CHICAGO SHOW REPORT by Larry "Fuzz-O" Dolman

Wolf Eyes, Hair Police, Mammal, Panicsville, Viki
Saturday, August 16, 2003 / Empty Bottle.
My entry was classic, around 10:30 PM -- I know I'm running late and the music has already started, show my ID and pay my $8 quick, move through the pool room, see that the merch table is crowded with both merch and customers, past all these faces straight to the main room, from which thunderous beats are emanating. I see that there's no band on stage, but a lot of the already good-sized crowd is gathered in front of the stage. Alright, floor-rock! I don't even get a beer but go straight to the noise, where Viki is slamming. The music is REALLY loud, and there's Viki behind her table of gear, head-banging and yelling into the mic, looking like Siouxsie Sioux in jeans & T-shirt, her hair hanging all over her face. The sound is LOUD, did I say that already? The tones she twists over the beats are SICK -- I notice Mike Connelly of the Hair Police in front, when he's not jumping up and down like a maniac, giving some sounds the GAS FACE, which in this case is a total compliment. I've really liked every Viki show I've seen, but this one is TEN TIMES better than her 2nd best show.
      Next onstage is Panicsville. After the THUD of Viki, Panicsville seems kinda cerebral and contained. Not really feeling it anywhere below my neck. Having gotten a beer during the intermission, I'm hanging towards the back in conversation when the set starts, so I don't get close enough to see if Mr. Ortmann does any 'antics' or 'violence'. All I see is his arachnid or ant or whatever costume. Great costume, but I listen to his "sour electronics" from the other room while checking out the merch table, which is so stocked I get dizzy. There's about 20 different cassette titles all lined up, all with hand-made colors on the covers, probably all killer. I ask the merch guy in a Bloodyminded T-shirt if he has the Hive Mind CS I've been hearing about. Sure enough, he does. Having a hunch, I ask him who Hive Mind is, and it's HIM. So that was cool. Conversation continues. Matthew St. Germaine is playing pool. At first I'm surprised to see him wearing a trucker hat, so many months after the trucker hat's two-week window of relative hipness, but then I think MSG was one of the FIRST trucker hat wearers, some months BEFORE the two-week window of r.h., so more power to 'im. Ben Edmonds tries to buy the Violent Ramp 7-inch, but the merch guy says, "Um, I don't know where that guy is, or how much his stuff is, and he didn't leave any cash for change." I'm about to say, "He's right here, playing pool" . . . . . but he's already disappeared. Wow, it's hard to obtain Freedom From releases even when they're right in front of you and the label CEO is in the same building!
      The noise is still coming from the other room and I'm thinking, man . . . pretty long set by Panicsville. I wander back in and realize that Mammal is now playing, like Viki, on the floor. He must've been completely ready to go when Panicsville stopped and I didn't even notice the transition from the other room. In fact, not 60 seconds after I discover my mistake, the set is over. This compromises my Mammal experience and I'm not able to truly throw down. Sounds good, though. Gary has a moustache now, lookin' real good.
      Shit, up next is the Hair Police, already? This night is going fast. "Surprisingly uneventful," muses C.M. Bligablum. I don't know, Viki was pretty damn eventful for me, but other than that, kinda uneventful, but fun, and with the Hair Police up next you can count on things becoming fuckin' EVENTFUL. For one thing, this was Connelly's wedding celebration -- he and his girl Tara just got hitched the day before. So there's introductions and hoopla and Connelly telling people to go crazy and then the Police launch HARD into their first song, heavy as hell thanks to Robo Beatty's oscillator bass-line. Mike's guitar is completely inaudible, but they're still INSANE, constant stage-diving and crowd-surfing, crowd freaking OUT, total pandemonium. This is the craziest crowd I've ever seen in Chicago, period, even crazier than the legendary Hair Police 4th of July show when a bunch of people were onstage, playing their instruments. That was insane, but it was kind of an 'all friends' gig and tonight there's a good four times as many people, lots of friends of course but lots of strangers too, and they're all freaking OUT. Who better to indulge them than the Hair Priests, I mean, Police, for they are the best live band in America. (You can quote me.)
