Friday, April 19, 2019

Sunwatchers and Eugene Chadbourne's "3 Characters"

Until this arrived, the NYC instrumental free-jazz/psych quartet Sunwatchers' synapse-scorching Illegal Moves was my favorite new record this year, and it remains a formidable slab. But 3 Characters -- cut in a couple of manic days back in October 2016 in the company of rustic avant-gardist Eugene Chadbourne -- has it beat, tying together more musical threads to which I'm partial than one is likely to hear on a single disc (or even a double LP like thisun). The project's premise is for the Noo Yawkers and Doc Chad to cover material by political punk rockers the Minutemen, archetypal Texan muso Doug Sahm (whose own variegated musical trip embraced all the shades of music -- black, brown, and white -- associated with his native San Antonio), and activist-experimentalist Henry Flynt (as direct a precursor as Chadbourne possesses, one whom Julian Cope, in Copendium, informs us was once fired from a sub gig with the Warhol-era Velvet Underground for injecting hillbilly fiddle into their somber drone trip).

The Minutemen songs, which occupy sides 1 and 2, lean heavily on Double Nickels On the Dime and Three Way Tie for Last -- my favorite LPs by the San Pedro trio -- and remind us how topical d. boon and Mike Watt's antiwar lyrics (particularly resonant for ex-Vietnam draft fugitive Chadbourne) remain, goddammit. On "The Price of Paradise," Chadbourne's goofy hick vocalismo recalls Minutemen succesor band fIREHOSE's frontman Ed Crawford, while Sunwatchers guitarist Jim McHugh's fuzz-and-wah warped Sharrockian skronk fits the music like a spiked glove. McHugh and his bandmates Jeff Tobias (reeds and keys), Peter Kerlin (bass), and Jason Robira (drums) deposit the aural equivalent of a howling tsunami in the midst of "Political Song for Michael Jackson To Sing," and make a psychedelic raga out of "Themselves."

Watt himself makes a trio of cameo appearances, reciting a text from Cold War-era newsman Edward R. Murrow before Sunwatchers and Chadbourne audaciously mash up Paranoid Time's "Joe McCarthy's Ghost" with Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" (giving versions of the latter I'd previously heard by Marc Ribot and X___X a run for their money), declaiming the lyrics to Doug Sahm's anthemic "Chicano" (which I found as poignant as the version of the Flatlanders' "Borderless Love" I heard Joe Ely perform a couple of months ago) acapella, and delivering a scathing intro to Henry Flynt's 1966 screed "Uncle Sam Do" (which the musos, led by Chadbourne's off-kilter banjo, transform from demented Delta blues into Chadbourne's signature atonal acid bluegrass, with saxman Tobias careening into Trane Meditations territory). In between, there's a sunshine-y side of Sahm songs that reminds us how much of West Coast psychedelic culture originated in Texas, capped by a version of "Give Me Back the Keys to My Heart" that hits like the Velvets at the Matrix.

Sonically adventurous and fearlessly political, 3 Characters is musical synthesis at its most engaging.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Oak Cliff, 4.11.2019

Sometimes I go out of my house, and am rewarded.

A couple of months ago, my wife and I trekked up to the Haltom Theater in Haltom City to see Joe Ely, whom I last saw opening for the Clash on two memorable nights back in '79. As rockin' as those shows were, seeing him solo in his maturity was better. He's grown into his voice and the stories he tells have evolved into a legend, but the very best moment of the night came when he sang the Flatlanders song "Borderless Love." When he got to the line, "There's no need for a wall" -- which, in HC, could have gone either way -- and the crowd roared its approval, you could have knocked me over with a feather. As great in its way as Peter Tosh asking the assembled Rolling Stones fans at a KZEW-sponsored show, "Is reggae music not a great music?" and receiving their approbation, or Conor Oberst opening a show the night before the US invaded Iraq with a song about walking away from a fight. I love it when a performer gives me more than I expected, or in this case, more than I could have hoped for. (Sad to say, I have become wary of white folks I don't know these past couple of years.)

