Saturday, August 31, 2019

FTW, 8.30.2019

Besides receiving some recent attention from Texas Monthly for curator Linda Little's art protesting the separation of migrant families at our southern border, the plucky Grackle Art Gallery has been the locus of some interesting musical activity.

Guitarist Kavin Allenson has been hosting an invitational "Straw Drawing Improv Jam," usually the third Thursday of the month, featuring a cast of characters that includes, but is not limited to, trombonist James Hall, bassist Mark Hyde, Warr guitarist Mark Cook (99 Names of God, Liquid Sound Company), laptop wizard Darryl Wood (Bubble Force, Confusatron), and guitarists Joe Blair, Darrin Kobetich (Agita, Blackland River Devils), and your humble chronicler o' events. Not everything works, but at its best, the music burbles like a psychedelic stew, occasionally attaining heights of Crimsonoid grandeur.

This weekend, local prog guitar cult hero Bill Pohl (The Underground Railraod) is back from his new home in Colorado, where he plays solo and trio gigs when he isn't holding down the second guitar chair in Thinking Plague. On his last couple of visits, Bill played Allan Holdsworth tribute sets with a couple of fiery youngsters, but this time, he has something quieter and more subtle up his sleeve. In the more intimate setting of the Grackle, it's easier to hear the rich chords and varied pick attacks he uses to create orchestral textures with looper and delay pedals. His rhythmic rapport with bassist Sam Damask (Grand Commander) and hand percussionist Craig Shropshire (whose radio show on KERA-FM was a formative influence on scads of DFW underground musos) is also noteworthy. Bill remains a preternaturally fleet-fingered soloist, but Saturday's set emphasized atmosphere and groove to create a modal music of the spheres. When he launched into Miles' "It's About That Time" and followed it with Trane's "Naima," my month was made. He'll be back at the Grackle tonight with Shropshire and percussion eminence Eddie Dunlap. You owe it to yourself not to miss this.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Oak Cliff, 8.15.2019

It was a pretty good night in Oak Cliff.

Dennis Gonzalez was celebrating his 65th birthday, as is his wont, by performing with two of his ensembles -- the brass quintet Euphonious and the jazz/world music trio Ataraxia. As a bonus, the Monks of Saturnalia -- guitar shaman Gregg Prickett's jazz compositional outlet -- were making their first appearance in a decade, on the same bill. The venue was Revelers Hall, a relatively new spot in the Bishop Arts district (so many districts, here in post-gentrification America!), where Kevin Butler (who plays tuba in Euphonious) has been booking an intriguing array of jazz and related musics. On a sultry night like Thursday, when the punishing heat of the day had finally begun to dissipate, they had the doors open, so the music could invite listeners from down the block.

The thing that I miss, hearing Dennis with Ataraxia or Yells At Eels, is the multi-horn polyphony of records like Namesake, Debenge-Debenge, or (a particular fave) Catechism, so I was thrilled to hear that he was gigging with a group that would emphasize that aspect of his work. While it's not an all-brass unit -- Aaron Gonzalez's standup bass serves as the group's anchor -- the confluence of three trumpets (on this night, Dennis, Chris Curiel, and Thaddeus Ford), trombone (the estimable Gaika James, whose own quartet I've wanted to catch ever since I saw a vid of them playing Fela's "Expensive Shit" a couple of months ago), and Butler's tuba has a sound that can range from celestial and spiritual to vigorous and funky. When Stefan Gonzalez joined them on drums for the closing riff tune, the net effect was like a NOLA marching band, but out. Can't wait for these guys to record.

Ataraxia followed with a brief set that demonstrated how their expression has deepened with more time playing together. It was a treat for me to witness their performance from behind tabla player Jagath Lakpriya, so I could see how he strikes his drums to get all those sounds. In a way, the night belonged to bassist Drew Phelps, who played his ass off through two sets, fairly dancing on the big fiddle and conducting a spirited dialogue with Lakpriya during Ataraxia's performance, then switching off between acoustic and electric axes with the Monks of Saturnalia, whose set included a pizzicato solo that hit you in the solar plexus the way Mingus or Haden's playing once did, and a crazy arco excursion that I'd swear included the "Happy Birthday" song in overtones...but maybe I'm overthinking things.

Gregg Prickett is probably the most advanced guitarist currently working in the Metroplex, combining classical chops with distortion, noise, and extended techniques, and his current lineup of Monks is a veritable all-star unit. Besides Phelps and Stefan Gonzalez, the band at Revelers Hall included former Brave Combo multi-reedist Jeffrey Barnes on soprano, clarinet, and wood flute, and Steven Brown (whose own trio plays Revelers Hall this Saturday) on tenor. The horns were able to put their own stamp on the band's charts -- Barnes soloing with abandon, Brown applying his burnished tone -- in spite of only having had two rehearsals. The makings of a great band are here.

Opening with Prickett's Albert Ayler dedication "He Walked Into the River" (which I first heard at Ronald Shannon Jackson's very last performance, when Prickett was a member of his Decoding Society), they played pieces evocative of soundtracks to noir films or Westerns (the latter a Phelps composition), as well as a memorial to one of the three wolves Prickett used to live with. When the guitarist pulls out the stops during a solo, the sound of something powerful and precisely controlled going deliberately off the rails functions as a pretty good metaphor for the times we live in. I'll be looking forward to hearing more from these Monks, as well as Prickett's other band, the contemporary classical/improv Trio du Sang.

Creative music is thriving in Dallas. Who'd a thunk it?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Things we like: "Sounds Exposed," Simon Nabatov, Mario Pavone

You can't eat the same food every day, and perhaps the knowledge that what Wayne Shorter calls "the door" is getting closer put me in mind to hear some new stuff, rather than continually plowing the same furrow, as is my usual wont (not that I delude myself that listening to new music can forestall my ultimate extinction).