      You might wonder how Wolf Eyes can follow that, but it's Wolf Eyes, so it's no problem. They keep getting louder and harsher every single time I see 'em. The crowd has two choices, to freak the f*** out, or to retreat (sometimes in fear / shock / disgust, but usually in awe). The band starts tonight's show memorably with all three screaming and hissing into their respective horror-show effect-tunnels, Nate vocalizing/satanizing, Dilloway leaning back and baying at the moon through his swallowed contact mic, Olson handing his mic into the crowd so people can add to the huge black hiss cloud. The crowd gets super-riled up by this alone, so you can imagine what happens when W.E. goes into their first big-ass beat: chaos-like conditions. The sound is already crazy and when Nate Young screams into the maelstrom it's just total abandon and the players seem to be flailing, controlled by forces, holding onto their setup tables for dear life. Dilloway keeps the Hair Police spirit by stage-diving during "Half Animal, Half Insane." You can hear the sound change a little bit while he's offstage, but I still can't tell what the fuck he's doin' up there. Anyway, best show ever -- several times throughout the night I just stood back and watched the crowd SEETHE -- and those are the best shows ever. If the band is controlled by forces, the crowd will be too, whether it's in 'lame' Chicago or 'crazy' somewhere else. And you need never ask them why they aren't dancing again.

WOLF EYES: Special gore effects by Rick Baker.

Chicago Jazz Festival / Saturday, August 30, 2003 / Petrillo Bandshell, Grant Park. This annual event is a feather in Chi-town's cap; it's absolutely free and happens at the Petrillo Bandshell, scenically located in "Chicago's Front Yard," a/k/a Grant Park, with skyscrapers on one side and Lake Michigan on the other. The line-up isn't always that exciting to a lover of weird shit, but it's the kind of thing that does remind us what's good about tradition, and diversity, and all that. It's the kind of thing that, even if I don't get excited by any particular line-up, I feel like checking in with anyway, if not for the music, then for the community. (Like, right on, man.) I decided Saturday was the day I was going to go, regardless of who was playing; the weather was beautiful and I had the baby for the night and neither of us wanted to be stuck inside.
      Scanning the schedule, the only things that caught my eye were Roscoe Mitchell at 3:20 in the afternoon, Ken Vandermark with his Crisis Ensemble at 6 PM, and Elvin Jones and his band at 8:20 PM. This made it kind of tough -- I had seen Mitchell a couple times and I've seen Vandermark a couple hundred times, so a living legend like Mr. Jones was the top choice there, but 8:20 was just too late -- Phil usually starts going to bed around 8:30 and we'd still be an hour's train-ride from home. The best show for our schedule was Vandermark's, so that's the one I decided to go to. I have to admit the prospect didn't excite me too much, because like I said I've seen him about 200 times and I really find him to be a bit overrated, but hey . . . we wanted to get out of the house.
      When we got off the train and made it to the park, the 5PM act, Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana, were still onstage, playing the kind of pleasant latino fusion jazz that white people seem to really like automatically, because it reminds them how worldly and open-minded they are for liking such exotic dishes as "quesadillas" and "chips and salsa." It really was some nice music, and Bunnett knew her way around the soprano sax, but Latino-inflected jazz just isn't my thing. It's a personal preference, and I can't explain it. I decided to use the time to take L'il Phil to the nearby Harry Bertoia sculpture, because I had yet to see it myself. The sculpture sits in front of the third-tallest building in Chicago, the Aon Building (formerly the Amoco Building), which is one of my favorite-looking skyscrapers ever -- it's a sheer white monolith. It looked about thirty feet away, towering above Grant Park, but as I started to walk towards it I realized it was actually several blocks away. The walk was still well worth it -- the Bertoia sculpture was cooler than shit. L'il Phil was just as entranced as I was as Bertoia's seemingly fragile columns swayed and sproinged in the city breeze, creating some space-age quietude as the skyline and traffic hummed around it.
     After about ten mellow minutes we headed back. I found myself getting excited to see Vandermark, because the bandshell area was filled with about 3,000 people, and I realized that even if I'd seen him about 200 times, it was always preaching to the converted, the usual small group of cognescenti that frequent jazz (I mean "improvised music") nights at the Empty Bottle. Here, on the other hand, were a bunch of toe-tappers who were more concerned with their picnic blankets and $5 plastic cups of Miller Lite than who was actually on stage or what they were playing, as long as there were trumpets, saxophones, and at least some black people onstage, and it was all easy to talk over. It would be interesting to see what they thought of someone who was more "experimental" and "outward bound" in nature.
      The group Vandermark was bringing to the festival stage was called the Crisis Ensemble, a topical name and a large group, something like ten or so people. Can't remember who all was in it, but there were the excellent new young Chicago guys like Tim Daisy (drums), Aram Shelton (alto sax), and Dave Rempis (tenor sax), as well as veteran Jeb Bishop on trombone (looking great up there with his new long hair and some ratty black T-shirt). I know that drummer Robert Barry, a great Chicago vet who used to play with Sun Ra back in the 50s and 60s, and just put out an album of duets with Fred Anderson, is in the group, but unfortunately couldn't make the festival gig because he was ill, so some other young white kid replaced him.
