
that and running it through the P.A. at obscene volumes,
mixing it, cutting it up, looping it, and generally being
a brat. Some of his electronic noise was obscene, and not
in a good way, but a lot of it was rather sublime too, and
either way, Bailey knew just how to tangle with it.
I need to make some nice wrapping-up point, because I really
need to put this issue to bed, so I'll just say that even
if Harvey Sid Fisher should've only been $7, he gave me
$10 worth anyway. Sure, he's a 'novelty act,' but the guy
can write songs. He had me laughing from beginning to end.
Cheer-Accident backed him up to perfection. Dylan Posa is
a great minimalist drummer, but he probably doesn't believe
that. Hell, the guy who owns the Hideout came onstage in
a tuxedo and gave an introduction to Harvey Sid Fisher that
was alone worth $10, no shit. You had to be there. But jeez,
I hope you don't feel bad just 'cause you weren't. You've
got plenty items of your own to consume, right? See ya next