More recently, we witnessed a couple of great shows at The Kessler in Oak Cliff -- our favorite listening room, and no farther from mi casa than our doctor's office. The Zombies, whom I'd missed three times since they hit the boards again a few years back (including the Odessey and Oracle tour) were a joy. Colin Blunstone's voice is stronger than it ever was -- at times (especially on songs where the guitarist was soloing) I had to ask myself, "Is this Ian Gillan?" -- and the pure delight he displayed at being onstage was worth the price of admission. I only wish that we could have heard a few more Odessey songs in the time consumed by the extended versions of "Hold Your Head Up" and (final gut-punch encore) "God Gave Rock and Roll To You." (The former was mitigated slightly by the band boys cutting up during Rod Argent's extended solo, but yeah.) And last week, Charlie Crockett came off like a young Hank Williams before digging deep into his R&B/soul bag, looking fully recovered from his recent open-heart surgery and undaunted by the challenge of following the Relatives, whom I can now say I have seen get 200 people (not just 80 like at Fred's a few years back) dancing on their knees. Stirring times.

As noted in a previous post, there's been a lot of avant-garde/experimental action taking place in Oak Cliff recently, between the "Run With Scissors" events at Tradewinds, Dallas Ambient Music Nights at Texas Theatre, and shows at The Wild Detectives and Top Ten Records, where I was thrilled last night to see 20-odd folks out to hear Eugene Chadbourne, Yells At Eels, and a trio of Sarah Ruth Alexander, Liz Tonne, and Chris Curiel.

Dr. Chadbourne, the impossibly prolific South Carolina-based avant-guitarist/banjoist/electric rake inventor/scribe, has been waltzing across Texas in the company of Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez of Akkolyte/Yells At Eels fame (although on the night I saw 'em, the brothers didn't accompany him). His banjo technique is impressive, with occasional detours into atonality, and his vocalizing is idiosyncratic but engaging. Particularly enjoyable were his versions of Captain Beefheart's "Steal Softly Through Snow" (which the good Dr. said is "one of my favorite texts of his," and which he covered with ex-Mothers of Invention "Indian of the group" Jimmy Carl Black on 1995's Pachuko Cadaver) and Phil Ochs' "There But for Fortune" (covered on 1998's To Phil). Chadbourne's guitar playing, on a resophonic guitar that he said was destroyed by an irate audience member and subsequently repaired (I believe its broken headstock  appears on the cover of his new Solo Guitar Volume 2-1/3 LP) is in the same "wheelhouse" (why do people use that expression?) as Derek Bailey and Fred Frith. He also recently collaborated with the NYC free-jazz/psych quartet Sunwatchers (whose Illegal Moves is my current jam-o'-the-moment) on 3 Characters, a double LP of material by the Minutemen, Doug Sahm, and Henry Flynt (with some vocal assistance from Minuteman Mike Watt).

It's been a special pleasure and privilege watching Yells At Eels develop over the last 17 years (they celebrate 20 years as a band in a couple of months). By now, the Gonzalez brothers know each other's time inside out, and operate at a level of telepathy and physicality that is truly astonishing to witness. The contrast between the force and violence of their performance and their father, Dennis Gonzalez's spacious lyricism on trumpet and cornet is a thing of beauty and wonder. On this night, they eschewed small instruments and Dennis' customary effects for a stripped-down approach that started out quietly but quickly worked its way up to an intensity. I was the happy recipient of a piece of original art from Aaron's daughter Issy, and a copy of the beautifully packaged 3-inch CD certain aspects that Dennis recorded at the Texas Theatre last spring with sound artist Derek Rogers. It's a gorgeous, hymn-like soundscape that you can wrap yourself in like a blanket to ward off (at least momentarily) the effects of the insane times in which we live.

The opening set by Sarah, Liz and Chris -- a first-time collaboration -- was a drone-based,  minimalist meeting of a lone brass player with two classically-trained voices that sometimes approximated bird songs or tried to match the trumpet's sound, while Curiel responded with short phrases that he looped, including non-tonal sounds that mimicked running water and other sounds of nature. A singular sonic event that required a special kind of listening from both performers and audience.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

ORG Music RSD releases: Sun Records; Ocampo, Ocampo + Watt; Winter

Record Store Day falls on April 14 this year, and reading the multitudinous list of RSD releases, one wonders how pressing plants have the bandwidth to do any other work this time of year. As is the case in most instances of overabundance (I'm thinking of you, SXSW), I'm focused on one or two items. (My buddy's desperate for a mono Pink Floyd Saucerful of Secrets. If anybody can help a brother out, leave your contact in the comments.) Myself, I'm hoping to lay hands on ORG Music's already acclaimed reissue of Cecil Taylor's The Great Paris Concert (of which I sadly didn't get a review copy; sigh). But the label's releases also include three that prominently feature women (since that appears to be our theme for the week).