1) One of my favorite guitarist-composers, Brooklyn-based Marco Oppedisano, has a track on a new compilation of experimental music gleaned from online sources by Brazilian composer-producer George Christian. The 29 selections on Sounds Exposed: Music Without Frontiers are a varied lot. So as not to slight any of the artists, I revive my practice of writing three word reviews of every track.

Mahata Sentimental Legend -- Sinister tribal thump.
Joaquin Mendoza Sebastian -- Densely textured echolalia.
Molloy and His Bike -- Guitar as percussion.
Anastasia Vronsky -- Is anyone receiving?
Paulo Chagas -- Melancholy woodwind duet.
Feeding Goats -- Information dense soundscape.
Jeff Gburek -- Indian flavored drone.
Marco Lucchi -- Sitar overtone bath.
James Ross -- Dissonant long tones.
Herve Perez -- Haunting site specificity.
Wilhelm Matthies -- Invented instrument friction.
Vanessa Rossetto -- Train whistle viola.
Marco Oppeddisano -- Metallic artifact collage.
Doug Seidel -- Head spinning electronica.
Bruce Hamilton -- Abstractions that breathe.
Stefan Schmidt -- Ebbing, flowing guitar.
Mat Ward Nomatesensemble -- Zappaesque; mastered LOUD!
Shape2 -- VU style minimalism.
Lezet -- Tick tock tension.
Peter Thoegersen -- So many microtones!
Joseph Benzola -- Musique concrete march.
Mike Tamburo -- Fahey ascends Heavenward.
Peter Stenberg -- Slow deliberate space.
Mystified -- Slithering dream soundtrack.
Summons of Shining Ruins -- Distorted choral symphony.
Owl Dreams -- Dimly recalled echoes.
Jurica Elic -- Balkan baritone balladeer.
Vincent Bergeron -- Composite atonal songcraft.
George Christian -- Syd's Floyd redux.

But don't take my word for it. Hear for yourself.

2) A recent deep dive through the last decade of jazz -- initially inspahrd by ex-NYT scribe Nate Chinen's slim but useful tome Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (which actually covers the last two decades, in a Noo Yawk-centric way) -- indirectly reminded me how much worthy stuff the Portuguese Clean Feed label has released over the years. Besides some of my most beloved Dennis Gonzalez sides, they've also released favorite records of mine by the likes of Joe Morris (whose four CD box of duets with Anthony Braxton displays a lyrical bent I was unaware either man possessed), Kris Davis, Mark Dresser, Chris Lightcap (whose 2015 Epicenter is a love letter to NYC to rival Spike Lee's 25th Hour, and whose brand new, eclectic, David Breskin-produced Superette for Royal Potato Family ain't no slouch, either), and Lawnmower (whose 2010 debut West teams half of Morris' regular quartet with a couple of rock guitarists), among many others.

Latest batch of Clean Feeds includes two that moved right to the top of my stack. Simon Nabatov Quintet's Last Minute Theory features an all-star cast (Tony Malaby, Brandon Seabrook, Michael Formanek, Gerald Cleaver) supporting a Russian emigre pianist who spent most of the '80s in NYC before decamping to Germany at the end of the decade. While Nabatov's known as a free player, it's his compositions, which vary in mood and tempo as they move between "straight ahead" and "outside" -- sometimes within the same piece -- that are the focus here. Malaby, whose work as a sideman I've always preferred to any of his own dates (perhaps I just haven't heard the right ones?) performs sensitively on tenor and soprano, while Seabrook's subtly eccentric guitarisms provide the chaos factor, but all the players are stellar and work well together, whether on the appropriately-titled "Slow Move," the Latin-tinged "Rickety," the "out" parade music of "Marching Right Along," or the ruminative ballad "Translated." Highly recommended.

Mario Pavone is a name I only dimly recalled from my late-'70s New Music Distribution Service catalogs. My loss. After early associations with Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, and Anthony Braxton, Pavone spent 18 years playing in a trio with the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin. His Dialect Trio's Philosophy is the third document of his collaboration with pianist Matt Mitchell (whom I first heard on Dan Weiss's metal-jazz hybrid Starebaby -- another David Breskin production! -- but who's also worked with Tim Berne and Dave Douglas, among others) and the redoubtable Tyshawn Sorey (here back in his "young Tony Williams" mode, as when I first encountered him on Fieldwork's Door a decade ago). Like all the best piano trios, it's a conversation, rather than a leader-with-sidemen situation, and reflective in the manner of Bley or Bill Evans. The tunes are all by Pavone, save two by Annette Peacock (whose book was explored at great length by Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian for ECM a few years back) and one collective improvisation. A rewarding spin.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Smog Veil's "Peter Laughner" box finally arrives!

Consider Peter Laughner: Creem scribe and familiar of Lester Bangs, his scrawl in local publications helped solidify the punk sensibility in the Rust Belt isolation of Cleveland. Multifaceted muso who co-led Rocket From the Tombs, mid-'70s proto-punk prophets without honor, whose members and repertoire formed the basis of both avant-rock iconoclasts Pere Ubu (also co-led by Laughner) and second wave Bowery punks the Dead Boys. Proudly indiscriminate substance abuser, dead from the effects of drink and drugs at 24.