      Anyway, Vandermark has been writing some long-form Afrobeat-influenced big-band prog-jazz. I saw him play some crazy 45-minute composition in that vein with the Peter Brotzmann Tentet a year ago, and the Crisis Ensemble seemed to pick up right where that piece left off. It's kind of a bold sound that brings at least some actual funk into the improvised music culture, while ignoring most of the cliches. I found myself really enjoying the set, and call me crazy, but it seemed like the majority of the people in attendance did too. And as political music it worked too, with the players jumping into some downright impassioned solos and other tricky combinations, well-charted out in that post-Braxtonian style that Vandermark likes to work in. I particularly remember one point where young Josh Berman almost completely lost his shit on trumpet, momentarily not looking like a college kid with a backpack going to the campus library on a study date, and Vandermark himself bringing one epic composition to a close with a highly involved circular-breathed grind-mantra that led one older black dude near me to say, laughing, "I didn't know a saxophone could make those sounds!"

KEN VANDERMARK: Kind of an "FBI agent undercover in Florida" thing goin' on?

Hideout Block Party / Saturday, September 6, 2003 / Hideout Parking Lot. The Hideout is one of the finest live music bars I've ever been to. Anyone who's played there or been there probably knows what I'm talking about. For the bulk of their booking they might lean a little too much towards 'neo-retro hipster country with a Spanish language name' for my tastes but by no means is that all they do -- I've seen Pelt, Charalambides, Animal Collective, Shackamaxon, Acid Mothers Temple, Michael Hurley, Canned Hamm, and Bobby Conn there, to name just a few. Hair Police, No Doctors, and Panicsville played there too, but I was out of town. Recently, it struck me that I hadn't been to the Hideout in a really long time, and then I heard the reason why: they were significantly cutting down their booking. I'm not sure why -- maybe it's something to do with "the economy."
      Either way, they were able to put together a great lineup for their annual block party, which is held outside in their huge industrial-wasteland parking lot. (The Hideout has a very strange location for being right in the middle of the city.) For example, on this night the lineup went, in order, The Pernice Brothers, Tortoise, The Dirtbombs, Demolition Doll Rods, Numbers, Erase Errata, and Bobby Conn. Not too shabby.
      Thing is, as above, I had the baby with me so I had to minimize my time there. I've never been a big Tortoise fan -- I think that everything great they've done is contained within the 20 minutes of their song "Djed." Nothing else seems to measure up, and their influence has led to a LOT of dullness in the music scene. Miles Davis is rolling over in his grave, and vibraphones should be banned from the rock context forever. So the window I decided to shoot for was Numbers and Erase Errata. I thought I timed it pretty well too, so Imagine my surprise when I got there and the band onstage was still The Dirtbombs. Also imagine my surprise when they were pretty much AWFUL. At least now I'll stop trying to get into their albums; I'm always hearing how great Mick Collins is but I'm always disappointed when I actually hear his stuff. Live it was no better, and the band just plodded along, in spite (or because of?) having two drummers. I always think Collins sounds a lot like Lenny Kravitz or at least just "Modern Rock FM Radio" at its most generically basic. What's the deal?
      Next up were the Demolition Doll Rods. I've written about them in the past because of my crush on Margaret Doll Rod, but this time I didn't even try to go up front 'cause the band was loud and the baby wasn't really into it. I just bided my time, hung out in back, chatted with friends, played with the baby. Numbers came on and you might remember what I said about 'em in the last ish, when I suspected they were a little too neo-retro on the new wave synth-bassline "c'mon, why aren't you guys dancing??" tip for my taste. And guess suspicions were pretty much right on! They kind of had this chant-and-run-in-place vibe that was cute, but really, they struck me as being pretty cookie-cutter. No Wave? Numbers are NOT No Wave. I'm sorry, but that's called NEW wave.
      Erase Errata were next and it was interesting to hear the two bands back to back, because the genre is quite similar -- dancey punky dance-punk -- but the E Double do it with some real character, from Jenny Hoysten's 'excited conversation' singing style to Sara Jaffe's mega-tin guitar to the rhythm section, which makes it mandatory that the audience move (so that the band never has to ask / beg / plead). Unfortunately, l'il babe-o wasn't into it -- he was kind of freaked out by the large crowd and the falling darkness -- so we left after three songs.

ERASE ERRATA: Live at Gilman Street . . . I've heard of that, it's that place Green Day owns where those dudes beat up Jello.