Sun Records Curated by Record Store Day, Volume 6 is the latest in a series of compilations curated by no-fooling employees of RSD-participating stores. If you're expecting Sam Phillips-produced rockabilly and blues, know that the "Sun Records" in the title refers to Sun Entertainment Corporation, the multi-label and distribution entity producer Shelby Singleton created after using the profits from Jeannie C. Riley's classic C&W sass-fest "Harper Valley PTA" (included here) to buy Sun from Phillips in 1969. (The comp also includes Patti Page's massive 1950 hit "Tennessee Waltz," to which Singleton was apparently assigned the rights.) The selections range from the Southern soul wonderment of "At the Mercy of a Man," a shoulda-been hit by last-soul-queen-standing Bettye Lavette, and "There's a Break in the Road," an Allen Toussaint production featuring a couple of Meters and sung by Betty Harris, to the midwestern girl group sounds of The Jelly Beans' "Baby Be Mine" and The Blue Angels' "I Wonder." Fun stuff.

This week I was checking out punk rock superhero Mike Watt's great collab with guitarist Mike Baggetta (imagine a love child of Dick Dale and John Abercrombie), so the arrival of a new RSD 7-inch by the man in the van with the bass in his hand was most welcome. Ocampo, Ocampo + Watt's Apparatus b/w Better Than a Dirtnap finds the ex-Minuteman/Stooge in the company of a DC married couple, singer-guitarist Devin Ocampo (a Cali expat who's been in a couple of Dischord Records bands) and drummer Renata Ocampo (Brazilian by birth, and also a visual artist whose embroidered portraits are quite stunning). Their long-distance collaboration back in January yielded a song apiece by Devin Ocampo and Watt. The A-side's a slice of moody indie rock, while the flip, sung by Ocampo, chugs along in Watt's signature style.

Speaking of Brazilians, Winter's Infinite Summer is a five-song EP of feather light dream pop, sung in both English and Portuguese by songwriter Samira Winter, following last year's appropriately named, crowd-funded full-length Ethereality. Winter has a voice quality not unlike the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler, and the record's airy internationalism makes it sound like something you could sell by playing in-store a la High Fidelity's Beta Band record. Bliss out!

The Art Ensemble of Chicago's "The Spiritual"

Part of an ongoing series of avant-garde jazz releases from the Black Lion/Freedom catalog, ORG Music's Record Store Day reissue of the Art Ensemble of Chicago's 1969 LP The Spiritual takes its place on the shelf alongside the label's reishes of the Art Ensemble's Tutanhamun (recorded at the same session), Albert Ayler and Don Cherry's Vibrations, and Cecil Taylor's Silent Tongues and The Great London Concert.

The Art Ensemble, along with their brethren and sistren from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), were committed to community and composition at a time when the jazz press was fixated on the quest to find the next heroic soloist. The Art Ensemble and AACM were more multidimensional than that. Reedman Joseph Jarman (who passed in January of this year) was also a poet and spoken word artist (and later a Buddhist priest). Trumpeter Lester Bowie (1941-1999), who appeared onstage in a white lab coat, was the group's business mind and went on to lead the accessible octet Brass Fantasy. Bassist Malachi Favors (1927-2004) introduced the group to "little instruments" after seeing them used in an African ballet performance he witnessed. Reedman/Art Ensemble founder Roscoe Mitchell went on to achieve acclaim as a composer and educator (since 2007, he's been the chair of composition at California's Mills College).

The Spiritual documents a representative performance from the flowering of creativity that began with Mitchell's Sound (cut for Delmark in 1966) and culminated with the Art Ensemble's epic Fanfare for the Warriors (for Atlantic in 1973). Recorded during the group's extremely fruitful two-year sojourn in Paris -- which resulted in a mind-boggling 15 albums (released by BYG-Actuel, Nessa, America, and a handful of smaller labels, as well as Freedom) -- this incredibly rich set captures their  internationalism (years before the term "world music" was coined), multi-instrumentalism (including banjo, harmonica, and noisemakers, as well as an impressive array of percussion), and theatricality (manifested visually by the group's onstage use of costumes and face-painting, and audibly via skits and dialogue). More ruminative in character than the "energy music" of the post-Coltrane '60s avant-garde, the Art Ensemble's music retains a timelessness in keeping with their slogan, "Ancient to the future."

Tahiti's "Blue Room": The video

It's World Parkinson's Day, y'all.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Things we like: Bella Novela, Solvej Schou

We live in interesting times. As countervailing forces -- one striving to make America more just and inclusive, the other seeking to maintain the status quo at all costs -- threaten to rip our country apart, I often wonder where the new protest music is. Here are a couple of answers to that question.