Mainstream listeners who are attentive to songwriting credits (do such exist?) might know Laughner as co-writer of "Ain't It Fun" (covered by Guns N' Roses), or sole writer of "Amphetamine" (a snippet of which was used, with attribution, by Wilco in Being There's "Misunderstood"). Myself, I got hip to his music via From the Velvets to the Voidoids, and first heard RFTT via fan cassettes and CD-Rs -- atypically for his age cohort, Laughner self-documented much of his musical activity -- before laying hands on a CD copy of Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, a selection of home recordings and tapes from live gigs, compiled by Velvets to Voidoids author Clinton Heylin and released by Portland-based Tim/Kerr Records in 1993.

Reading Heylin's account of Peter's supernova trajectory, the one Bangs penned for New York Rocker (anthologized in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung), and another, fictionalized one by Laughner's Pere Ubu bandmate Allen Ravenstine that Heylin included in The Penguin Book of Rock and Roll Writing, I got the sense of Having Known This Kid: your typical record store smartass, but one who had formulated an aesthetic (a few years ahead of its time, but on the right side of history) and had the ability to write about it (usually for hometown giveaway rags). Beyond that, he possessed the musical ability to play the stuff he loved and wrote about, and ultimately to make his own contributions to the canon. His Achilles heel was that he bought into the mythos of the suffering artist, and the belief that one should live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. And it was his misfortune to live those out to their logical conclusion -- a phenomenon that's even more common today, goddammit, than it was in 1977.

Smog Veil, Ohio native Frank Mauceri's estimable Chicago-based indie, entered the picture in 2002, when they released The Day the Earth Met Rocket from the Tombs, which no less of an authority than RFTT/Pere Ubu frontman/conceptualist David Thomas declared a definitive document of the band. Mauceri first announced his intent to release a comprehensive box set of Laughner's recordings in 2006, with a release targeted for 2008. Thing was, every new tape Mauceri and researcher Nick Blakey unearthed, and every new interview they conducted, led them to another tape they needed to seek out, or another Laughner familiar they needed to talk to. (A biproduct of this research was Smog Veil's marvelous "Platters du Cuyahoga" series, initiated in 2015, which includes releases by Northern Ohio worthies X__X, the Robert Bensick Band, the Mr. Stress Blues Band, the Schwartz Fox Blues Crusade, Allen Ravenstine, and Hy Maya.) Earlier this year, Smog Veil announced that the Laughner box masters were finally at the pressing plant, and an August 2nd release was anticipated. And there was great rejoicing in the land.

Now it's here: Five discs, 56 tracks (same sequence on CD and LP), a hardbound 100-page book packed with photos and reproduced memorabilia; a generous selection of Laughner's published writings, starting with a couple of letters to the Creem editor, and including transcriptions of some of his "Gatherin' Crop" columns (sort of a hipper Christgau Consumer Guide) from local CLE publications The Star and Zeppelin; an informative essay and detailed track notes by Blakey (whose painstaking documentation of the Cleveland scene deserves recognition); and eulogies by Bangs, Pere Ubu's Tim Wright, and Cleveland creative Tim Joyce. As retrospective anthologies go, Peter Laughner ranks right up there with Dylan's Biograph, Bob Marley's Songs of Freedom, and the Velvets' Peel Slowly and See. With the crucial difference that most of this music is previously unreleased. The result is a more complete portrait of Laughner than we had any right to expect, revealing a multiplicity of new facets.

Here's how it breaks down, disc by disc:

Fat City Jive 1972, culled from a pair of WMMS-FM radio broadcasts, finds Laughner immersing himself in the waters of songcraft with an acoustic trio that includes a couple of ex-bandmates from the Mr. Stress Blues Band, which he'd helped revive in late 1971 and from which he was summarily slung out in the summer of '72. Bill "Mr. Stress" Miller took umbrage at Laughner wanting to play and sing atypical blues band fare on the level of Dylan's "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat." For Laughner was no purist, as you can tell by the way he coaxes barrelhouse ivory tinkling from pianist Mike Sands on a Velvet Underground song. Besides covering his role models and exemplars Dylan, Lou Reed, and Michael Hurley, Laughner also essays toonage by the likes of Arthur Crudup and Jimmie Rodgers, along with a couple of originals. His "Solomon's Mines" and "It's Saturday Night (Dance the Night Away)" sound for all the world like Townes Van Zandt (speaking of tormented, doomed songwriters). But Laughner was just getting started.

One of the Boys 1973-1974 documents Laughner's "glam phase" with the bands Cinderella Backstreet and Cinderella's Revenge, in a series of club recordings that are uncommonly full of presence for the time. Vocals and all instruments are clearly audible as Laughner and his compadres play supremely confident extended jams on songs by Reed (including one of the most glorious versions of "Heroin" I've ever heard by anybody), Dylan-via-Hendrix, and Mott the Hoople, along with a sole Laughner original, the 16-year-old's manifesto "I'm So Fucked Up." Cynthia Black's Mellotron elevates the band, and it's worth noting that Laughner was ahead of the rockaroll curve in collaborating with strong female musos; besides Black, future Chi-Pig members Susan Schmidt and Deborah Smith (both ex-Poor Girls, an all-female Nuggets-era outfit from Akron) were mainstays of Cinderella's Revenge and Laughner's post-RFTT band Friction, while future Contortion and No New York catalyst Adele Bertei fronted Laughner's last band, Wolves, and sings a mighty "Rock It Down" on the eponymous disc in this set.