"The Empty Bottle and the Wire present 'Adventures in Modern Music,' a five day celebration of outsider sounds featuring...." / Wednesday, September 24, 2003 through Sunday, September 28, 2003 / Empty Bottle. So, everyone's favorite avant trendspotting glossy (to talk shit on) actually collaborated with the Empty Bottle to put on an "adventures in modern music" festival. In their trainspotting way they put together five gratuitously eclectic nights, but, however cloyingly, each night offered at least one band I would like to see, and most nights offered more than that. And on the one night I did go it was very interesting to see these various musical auras come and go.
     On Wednesday we had Kim Hiorthøy (Smalltown Supersound -- what's their deal anyway? I know they're Norwegian but that's about it . . .), Black Dice (have seen 'em once -- would love to see 'em again), Themselves (heard good things, experimental hip-hop, etc.), and Wolf Eyes (seen 'em like 20 times already, so they were the main reason I didn't go for this night, although in retrospect this would've been a pretty good night for Dice and Themselves and to see W.E. play outside of their usual 'scene').
     On Thursday we had Jackie-O Motherfucker (curious to see 'em), High Priest (sounds cool, hip hop, don't know much), James Chance & Terminal City (a living legend!), and Fred Anderson with Hamid Drake & Harrison Bankhead (super solid local jazz with the v. stalwart addition of Drake on drums).
     On Friday we had !!! (oh please, I don't want some nerd to ask me why I'm not dancing for an hour straight), sunn0))) (them I'd like to see, but haven't heard 'em -- are they anything special or should I just listen to Earth 2 some more? One thing I do like about 'em is that they actually wear robes 'n' shit when they play -- I saw Shackamaxon play a few years ago and it sounded okay but the performance was so little to look at, I was like "man, if you're gonna do seance music you should be like full-on wearing robes 'n' shit"), pulseprogramming (hmm, from Chicago I believe, possibly the 'laptronica' genre, probably some full-on academic and sheepish post-Tortoise mello-Chicago sound), and then (for another token jazz opener) John Butcher with Kaffe Matthews & Andy Moor (you know, I never really got into John Butcher so this night is a definite pass).
      On Saturday we had Stewart Walker (who???), Califone (I like this band and would like to see 'em live but they live in Chicago so I know I'll have other chances), Lightning Bolt (love 'em but I've already seen 'em a few times -- actually, I'd only go see 'em again if they started playing on the stage! Sometimes you just gotta change things up . . .), and Text of Light with Glenn Kotche, Alan Licht, Doug McCombs & Marina Rosenfeld (a group that improvises music while Brakhage films play on top of 'em -- the one time I saw Kotche improvise I was like "Aren't you the drummer for Wilco?," the one time I saw Licht play a show it was really uninvigorating, and they've got a member of Tortoise in there too . . . . . don't know much about Marina Rosenfeld but she's the most interesting name of the bunch). So yeah, easy to skip this one.
       On Sunday we had Adult. (they've never quite done it for me), Michael Gira (a solo appearance, now that could be good, I've never really listened to anything by 'em, Swans or post-Swans, but he seems like someone who more or less plays timeless music, not some crap where he pretends to be from the 80s, or is over-dependent on costumes, or complains because the audience isn't dancing . . . ), Disney & the Muslims featuring Michael Zerang with Jim Baker & Kyle Bruckmann (token jazz once again, all locals who I have seen 100 times already), and Six Organs of Admittance (definitely a good one but I just saw him a couple months ago opening for and playing in Comets on Fire so I can pass).
      Whew! So there you have it. Actually, all that was kind of redundant because the only two nights I could've gone were Thursday and Friday, because those were the nights my wife had off from work (we don't know too many babysitters who work for free yet), and Friday featured !!! who I would avoid at all costs, so it was a no-brainer: Thursday it was. My main stromie "Blow Things" was in town from Brooklyn, so I helped the old lady put the kid to bed and then we broke out to the Bottle, indeed with a spirit of adventure, an adventure not only in modern music but, really, in modern living. That's right, the whole kit and kaboodle. The interconnectedness of all things? Perhaps . . .
      But I digress. Upon arrival there was a nice crowd in place, especially not bad for it being right around 9PM. Something about those 'stodgy Brits' being in town must've made people expect punctuality, and punctuality they got. Mr. Anderson and Co. played a great opening set that definitely warmed the place up, with three or four long open-form instrumental meditations on the spiritual history of gutbucket funk music. Anderson just crouches over with his war hat on and weaves out line after line after line. Hamid Drake is a loud drummer and it is great how he kicks out these outright rock beats two or three times a song. (Never a whole tune, though.) Harrison Bankhead had on a fly hat and was in fine form once again. (I saw the Fred Anderson Trio a couple years ago and Bankhead played this arco bass solo with vocal accompaniment that I still remember plain as day.) I told him "good set" afterwards, he thanked me, but ducked out quick. I was gonna ask him for an interview with Blastitude, but I was shy. He was wearing patchouli!
