CHICAGO SHOW REPORT
Larry "Fuzz-O" Dolman
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
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
WOLF EYES: Special gore effects by Rick Baker.
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"
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?
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 what....my 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.
Live at Gilman Street . . . I've heard of that, it's that
place Green Day owns where those dudes beat up Jello.
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 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.
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
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
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
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