Pledging My Time 1973-1977 shows Laughner hitting his stride as a songwriter in an incandescent series of home recordings, several of which previously appeared (with inferior sound quality) on Take the Guitar Player for a Ride. Smog Veil's remastering has given these tracks a depth and fullness they previously lacked. While they are clearly of their time's state of technology, you can now hear the air in the soundhole of Laughner's acoustic, and the room he's singing in. "Cinderella Backstreet," "Baudelaire," and "Sylvia Plath" have never sounded better, while Deborah Smith's bass on "Down at the Bar" jumps out in a way it didn't before. The four previously unreleased originals -- particularly "(My Sister Sold Her Heart To) The Junk Man" -- have the blasted emotional directness of Laughner's best work, while occasionally betraying the continuing influence of Dylan. Laughner's blues roots remain audible in the covers of Robert Johnson's "32-20" and the somewhat chaotic overdubbed version of the Blonde On Blonde song that gives the disc its title, even though he sings (on "Cinderella Backstreet") that "Playing those blues you learned from the English dudes / Doesn't really satisfy."

Rock It Down 1974-1977 documents the years of Peter's apotheosis, starting with the pre-RFTT outfit Fins' cover of the Velvets' "What Goes On," once released on a rare early-'90s indie single. RFTT itself, well documented elsewhere, is represented here by a previously unreleased live-at-the-Agora "Ain't It Fun." There's a different take of "Amphetamine" from the Take the Guitar Player version, with Don Harvey on Velvet-ish organ and Peter still working out the lyrics, and a handful of tracks by Friction. The latter include rehearsal run-throughs of Tom Verlaine's "Prove It" -- for by late '76, Laughner had started checking out the Lower Manhattan scene, and even auditioned for the second guitar slot in Television when Richard Lloyd stepped out for a minute -- and Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso," as well as three tracks (two Laughner originals and a Dylan cover) from a blazing Pirate's Cove gig.

Nocturnal Digressions 1977 is, in some ways, the Holy Grail for Laughner fans: a solo home recording from the night before he died. He's himself to the end, playing an obscure Tom Verlaine song as a blues, mixing in a couple of Jesse Winchester numbers among favorites by Van Morrison, Richard Hell, the Stones, and Lou Reed. Knowing their provenance, it's hard to listen to these songs without hearing harbingers of doom, not just in Laughner's choice of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues," but also in the rhythmically idiosyncratic original "The Last Room of the Dream," in which Peter sings, "Show me the way to the next room of this dream." Or another original, "(Going To) China," which contains the line, "Gonna dig myself a hole down in the earth" (undercut at the end by a quick piss-take version of "Summertime Blues"). These sounds of a troubled 24-year-old who was drinking himself to death in his mother's house, singing his heart out to his tape recorder in the wee hours of his last morning, hold a special poignancy. While Mauceri, in his foreword to the book, cautions against "what-might-have-been" nostalgia, it's evident that Peter Laughner wasn't done with music that night. He just ran out of time.

Ten Questions for Nick Blakey

I've admired researcher Nick Blakey's work for years (somebody please give this guy a book contract -- I'm looking at you, Kent State University Press), so I was pleased as punch when he graciously agreed to answer a few questions via email (with a couple of interjections from Smog Veil label honcho Frank Mauceri).

Q: How did you get involved in Smog Veil's Laughner project?

Nick Blakey: The other researcher on the Smog Veil projects, Andrew Russ, and I met through the bootleg cassette trading circles in the early 1990s. We were both pretty big Pere Ubu fans, and were attempting to gather up as many live recordings of Ubu as we could find. This also included related groups like Rocket From The Tombs, Mirrors, electric eels, etc. There were some Peter Laughner recordings circulating, such as Nocturnal Digressions, as well as the spring 1976 Ubu show with Laughner from The Mistake that was eventually officially released [on Hearthan] as The Shape of Things.

Over time we managed to gather quite a bit of stuff. Some of it was kindly shared with us by Chris Hardgrove, a WMBR-FM DJ I had met here in Boston, who managed to grab this holy grail cache of tapes Andrew and I had been attempting to get for years. We also had acquired some recordings from the numerous Cleveland folks we had contacted looking for tapes, including some former members of Pere Ubu.

By 2009, we had heard that Smog Veil was beginning to put together a Peter Laughner box set; I decided to give [Frank Mauceri] a call out of the blue and let him know that we had some Peter Laughner recordings he might be interested in. The rest is history.

Q: What were some of the challenges you encountered in your research?

Nick: There were and are a lot of myths about Peter Laughner out there that we had to unravel and correct.

One of the more obvious ones [concerns] Fins, the brief 1974 band Peter had with Robert Bensick, Scott Krauss, Deborah Smith, and Lachlan McIntosh, of whom two songs were released as a 45 on S.O.L. in the early 1990s as Peter Laughner and The Finns. All surviving members have since said the group was simply Fins, with one "n" and no "the." Clinton Heylin's watershed albeit flawed book From The Velvets To The Voidoids stated that the group had been named for Brian Eno's 1974 single "Seven Deadly Finns," though we have been unable to find out what his source may have been for that.

Another myth was in regards to the live version of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" by Cinderella Backstreet that appeared on the Forced Exposure 45 released in 1987. That single's sleeve stated the song had been recorded live at the Brick Cottage, Cleveland in August 1973 though we eventually discerned it was actually June 24, 1973 at The Cellar, Sandusky, Ohio. It turned out that Cinderella Backstreet had never played the Brick Cottage, though Peter did play there in the spring and summer of 1972 during his stint in the Mr. Stress Blues Band and as well with his brief fall 1973 band Blue Drivers. We later discovered that the wrong date and venue had come out of a fanzine, and the publisher/writer of said fanzine had told me he had made a wild guess as to when and where the recording was from.

Through interviews with the other members of Cinderella Backstreet and numerous ads and references to the band Andrew located in publications such as Scene, we determined that Cinderella Backstreet had broken up by the end of June 1973. Archival searches revealed that Peter had placed classified ads in the Plain Dealer for two weeks during July 1973 listing the band's PA for sale following the group's split, and the band's former soundman, Pat Ryan, confirmed that the specs listed in the ads matched what he had used during the band's existence.