      James Chance did not seem like a living legend. He played nothing energetic or even aggro, merely mid-tempo cocktail lounge lizard music, for your (unfortunately only slightly) confused grandma. This may have been yet another contrary move by an eternal contrarian, or he might just be too old and enervated, or he's passing off the latter as the former . . . but they seemed to take their performance too seriously for that. The lineup was a keyboard player wearing a jazz hat, Chance on vocals and quiet saxophone, and a stand-up bass player with a mullet. Chance sang one chorus, not too bad, not too great, and then took a straight, somewhat timid sax solo, and the keyboard player took a long solo, and then, like it was no thing, the keyboard player got up and did a switch with Chance so that he could play his own sax solo, and Chance took over on the keyboards and vamped behind him, and THEN, after the long sax solo, he played his own keyboard solo! It was like, man, I've seen groups where the solos went on and on, but I've never seen a group where players SWITCHED INSTRUMENTS MID-SONG so that they could play TWICE AS MANY solos. Chance's keyboard solo did climax in a brief forearm-block-chord tantrum that was the highlight of the entire set for me. Too bad it was only about two seconds long. I spent most of the set in the pool room, checking out the not-unattractive Jackie-O Motherfucker merch (2 double CDs, $15 each, and a tour-only LP, $10) and the not-unattractive Jackie-O Motherfucker merch girl, while trying not to stand too close to The Wire table where I was desperately trying to eavesdrop on any Trainspotting Brit Journalist vs. Trainspotting Chi-Town Indie-Rocker conversations. Unfortunately, due to the rather inebriated verbal sparring between my comrades "Blow Things" and J. Kitschke, I wasn't really able to catch anything.
      Next up back in the main room was High Priest, and he did a straight-up DJ set. I thought it was really nice, just straight soul tunes with some hip-hop and other stuff and subtle dubbed-out segues. Some people remained and just stood there watching like they were staring at a TV set, but the crowd began to thin. The living legend had left the building and now there was just some dude playing records and do I really want to see Jackie-O Motherfucker that bad? Where was that party you knew about again? I suppose people would've liked High Priest better if he would've started scratching the records instead of just playing them -- it would've given them something to clap for, something athletic for them to spectate -- but I thought it was really great how he didn't scratch a single record once. Anyway, I myself probably only spent 10 minutes of his set watching the stage, but I enjoyed hearing his music the whole time.
      And eventually, after hearing but not noticing High Priest's music segue into the Bottle's intermission music and having that go on awhile, Jackie-O was set up and ready to go. A very subtle beginning to their set -- just spaced-out and not especially loud turntable soup/murk seasoned with, I don't know, shortwave radio? static generator? pedals? tapes? moogs? -- became a very powerful beginning as it continued without anything heavy-handed happening for a good 10-15 minutes. I couldn't tell what sounds were coming from where because the whole rangy crew (four guys and two girls? or something close to that?) just sort of casually sat on stage and their gestures were small. Either they stared and intermittently poked at some hidden bank of equipment, or they were up and exchanging furtive gestures, whispers, and looks that didn't necessarily seem to be about the music. In the middle of the stage, the not-unattractive girl who had been at the merch table sat in a chair and smoked a cigarette. She wasn't making any sounds at all. Or was she? And was she a babe or what? Eventually some of the gesture-exchanging resulted in a few hand-written signs that were methodically taped to various mic stands. I think the first one unveiled said "NEW WEIRD KANADA," which was obviously a jibe of some kind towards the infamous "New Weird America" article in The Wire, and I think another one said "WHERE THE FUCK IS KANADA?" These were possibly also a reference to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, maybe because Jackie-O gets compared to them a lot, or maybe because (I was to later find out) this incarnation of the group included members of some Godspeed side project?? I don't know.
      Anyway, the music: throughout this 15-20 minute soup / murk introduction, Tom Greenwood (I learned his name and face from . . . The Wire!) was playing his two turntable set-up, digging records out of a crate at his feet, though it sometimes took me a good 10 seconds or more of visual / audial concentration to relate his gestures to any sound I was hearing in the murk. Eventually, Greenwood led the band in another direction when he started playing electric guitar. This was more 'inside' stuff, slow and lonesome folk strumming, and yep, it was like some of the Morricone-ish Godspeed stuff. The set started to slip a little bit for me here. It honestly seemed a little too easy, too "x+y=genius" to just play these one-or-two-chord 'dusty' melancholy 'tumbleweed' kinda riffs while everyone else got to be avant-garde.