One of the most impactful tracks on Mike Watt's Ball-Hog or Tugboat is the one in which Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill takes Watt to task for being part of the "little white rock boy fuckin' hall of shame." That record is 24 years old, and rockaroll is still a boys' club, in spite of the proliferation of outfits like my town's Girls Rock Fort Worth and other organizations which are working to break down the stage door. Bella Novela and Solvej Schou propose other alternatives.

Bella Novella coalesced a decade ago, when its three members were working together at just such a rockaroll summer camp for teens, going on to crowd fund two albums before cutting this latest one with their winnings from an annual band battle in their hometown of Long Beach, California. On  Incinerate,  the trio manages the most subversive feat: making music that pulls you in with irresistible hooks before zapping you between the ears with a powerful (and unexpected) message. From opener "The Reckoning," which sounds for all the world like LP fronting Rush, they blend anthemic rock -- bound to catch the ear of anyone who thrilled to Bohemian Rhapsody at the cinema and replete with Jacob Heath's harmonized metallic guitar leads -- and the ABBA-like pop appeal of keytar-slinging Jackie Laws' soaring, melodic vocals. The fact that Laws and drummer Jannea McClure are onstage making loud, aggressive music is as much of a statement as their lyrics, which on Incinerate are "a call to arms to incinerate the patriarchy."

On Quiet for Too Long, Solvej Schou (pronounced SOUL-vye SKOH) takes a more direct and in-your-face approach. Her stripped-down garage-rock sound has a rawer edge, with the vocals mixed right up front, so it's impossible to miss lines like "As the world burns red / Blue kills black / America, your hatred is gonna crack" ("America") or "Age and beauty, age and beauty / How does it feel to be a woman in the world?" ("Age and Beauty"). Like the Paranoid Style's Elizabeth Nelson, Schou has a career as a journo: she's worked for the Associated Press and Entertainment Weekly, among others, and her lyrics can be viewed as another type of reporting. She's descended from a Holocaust survivor (her grandmother, whose child and siblings were murdered by the Nazis) and, thanks to her Danish father, holds dual citizenship; she's played in bands in Copenhagen and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well as her native Los Angeles. She's got big pipes and plays a mean guitar, but her greatest assets are her keen intelligence and defiant attitude, which enable her to craft well-observed commentaries on current political issues that hit with the impact of a hurled brick on a plate glass wiindow.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Pinkish Black to play New Mexico fest

It's been a tumultuous year for Fort Worth experimental heavy rock duo Pinkish Black. Last spring, singer-keyboardist Daron Beck and drummer-synthesist Jon Teague hunkered down at Cloudland Studios with producer Britt Robisheaux to begin work on their fourth album in nine years as a band, Concept Unification. The record -- including some synth-only pieces that will be released digitally -- was completed, and they were in the midst of formulating tour plans when Beck (who'd also been working on the soundtrack for The Orange Years, a documentary about kids' TV network Nickelodeon) suffered two heart attacks in the same week in June.

At first, their future as a band was uncertain, but as Beck regained his health over months of rehabilitation, they realized they could still perform and tour, and they capped 2018 triumphantly, opening three Texas shows for doom metal pioneers Sleep. (Teague avers that one of his greatest musical experiences was hearing Sleep bassist Al Cisneros playing the version of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" he recorded with the Melvins for Amphetamine Reptile, solo during a soundcheck.) There's also a collaboration with Dallas free jazzers Yells At Eels that's partially completed, and Teague has been playing some solo synth dates under the rubric Zeitmorder. Pinkish Black has resumed local gigging, and their next big milestone before Relapse releases Concept Unification will be an appearance at the inaugural edition of a new heavy music festival, Monolith on the Mesa, that takes place in Taos, New Mexico, on May 17-18.

Curated by mastermind Dano Sanchez, the fest combines a picturesque location, replete with outdoor activities -- Taos Mesa Brewing, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge -- with interactive art, a light show, and two days of music on two stages, featuring "heavy riff-rock acts from across multiple sub-genres including stoner rock, heavy psych, doom metal, sludge, drone, and retro rock." (Not sure where the uncategorizable Pinkish Black falls in this continuum, but they play on the inside stage, Saturday night at 8:45pm.) Friday night is headlined by Al Cisneros' "other" band, Om, while Saturday night's headliner is The Obsessed, fronted by the iconic Scott "Wino" Weinrich (St. Vitus, Spirit Caravan) -- who also plays a solo acoustic set to close things on the inside stage Friday night. Sounds like a heavy weekend. Tickets available here.