The last thing we found was that the chaotic end of the song was actually a piece called "Call The Ambulances" (plural) which Charlotte Pressler's archival notes stated had been written by the band's Mellotron player Cynthia Black.

In regards to Peter's general history, there are still some facts that are disputed or up in the air, and some disagreements among the various parties involved as to when and where certain things took place, or even as to what exactly went down. This is, as most folks probably realize, is par for the course when working on something like this as much of history and memory are perception and interpretation. I have grown quite fond of "The Rashomon Effect" (named for the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film) which one can use when you cannot discern exactly what the actual truth is. Using this method, you present all versions of the story you that have been given/relayed to you and, upon presenting them all, you let the reader decide and/or the words dictate what the truth may be.

Dispelling such myths was also one of the main reasons why I wrote Let Me Take You To The Empty Place: An Incomplete Story of Peter Laughner and Television (which I was overjoyed was approved by the Peter Laughner estate). The piece has been revised as new information has come to light since its initial publication on Aquarium Drunkard in 2016 and will see a re-release at some point this year.

Q: What was the most thrilling discovery from your research?

Nick: A single cassette that a friend of Peter's had which yielded five previously unknown 4-track demos by Peter and the last surviving complete recording of Allen Ravenstine's "Terminal Drive." Three of the five Peter demos appear on the box set, and four of the compositions were previously unknown to us. The fifth, "Lullaby", which appears in a different version on the summer 1976 session with Albert Dennis (which also yielded "Baudelaire" and "Sylvia Plath," among others), was nevertheless a completely different solo recording. There were other thrilling discoveries, but this one cassette seems to have yielded the most earth-shattering stuff.

Q: What were the criteria you used to make your selections? 

Nick: There were a lot of different factors, but in terms of selection, we knew there were certain things we wanted to definitely release, such as the sonic upgrade of Nocturnal Digressions and some of the aforementioned uncirculated demos. Sound and performance quality were key as well. For example, while there are some stunning performances and unique covers on the numerous tapes of Peter and the Wolves live at the Bottleworks in early 1976, the sound quality of these recordings was consistently poor, despite us having some of the master cassettes.

There were some disagreements among the team about tracks some wanted over others, and I personally felt that we should not include certain recordings that had already been released a number of times before (unless the sound quality of what we had was a significant improvement, which in many cases it was). Thankfully I was overruled on that! I won't get into what I had hoped for inclusion that did not make the cut. However, I will note that we had enough material to easily do a ten LP/CD box set with a 200 page book.

Q: From the earliest recordings here, Peter emerges as a fully formed performer. What do you see as the keynotes of his style?

Frank Mauceri: I like to think of his early work as that of a fully informed performer. He very much matched the popularity of the time. While listening to Fat City Jive (Disc One of the box set), think about the popular style of movies of 1972 and 1973. What’s Up Doc, The Sting, Paper Moon, lots of westerns and period pieces. Peter’s originals on that entry would have fit quite nicely into the soundtracks of those films.

Nick: Peter was a sponge. He seems to have listened to everything he could get his hands on in terms of folk, blues, rock, and jazz, and soaked up as much of it as he could without bursting at the seams. He is so often portrayed as merely a proto-punk gunslinger who lived fast and died young, and while this is partially true, it is only one part of the total picture of who Peter Ravenscroft Laughner actually was.

This is a guy who was playing Velvet Underground covers with his high school band...while the Velvet Underground were still together! This is also a guy who as a 19-year-old kid was playing lead guitar in the Mr. Stress Blues Band, a slot that had been previously held by the likes of Glenn Schwartz (James Gang/Pacific Gas & Electric), Kenny Klimak (Dr. John), and James Emery (The String Trio of New York), along with local heroes Chuck Drazdik, Donny Baker, and Chip Fitzgerald. Peter also made great use of Gibson ES and Fender Stratocaster guitars, Fender amps hot-rodded with JBL speakers, and the Morley Fuzz Wah pedal.

Since he was such a chameleon, it's somewhat difficult to sum up Peter's style succinctly. Despite this, while it's fair to say he arrived at his own style around late 1974 in such a way that one could easily point to and say, "Yep, that's Peter," he never stopped learning, listening, and evolving. It should also be noted that Peter wrote "Amphetamine," "Baudelaire," "Cinderella Backstreet," "Down At The Bar," "I'm So Fucked Up," "Life Stinks," "Sylvia Plath," and the words to "Ain't It Fun" all before he was 24.

Q: Peter was ahead of the curve in working with strong female musicians. Did anyone you interviewed comment on that?

Nick: It's something that has been a constant acknowledgement since Andrew Russ and I started researching Peter in the 1990s. I can't really think of any other male musician in the years Peter played (1965-1977) who did the same for women musicians in their bands who were not merely singers and/or dancers. One could cite Bo Diddley here, but he did it to a much lesser degree.

Q: The sound on this set is phenomenal, given the sources you had to work with. Can you give any insight into what the mixing/mastering process was like?

Nick: That is all due in thanks to the pre-mastering/restoration and mastering team.

Sam Habash, who does our pre-mastering/restoration, is truly magic, and we've worked with him on every release starting with the Mr. Stress Blues Band Live At The Brick Cottage 1972-1973 LP/CD. Working with him is always an utter joy, and he also comes out of the old bootleg tape trading circles. Sam and I essentially "speak the same language" which is extremely crucial when working on projects such as these. (Sam and I were introduced to each other by the same mutual friend, former KDVS-FM DJ Mike Siou, who connected me to Andrew Russ all those years ago. At this point I owe Mike big time!)