      But they never let me off the hook -- at one point that seemed like eons later the other woman in the band started playing some sublime organ that took things to another level, and then long after that yet again, they started getting back into some soup / murk that was still great, but after just a couple minutes of that Greenwood said "They say we've gotta stop" and the lights came on. They had played over an hour straight of their 'thing.' There were about 10 people left in the whole bar.
      I decided to get one of their records, hoping to catch the soup / murk vibe on wax. I was leaning towards one of the $15 double CDs because it had really good B&W packaging in that samizdat/freakollage style that JOM does so well. But then there was that LP, kinda wack design, but it was tour only and would probably be going for 25 or 30 bucks within a couple years . . . and hell, maybe the other double CD, even though it didn't look quite as good, was the one that had the most of the long shortwave/sample/soup intro to the show. I decided I had to ask someone in the band, and it should probably be Tom Greenwood, the leader man. I walked in the other room and conveniently enough there he was, walking across the room by himself. "Hey man," I said, and he nodded. "Which record should I get?" "Oh me oh my," he said. Slight pause, and then "Get the Magick Fire Music." "Double CD?" "Yeah." Hey, that was the one with the great B&W graphics. I bought it and didn't look back.
      So this 2CD is a reissue of two separate vinyl releases. CD one was originally a double LP on Ecstatic Peace called The Magick Fire Music, and CD two was originally a single LP released by UK label Fisheye called Wow. I've listened to it quite a bit, and I'd have to say that The Magick Fire Music is still just a little too much of that 'lonely Americana'. Every track seems to be just "you play Morricone-ish guitar and we'll be avant-garde behind you." It really sounds just like a Godspeed record to me. Wow, on the other hand, is pretty weird and spaced-out. I like that one better, but I haven't listened to this in quite a while so I can't tell you much more than that. Really memorable show, though, and I do want to hear more stuff by this band.

HARRISON BANKHEAD: Live in Iowa City. The man knows how to choose a hat. Photo by Shoji Ichikawa.

Two shows: No Neck Blues Band, Trad Gras Och Stenar, Wayne Rogers Unit; No Neck Blues Band, Trad Gras Och Stenar, Plastic Crimewave Sound / Thursday, October 2, 2003 / Empty Bottle. This was kind of a strange night because two shows ended up being announced, a 7PM and a 10PM. Why, I'm not sure -- if you added together the total attendance of both, you still wouldn't be close to the venue's capacity -- but I think it was something to do with the No-Neck Blues Band not wanting to restrict themselves to one presentation, because every time they play it's different, etc. I went to the early show and ending up getting into the second show for free, so I saw the whole thing twice.
      First up at 7PM was The Wayne Rogers Unit. There was barely even 10 audience members there when they took the stage, which wasn't too exciting for anyone, but the band was cheerful enough about it. As they played, I tried to suss out the difference between the Wayne Rogers Unit and the Major Stars, who I saw just a few months ago. Both bands have Rogers and Kate Biggar on guitars, and the bass player for Major Stars is in there, but now switched over to guitar for a three-guitar attack (just like Molly Hatchet). The drummer and bass player were new and more youthful then the Stars sidemen had been -- I'm thinking early twenties. Other than that, the approach seemed pretty much the same for both bands -- psych-rock songs with long guitar solos -- except the Unit seemed a little more poppier. At least, Rogers sang more than he did with Major Stars. Rogers is a great guitar soloist, and there is a lot of guitar power in this band period. However, at this show they weren't quite able to fuse together the song aspect and the holy jam aspect as one -- the transitions were a bit awkward. This might have been due to inadequate rehearsal time with the new rhythm section, and by all accounts they were better a couple nights later at the Destijl festival.
      Next was Trad Gras Och Stenar, and I kind of had to pinch myself to make sure it was really happening, as would anyone else blown away by the recent Parson Sound and International Harvester reissues. Sure enough, these old grey beatific dudes took the stage, nearing 60 years old if not already there. They set up for awhile, then the guitarist on stage left started doing some low-key E-chord jams. The other guys were still getting stuff ready, but I started to get the feeling that the set had already started, and then the bass player (Torbjorn) said into the mic in his charming (of course) Swedish accent, "This is only the soundcheck. We are only sound checking. So hold your hands to your ears like this and hold them very tightly so that no sound comes in." Then he started adding some low-key bass to the E chord jam, and then guitarist on stage right (Bo Anders-Person) started adding some lines on the higher strings, and I think by this time the drummer was playing too, and they were off, on the first of I think three trance-jams, each in the 10-15 minute area, that just took their own course and were as natural and easy as breathing. The second jam had three of the four players doing vocals in the scat/gibberish/trance-chant style that those who have the old records would recognize. All jams were thick, low-endy, zoned out, dark, sleepy, not as obviously heavy as some might have been hoping, but with a cumulative effect that was a VERY heavy mellow indeed. Great set, I'm just now starting to fully appreciate it.