Friday, March 22, 2019

New music to North Texas cometh

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the plethora of creative music performances coming this way the next couple of months.

First, the free-jazz/rock guitarist/banjoist Eugene Chadbourne (whom I know best from his collaboration with ex-Indian of the original MOI Jimmy Carl Black) has two shows in the area next month. The first -- a freebie -- is at Backyard On Bell in Denton (410 N. Bell Ave., to be exact) on April 10. The second, with a $10 cover, is at Top Ten Records in Oak Cliff (338 W. Jefferson Blvd.) the following night. In Denton, Chadbourne will be accompanied by Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez of Yells At Eels, who'll also be on the bill in Oak Cliff, along with a trio of Sarah Ruth Alexander, Liz Tonne, and Chris Curiel.

On April 12, Top Ten Records hosts a duo of Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser and former Anthony Braxton drummer Gerry Hemingway, with locals Magga Quartet rounding out the bill. Another $10 cover that night.

Then on May 22, Oak Cliff bookstore The Wild Detectives (314 W. 8th St.) will have the German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, a founding father of the European free music movement, in a duo with steel guitarist Heather Lee, sharing a bill with another duo consisting of punk-jazz guitarist Joe Baiza (Saccharine Trust/Universal Congress Of) and drummer Jason Kahn. Cover for thatun is $20; tickets are available here.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Cecil Taylor's "Silent Tongues"

I only saw the avant-garde piano force of nature Cecil Taylor once in life. It was hardly an optimal occasion: the April 1977 Carnegie Hall encounter with fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams, which he originally titled "Embraced," could have been more aptly dubbed "Opposed," or "Alienated." Williams, who promoted the concert herself, attempted to conduct a jazz history lesson, accompanied by her rhythm section, with written parts for Taylor. Taylor was having none of it. Instead, he responded with his usual shifting tectonic plates of sound, replete with thunderous left-hand rumbling, cascading torrents of notes, and explosions of atonality. The house was half-empty, but people in the balconies, transported by the potent visceral power of Taylor's art, were standing up and screaming. It wasn't a sublime musical event, but it was memorable.

To see Taylor live was to grasp the kinetic energy of his performance, and apprehend the tonal and rhythmic contours of his forms (influenced by 20th century European composers as well as jazz forebears). He played piano with the physicality of a dancer hurtling through space, and the percussive strength of his keyboard attack was matched only by his precise control, allowing him to execute with accuracy, even while stirring up welters of roiling turbulence. (Those who are still VHS-capable are encouraged to seek out Burning Poles, the document of a 1991 live-in-studio performance in which Taylor is accompanied by the highly simpatico Tony Oxley and William Parker, as well as a superfluous percussionist. By that time, Taylor had incorporated dance and vocalization -- declaiming his own idiosyncratic poetry -- into his onstage ritual. Last time I checked, the film was also available on Youtube.)

Originally released in 1975 on Arista Freedom and recently reissued by ORG Music, Silent Tongues is Taylor's first great solo recital, and an absolutely essential spin for anyone interested in creative music. At the time it was recorded, at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival, Taylor had just returned to performing after a spell in academia. The previous year, he had privately released a couple of solo recordings -- Indent (reissued by Arista Freedom in 1977) and the beautiful first side of Spring of Two Blue-J's (good luck finding that one today) -- from 1973 concerts at Antioch College (where he'd been teaching since the late '60s) and NYC's Town Hall, respectively. He'd go on to release many more solo dates -- 1978's Air Above Mountains <Buildings Within>, 1982's Garden, and 2002's The Willisau Concert among the best of them -- but Silent Tongues ranks among Taylor's very finest albums, and to these feedback-scorched ears, is the best point of entry for listeners new to his work (along with 1966's Blue Note ensemble session Unit Structures).

Silent Tongues, a work in five movements, commences with a slow and pensive exposition ("Abyss") of themes that will be expounded on later. On "Petals and Filaments," the trickle of ideas becomes a fast-flowing stream, animated by a jumpy nervous energy, as Taylor thoroughly investigates each tangent with virtuosic abandon, building to an intensity on "Jitney." The music's density and velocity ebb and flow through "Crossing" (which is split between LP sides, each of which totals over 25 minutes), until he concludes with a somber descending sequence that he calls "After All," then encores with recapitulations of themes from two of the movements. It's a demanding listen, but one that richly rewards repeated plays. Taylor's creation contains universes. Not for all, but everything to some.