The same is also true for Jeff "The Wizard" Lipton -- whom I also met through bootlegging circles -- and Maria Rice of Peerless Mastering. They do absolutely stunning work and when I listened to the finished masters, I have to admit I cried.

We used to use the late Paul Hamann for mastering prior to his untimely death in 2017. Paul worked out of his historic SUMA studio in Painesville, Ohio, which was started by his late father Ken in 1977. Just about every Pere Ubu album from Dub Housing forward was recorded at SUMA, among so many other important recordings, so it's very holy ground.

Working with Paul was a very different experience than working with our current team; not negative, but I know I drove Paul crazy a lot of the time -- partially because he could never figure out why I wanted to dig through the tape library so badly! Because his experience far outpaced mine, Paul and I sometimes needed a "translator" such as [original Pere Ubu drummer] Scott Krauss, who was so crucial when we were working on the Hy Maya release. Paul did truly awesome work, and it was a gift to be able to work with him closely on these releases. After Paul died, we began working with Peerless, who I had personally worked with in the past and always been incredibly happy with. SUMA, by the way, is still operating but under different ownership.

Q: As you point out, the writing Peter did for Creem was just the tip of the iceberg. I particularly enjoyed his "Gatherin' Crop" columns. Is there more of this stuff out there? Is there a physical repository of the Laughner archives?

Frank: Smog Veil does continue to collect Peter’s works, including his writings, which I think in the end, will number equally in volume with his audio recordings. The archive, both physical maintained in the Smog Veil offices and digital maintained by our research team of Nick Blakey and Andrew Russ and myself, contains numerous examples of Peter’s writings not included in the box set book. These include columns, reviews, and features written for various free weeklies, as well as original poetry, essays, and letters. What we do with these things is still a matter of discussion, but at some point, I hope to make these available at a research library. Peter very much wanted to be known as a writer, and wrote about those desires in his seven-page college entrance essay.

Q: Having spent over a decade with Peter, how would you assess his importance?

Nick: I think Peter's greatest importance was as a catalyst and centering point for much of the Cleveland underground during the time he was alive. This is, mind you, my retrospective view, and I was not there at the time. I know that several folks in Cleveland had nothing but disdain for Peter, and some of them have even put that in print.

Regardless, his influence continues to be felt after his death, be it directly, such as the undeniable impact he had upon The Pagans, or indirectly, via his former bandmates in the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu coming to international prominence with repertoires that included numerous songs that they had done and/or wrote with Peter. That Peter's influence continues to flow through these bands to this day (as Cheetah Chrome is touring again with a new version of the Dead Boys), 42 years after his death, is frankly incredible.

Besides the ones you mentioned earlier, songs that Peter wrote, co-wrote, and/or played on the original versions of have been covered by such folks as Pearl Jam and Bullet LaVolta ("Sonic Reducer"), Peter Murphy and Living Colour ("Final Solution"), Death of Samantha ("Sylvia Plath"), and Mary Lou Lord ("Cinderella Backstreet").

In regards to the Cleveland underground of the '70s, while electric eels/X__X and Mirrors/Styrenes tend to be the best known, we've emphasized that there must also be an acknowledgement of Robert Bensick's various bands (such as Hy Maya and Berlin West), Orville Normal (who we are still digging up recordings by), and later shots in the arm such as Wild Giraffes, Lucky Pierre, and Don Young's Production. Also of great importance are the Akron bands such as Bizarros, Devo, Rubber City Rebels, and Tin Huey. Cleveland's Jimmy Ley and Kent's 15-60-75 aka The Numbers Band, while both playing more traditional hard blues in the same realm as the Mr. Stress Blues Band and Robert Jr. Lockwood, must be cited as they were both heroes of Peter's.

To echo something I stated earlier, not a bad legacy for a guy from the Cleveland suburbs who didn't live to be 25 and whose only record releases while alive were the two Pere Ubu 45s he appears on. As, again, his influence is still being felt, his importance in relation to American music and the subsequent cultural landscape will hopefully be cemented (at last) with the release of this box set...or at least, we hope so.

Q: Does Smog Veil have further plans to document the '70s Northern Ohio underground? Will there be another Platters du Cuyahoga series?

Frank: Yes, we have completed preliminary work on Platters du Cuyahoga series 3 and I plan to release that sometime in 2020.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Mark Dresser Seven's "Ain't Nothing But A Cyber Coup and You"

In the past couple of weeks, I've read online Rolling Stone articles (penned by Hank Shteamer, possibly the last jazz critic left in America) on Andrew Cyrille (Vision Festival recognition) and Anthony Braxton (new improv 4CD on Firehouse 12 with a quartet that includes Nels Cline), causing me to wonder, "Is 'free jazz' become mainstream, at long last?"

Coincidentally, this occurred at a moment when I'm re-reading Graham Lock's 1988 Braxton tome Forces In Motion and awaiting the arrival of a copy of Brax's 2007 improv 4CD on Clean Feed with Joe Morris. Exploring Braxton and Morris' catalogs is a daunting endeavor, as both cats release so many records. But that, I suppose, is what a prolific artist does who has the means, and desires to document their compositions, collaborations, and evolution. I've seen Clean Feed take it on the chin from online comment-posters over the ostensible lack of quality control in their burgeoning catalog, but unless one objects to the idea of artists being able to publish their work, I would consider it a service and listen to something else if I'm not interested.