      Then came the No Neck Blues Band. When I had arrived at the venue, I found myself feeling like a total fanboy, realizing just how much I had speculated about these people over the last few years.
Their records are certainly mysterious-sounding, but it was two other tactics that I really fell for like a chump: the fact that they are barely photographed, and the fact that only two members are allowed to be identified. Thing is, I've figured out the name and face of pretty much every member of the band, so here I was at the bar with like 18 people total and 8 of them are No-Neck and I know them all by name, but I actually don't know them at all, so I don't talk to 'em or anything, and so on and so on . . . .
       So I guess I'll just talk about 'em here, on page 669 of this issue of Blastitude. So from stage right to stage left on this night, we had, first, Michiko. That's all I know her as. She's been playing with the band for a few years now; as long ago as the 20th Century she was mentioned in Rollerderby mag (in a negative review of a NNCK show) as singing into a lightbulb. She's also often described as a dancer. Well, she didn't do much dancing, but she did do a lot of really mangled sub-Doyle alto sax wreckage -- perhaps too much. She was also good for obscure moaning and occasional screaming theatrics. And, she was pretty sexy! In a witchy kind of way.
      Next over, Dave Shuford. Bassist for the Suntanama. Tall. Used to have long hair, but it has been shorn. Bespectacled. Kind of sporting a librarian/grad student/birdwatcher look. Tonight he spent the entire set playing . . . plastic electric mandolin?? Inaudible plastic electric mandolin, at that. No, at times I thought I could hear it but most of the time he was totally inscrutable -- I honestly thought more than once that his was more of a mime performance than a musical one.
      Next, David Nuss. The leader? The spokesman? This is a guy I easily recognize from the (two or three) pictures, but in person he comes on like several beings at once, the most specific two being a 1970s/1980s (pre gangsta fashion) Claude Zachary parking lot stoner (he had on a jean jacket over a Slayer T-shirt and walked around with a stoner lope) and a 1770s American farmer, complete with haystack beard and hair. He is essentially the drummer for the band, he even sets up in the back center like a drummer, except that he doesn't use a kit, he uses a really big hand drum, a bunch of odd cymbals and shakers, and maybe a floor tom? He stands up when he plays and his role seems to be a cross between captain/trickster. I could easily see him back there as the rudder or engine whose job was to keep the whole boat that spread out in front of him afloat.
      Next, Matthew Heyner. On bass. He plays in all kinds of groups on the NYC jazz scene. This guy was totally O.G. I mean, long tangled hair under a backwards mechanic's cap (not a trucker's cap!) and wearing one of those hugely puffy hip-hop jackets whenever he was offstage, with like baggy cargo jeans. He almost looked like a young Miami Steve Van Zandt or even Tommy Lee up there, playing one note for ten minutes at a time on his huge stand-up bass. He spent most of the first set just crouched in front of his bass, doing odd things to it. He also played some utility percussion and other inscrutable things.
     Next, Jason Meagher, on guitar. Kind of a big tall guy, with a beard and short bleach-blond hair. Can't get over how much he reminds me of my old manager at Papa John's Pizza, but that means nothing to you. He plays electric guitar, and if you stand up all your NNCK records and listen to them in chronological order, you can really hear his guitar style emerge, getting progressively more melodic, modal, and classically psychedelic. It's really kind of a new twist on psych guitar -- fluttery, wah-inflected, minimal but melodic . . . actually it's kind of like Jerry Garcia, so maybe not that new. He seemed to pretty much be fluttering along like that for all of both sets. (He did play a little bit of flute during the first set, but not for very long.)
      On the floor in front of Meagher, the aforementioned Keith Connolly. He also plays guitar in The Suntanama. He's kind of the "frontman" of No-Neck, now that John Fell "Excepter" Ryan is no longer in the group. Not that he sings or raps or anything during the jams, but he does say "thanks for coming out" and "we've got records for sale" and stuff like that, and throughout he's a visual focal point with his tall lanky frame and outrageous beard-braid. (This is a TALL band, I'm guessing these guys could probably kick Sunburned Hand of the Man's asses at basketball.) He's also always fiddling around with something goofy, like a giant marimba, or a little marching drum worn around his neck, or these triangles hanging from a stick that he sort of balanced around, like a silent moving sculpture of some kind. He was also fiddling around with a drum machine -- during the first set it sounded like he was kind of getting used to it but during the second set he used it to make a wall of sound that really got the jam going.
     And then, finally, in the middle, on the floor, playing prepared guitar, some percussion, and an old Korg synthesizer, some really short Bobby Conn-looking guy whose name may be Pat, but that's all I know. He kind of had the most "hipster" look of anyone in the band, but he was still pretty grungy and vaguely criminal-looking. His non-obvious and minimalistically melodic Korg lines are a pretty key element to NNCK that you can hear all over the records if you're thinking about it. It's what gives the jams that sci-fi futuristic element that keeps them from getting too hippie / tribal / drum circle-y. And that's everybody!
      I don't know, what else can I reveal about these guys? I just got done reading Ed Sanders' 1971 classic The Family, about the life and times of Charles Manson. Regarding Manson's infamous interaction with important Hollywood people like Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher, Sanders writes that "what William Burroughs calls 'an area of silence' has been created about the matter." Not to compare the No-Neck Blues Band with Charles Manson (although simpler minds would probably do so, based on knee-jerk reactions to appearance alone), but I would say that 'an area of silence' has also been created around the No-Neck Blues Band. Try searching for them on the internet; there is miraculously almost nothing that can be learned. Indeed, the band has been so good at maintaining this area of silence that a band member can be approached and talked to extensively, even about the subject of the band itself, and the approacher can walk away feeling that nothing in particular was gained or learned. This phenomenon is referred to by bandmember David Nuss in an essay/memoir he wrote in 1999 for the magazine 50 Miles of Elbow Room, one of the band's few public statements of any kind other than all the records: "No-Neck is about a unity, a society of artists which offers little information about itself even after you've seen it live." Even after reading all four pages of Nuss's very personable memoir, which talks extensively about the band and their 1999 summer tour, one feels that they haven't even scratched the surface.
      Maybe this is because the band is more normal than the mystique they create would lead you to think. Maybe it's like Gertrude Stein said, "When you get there, there's no there there." You can hear this in the music; sometimes it's the most spellbinding mysterious thing you've ever heard, and then the next time you listen to the same record it just sounds like a guy fumbling around with a rock or something. Maybe it has something to do with the old joke, "Q: What did the Grateful Dead fan say when he ran out of pot? A: This music sucks!" Really, I just don't know, so their mystique-manufacturing is still working, on me anyway.
      For example, on this night, I saw them twice, and I was partly underwhelmed and partly really impressed. The first set was the underwhelming one, which I think was intentional. They only played for 30 minutes, and as soon as they were done Connolly quickly announced "We're gonna play longer later on tonight so come back." I felt like they were deliberately rushing themselves -- if one member introduced a new idea or switched instruments the others would comment on it a little too quickly and the piece would lurch off on that tangent. The players seemed like they all intended to use every instrument at their disposal whether the direction of the music called for it or not. That kind of thing.
      The second performance, which didn't start until around 1AM, was more like it. Maybe it was the later-night vibe, for both me and them. More people in the audience too. Either way, it seemed like a more patient and deep set, with slower shapeshifting. Also, Nuss pulled out some real tricks, disappearing behind his drum kit for awhile mid-set only to reappear as a freaky witch-doctor, complete with scary mask and loincloth that revealed his naked ass. He went nuts with the shakers, pacing the stage, 'blessing' his fellow musicians, and staring down the audience. Then he disappeared behind his drum kit again, eventually re-emerging fully clothed as David Nuss, as if nothing had happened. It was cool.
      Before this second NNCK set, Trad Gras had played yet another beautifully heavily mellow set. Torbjorn gave a nice rap before one song about how, when you live in a wintry climate, like Sweden, or Northern Illinois, the summertime isn't just another season, but a gift. It was certainly a gift to be able to see these guys play two sets in one night. Before them, the opener was Chicago's own Plastic Crimewave Sound. I've seen them many times because they tend to open for all the good psych bills in town. What I used to think was kind of an awkward Prince-meets-Spacemen 3 thing is getting admirably more and more thuggish as time goes on, and I hear their new LP Flashing Open is a real monster. I really need to pick that one up . . . Ed Hardy, put me on your promo list! Now!!!

NO NECK BLUES BAND: Live at the Destijl/Freedom From Festival.What's he going to do with that chair? And that funny-looking cigarette? Photo by Seth Tisue.

TRAD GRAS OCH STENAR: Live at the Destijl/Freedom From Festival. A very heavy mellow. Photo by Seth Tisue.