Then the USPS dropped a new Clean Feed release, including this disc, at my door -- a further synchronicity, for Mark Dresser was the bassist in Braxton's longest-lived (and, many would argue, best) quartet, whose 1985 tour of the UK forms the centerpiece of Lock's book. The curiously-titled Ain't Nothing But A Cyber Coup and You is the follow-up to 2016's Sedimental You, also produced by David Breskin (whose work with Ronald Shannon Jackson, Nels Cline, and Kris Davis I've cherished), and is as politically-themed as its predecessor. I take the taut, tense title track as a reference to the 2016 US presidential election, the circuitously shifting "Let Them Eat Paper Towels" as an expression of outrage at our government's malign neglect of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria, and the somber "Embodied in Seoul" (besides the Johnny Green allusion) as a comment on our president's dalliance with the despot across the DMZ.

Those tracks are introduced by solo bass interludes by the composer, heavy on extended techniques, and bookended by two tributes to a couple of Dresser's late SoCal homies: "Black Arthur's Bounce" in honor of altoist Arthur Blythe (buoyed by Jim Black's loose-limbed fatback groove, with multi-reedist Marty Ehrlich invoking Blythe's wide range and vibrato), and the elegiac "Butch's Balm" for pianist-arranger/ex-Sarah Vaughan accompanist Butch Lacy. The ensemble's basically the same as last time, with the exception of new violinist Keir Gogwilt. These virtuosi -- including ex-AACM president Nicole Mitchell on flute (dig her on the luxuriously melodic "Gloaming"), Michael Dessen on trombone, and Thelonious Monk competition finalist Joshua White on piano -- all make beautifully expressive contributions to Dresser's pieces. It's a testament to the continuing vitality of this music, and gives me hope that more than a select handful of its creators will receive the wider recognition their creativity richly deserves.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pinkish Black's "Concept Unification"/Magma's "Zess"

As happy accident would have it, new albums by Pinkish Black (Fort Worth's very own heavy progressive experimental duo) and Magma (the French operatic prog outfit who were a formative influence on Pinkish Black's drummer-synthesist Jon Teague back when he was in Yeti, 20-odd years ago) dropped on the same date this year, allowing your humble chronicler o' events to listen to and contemplate both records side-by-side. (Teague says he was mortified to learn that Magma drummer-mastermind Christian Vander heard a Pinkish Black track and pronounced the music "too dark.")

In the run-up to recording Concept Unification -- Pinkish Black's fourth album in their nine-year existence and their second for Relapse Records -- both of the band's members had been focused on composition: singer-keyboardist Daron Beck via his work on the soundtrack for the documentary The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story, Teague through developing material for his solo synth project Zeitmorder. As part of their pre-production process, they set about updating and completing a couple of song ideas that had been around since their previous incarnation as The Great Tyrant. During the sessions, they actively collaborated with ace engineer Britt Robisheaux to capture the details and nuances of their sound.

The result is the strongest set of material they've written yet, electronics that are integrated more musically than ever before, and a recording that better approximates the precisely controlled and channeled force of a live show. Indeed, "Until" is the most bone-crushing rock we've heard to date from a band that often gets characterized, not entirely accurately, as "doom metal." The first single from the album, "Dialtone" -- a comment on the extinction of familiar technology -- is surprisingly engaging to the ear, a pop song veiled in dark menace (or perhaps anomie has just become more commonplace in the last couple of years).

Turning the record over, "Inanimatronic" sounds unusually ethereal, while the 12-minute album-closing opus "Next Solution" is a masterpiece, and possibly the best thing these guys have done.  It starts out with a simple piano theme that gets developed with mounting intensity and choral grandeur, building tension that's released by a pummeling riff that recalls the one from Magma's "De Futura," until the theme returns for a triumphal closing restatement. Teague's fills on the track are worth the price of admission by themselves.

While the best way to hear Concept Unification is on sweet, sweet vinyl, be sure to use that download card, which will give you two additional, synth-only songs that don't appear on the LP. "Away Again" surrounds Beck's voice with shimmering waves of crystalline texture, while "We Wait" drives so relentlessly that it's easy to forget there are no drums on the track. Here Beck's voice -- this band's most underappreciated element, operating as it does in a register most Americans have forgotten exists -- rides higher than usual in the mix, where it belongs.

It's not hard to see how Magma's celestial jams -- a blend of jazz-rock and 20th century classical influences, featuring choral vocals, with lyrics depicting a sci-fi mythos and sung in a Germanic-sounding invented language -- would appeal to musos like Pinkish Black's Beck and Teague, obscurantist connoisseurs with their own strong aesthetic. Indeed, as The Great Tyrant, they recorded a cover of Magma's "Weidorje."

Zess has been a long time coming: originally composed in 1977, performed live from 1979 to 1983, revived in 2005 in a version that's DVD-available on Mythes et Legendes, Volume IV and viewable online here. But Vander always held off on recording the piece -- his vision of the end of existence -- because he felt it was incomplete. Until now.

The studio version of Zess was recorded in four sessions toward the end of last year by a stripped-down lineup of guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums (the latter played by ex-Zappa acolyte Morgan Agren, leaving Vander free to concentrate on singing), a seven-voice chorus (including Stella Vander, Christian's wife, who also sings solo), and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. All told, the piece (divided into seven movements that flow seamlessly together) runs around the same length as A Love Supreme and What's Going On, which is appropriate, because that's the league it belongs in. For beneath the Magma mystique, the apocalyptic visions, and the harsh, guttural sound of the Kobaian language, this is Gallic soul music.

The invocation ("Da Zeuhl Wortz Dehm Wrennt") that Vander sings in French following the orchestral-choral introduction is nothing less than a hymn of gratitude to the "master of the forces of the universe." The unifying motif that underpins the piece is a two-chord vamp straight out of Coltrane (Vander's musical deity). Vander's rhythmic Kobaian vocalismo on "Di Woohr Spraser" has an ecstatic quality, halfway between scat singing and speaking in tongues. Variations on the theme follow, alternating between the orchestra, the solo singers, and the chorus, who wind up singing "Sanctus, sanctus" as the climax approaches, while Vander testifies like a Kobaian Holiness preacher. "Dumgehl Blao" provides a soul-cleansing valediction, with choral interjections echoing on high. Oblivion never sounded so inviting.

Now, will someone please play Monsieur Vander "Next Solution?"

Monday, June 03, 2019

Oak Cliff, 6.2.2019

I go back a long way with Nils Lofgren, whose career spans 50 years -- since he set out from his native DC for California with his band, aged 17 -- and by whom I was inspahrd to pick up a guitar  48 years ago, when I saw him exploding out of my mother's TV (a few months after I'd witnessed the Stooges' iconic Cincinnati appearance via the same medium). It was a PBS special about Nils' mentor, the late, tormented guitar genius Roy Buchanan, and in the show's closing ten minutes, 19-year-old Nils took the stage to jam on Junior Walker's "Shotgun" and proceeded to blow his august elder away with the cockiness of a hot youngster just beginning to find his power, overplaying with the adrenaline-driven urge to be exciting. The memory of it remains burned into my synapses, so when I heard he was bringing a full band to The Kessler -- my favorite listening room -- I knew I was going to have to be there.

By the time the Buchanan TV show aired, Nils had already played piano on Neil Young's After the Gold Rush (turns out the secret ingredient in "Southern Man" was a polka beat injected by former accordion nerd Lofgren, a story he told with great relish at the Kess); he'd also add crucial piano and guitar damage (dig his Djangoesque solo on "Speakin' Out") to Neil's blasted masterwork Tonight's the Night. (And you must see the 1982 video -- Youtube available, I do believe -- of Nils with Neil in Berlin during the Trans era, where he functions as much as a dancer as a musician.) More recently, he's filled out the Crazy Horse lineup when Poncho Sampedro was unable to play.

With his early '70s trio Grin, Nils showed he had the goods as a singer-songwriter, whether rockin' ("White Lies," "Moontears") or mellow ("Lost A Number"). He then had the misfortune to be signed to A&M as a solo artist at the same time as the more marketable Peter Frampton was doing the same gig. (My buddy Geoff from Philly, who Knows, swears that if they'd released Nils' 1975 "authorized bootleg" Back It Up!! instead of 1977's less stellar Night After Night, it might have been a different story. He once sent me a VHS tape I still treasure, with the '71 "Shotgun" along with two mid-'70s Old Grey Whistle Test sets that show off solo-era Nils to his best advantage.) Lofgren went on to spend 30 years as third guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, after playing the best guitar solo ever to appear on a Springsteen record on "Tunnel of Love" back in '87. Like his longtime employer, he's a hell of a raconteur, a talent which served him well through 15 years of solo acoustic gigs that culminated in this year's band tour.

The occasion for said tour is the release of Blue With Lou, a set of Lofgren originals, half of which were co-written with the late Lou Reed back in '79, when Bob Ezrin was co-producing the album Nils for Lofgren and suggested that he contact former Ezrin client Reed for lyric-writing assistance. The result was 13 Lofgren-Reed songs, three of which appeared on Nils, two on Reed's The Bells, and three on subsequent Lofgren projects. Nils' current touring band -- journeyman drummer Andy Newmark, bassist Kevin McCormick, and E Street Band singer Cindy Mizelle -- is the same one that appears on the record, augmented by his brother Tom Lofgren on keys and second guitar. They're all stupendous.

The new songs they played work off percussive, Stones-y blues riffs that Lofgren cranks out on a customized Strat (only two knobs!) he wields at an unconventional angle to accommodate his idiosyncratic picking technique -- he uses a thumbpick and damps the strings with his index finger to create chiming harmonics -- employing a clean tone which he dirties up with effects for his solos. At times he sounds like he's using a slide, but it's all in his hands (and no vibrato arm, either). Or he'll use the volume control on his guitar to mask his pick attack (a trick he picked up from Buchanan). At this point, Lofgren's become a Zen master like Jeff Beck, but he still gets a laugh with a story about him and his high school guitar buddies trying to figure out what fuzzbox Keith Richards and Hendrix used, buying the pedal, "and it still didn't sound right."

Lou's lyrics ranged from altruistic ("Give") to hard-nosed ("Don't Let Your Guard Down"), while Lofgren demonstrated he's no slouch with "Too Blue To Play" (the tale of a traumatized war veteran who'd be at home in the darkness on the edge of Springsteen's town) and "Rock Or Not" (which casts a sardonic eye on the times we're living in). The rest of the set drew from the length and breadth of Lofgren's catalog, from the very first Grin LP ("Like Rain") to 1991's Silver Lining (the ebullient "Walking Nerve" that opened the set, and the tender "Girl In Motion," which Lofgren preceded with a story about his own sobriety and 20-years-and-counting marriage). "Big Tears Fall" from 1985's Flip provided a strong feature for Mizelle, after which Lofgren -- on piano -- essayed the version of Carole King's "Goin' Back" that was a highlight of his eponymous debut LP. And my ears perked up when the '77 FM radio staple "I Came To Dance" emerged from a singalong jam on the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone."

After an hour and 45 minutes, Lofgren and band vacated the stage, only to return momentarily for the de rigueur encore "Shine Silently" (co-written for Nils with Ezrin studio mainstay/Detroit guitar legend Dick Wagner); my buddy and I figured that after playing decades of three-and-a-half hour shows with Springsteen, this was Nils' light work. Then we had to bounce back to Fort Worth, but it was an evening well spent with Mr. Lofgren. Maturity -- and the humility it can bring -- becomes him.