Friday, July 21, 2017

Obsolete artifacts, or "What's in my CD player"

Doctor Nerve - Every Screaming Ear: Imagine FZ's Waka Jawaka/Grand Wazoo or In NY bands, except there are no stupid "funny" songs to sit through, and all they play is charts that begin where "The Black Page" left off in complexity and mania, occasionally attaining Beefheartian levels of jagged contrapuntal angularity. Yum! Nice non-reverential cover of Don's "When It Blows Its Stacks," too. Doctor Nerve mastermind Nick Didkovsky is also a participant in...

BONE - Uses Wrist Grab: A long distance power trio, one of whose members didn't meet the other two until after this was completed. You wouldn't know it from the way they lock in on these complex and challenging compositions -- for contrary to the image "power trio" suggests, this is a composer's record. Here, Didkovsky covers bases from metallic skree to percussive thunk, while bassist Hugh Hopper reminds us why his era was Soft Machine's most compelling.

Nick Didkovsky - Binky Boy: On which the composer explores -- on his overdubbed lonesome, in tandem with Mark Stewart, and (on the gorgeous Crimsonoid chamber music of "Black Iris") with the other members of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet -- the myriad musical possibilities of the electric guitar. Comparisons being odious, I'll listen to this as often as I do to Nels Cline's similarly conceived Coward (a lot). Didkovsky's also on...

Henry Kaiser/Robert Musso - Echoes for Sonny: On which the Bay Area avant-gardist and NYC muso-producer render tribute to the letter and spirit of the estimable six-string saxophonist's law, via covers of his tunes from Ask the Ages and Guitar (both of which are essential), as well as collective improvs with Didkovsky, bassist Jesse Krakow, and drummer Weasel Walter. A brisk, bracing free-jazz skronkaroll melee.

Thinking Plague - Hoping Against Hope: Leader-guitarist Mike Johnson comes across more like a modern composer using rock instruments than your typical '70s-reverential progster. One reason is his tonal palette, in which the acoustic sounds of woodwinds and piano carry much thematic weight, although here, Bill Pohl's fleet-fingered guitar replaces the piano. Also, the lyrics Elaine Di Falco sings are attuned to the troubled times in which we live, and the closing "A Dirge for the Unwitting" is simply a masterful achievement.

Soft Machine - Live at the Paradiso: As they shed founding members, their focus shifted from psychedelic whimsy towards jazz. Their second LP represented the best balance of their "song" and "jam" impulses; Robert Wyatt's biographer got my attention by highlighting this good-sounding boot as a more aggressive rendition of many of those songs. It ain't Third, but I didn't miss the horns, either. Jazz-rock improv powerful enough to rival Cream, the Hendrix Experience, and '73-'74 King Crimson. Speaking of which...

King Crimson - Epitaph, The Night Watch, and The Collectable King Crimson Volume One: Got my tickets! While I'm waiting for the show, these comps of live recordings are my favorite way to hear 'em. Epitaph demonstrates that the '69 lineup left more blood on the stage than you could hear in the grooves of In the Court... (they encored with "Mars" from Holst's "The Planets" to show they weren't fooling), while portions of The Night Watch and The Collectable...Volume One wound up on Starless and Bible Black and USA.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Things we like: King Crimson, Bill Pohl

All I ever need is something to look forward to. Now, it looks as though I've got a couple: King Crimson will play a rare Dallas date on October 21 (tickets go on sale July 24 at 10am CDT here, and prog-igal (see what I did there?) son Bill Pohl will be visiting Fort Worth from Colorado at the end of July, and has a couple of shows booked.

The publication of David Weigel's The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Progressive Rock started a lot of teapot tempests, if Facebook comment threads I've read are an indication. Prog's been taking it on the chin since the advent of punk, but its adherents are as fervid as metal's, and equally insular. Myself, I haven't read Weigel yet, and probably won't until my public library gets a copy; I can't see shelling out for a tome that has ELP and Rush among its subjects. But don't take me for a hater. This month, I'm rolling with Crimson and Thinking Plague (the band Bill joined after moving to the Rocky Mountain State, whose new album I finally bought after Bill told me they aren't touring this year) in the car, and spinning Doctor Nerve, Henry Cow, Soft Machine, and Robert Wyatt at la casa.

Back in the day, I might have found ELP's air-spinning drumkit and Rick Wakeman's wizard's cloak over-the-top, but I thought the same thing about Mott the Hoople's marionettes (when I saw them on Broadway). As one who grew up listening to German opera at pain-threshold volume every weekend courtesy of my old man, I was less taken with conservatory cats who brought classical repertory into the rock arena packaged as spectacle (not that there's anything wrong with that) than I was with the sturm und drang of the Who, Hendrix, and the like. That said, I owned all the prog recs that were typical of a rock-obsessed teen of my place and time (Long Island, '70s): The Yes Album and Close To the Edge (which made better architecture inside my "experienced" brain than the Allmans at Fillmore East, even); Thick As A Brick; In the Court of the Crimson King and Red.

Crimson I loved best of all. Even at its most stately and majestic ("In the Court...," "Starless," "Exiles"), their music carried a sense of dread and menace via Robert Fripp's distorto guitar and the spectral sound of the mellotron -- a keyboard-operated tape replay device that the Crims had the audacity to carry on the road in spite of its temperamental character. Fripp himself, a classically-trained former dance orchestra muso who looked for all the world like a small town schoolmaster, was the most thoughtful and philosophical of music-makers, plus a good writer to boot, as anyone who read his '80s scrawl in Musician magazine can attest.

The original '69 Crimson lineup, which exploded out of nowhere and lasted less than a year, was probably the most alchemical; the '73-74 lineup, anchored by the "flying brick wall" (Fripp's words) riddim section of John Wetton and Bill Bruford, was probably the most adept at improvising. Even in the '80s, with Adrian Belew up front "ruining things" (Jon Teague's words), they were capable of something like "Requiem" from 1982's Beat, on which Fripp and Belew came as close as any guitarists have to replicating the sound John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders made together.

In recent days, I've become quite enamored of 2003's The Power To Believe, featuring a better integrated Fripp and Belew, along with a new "flying brick wall" (Trey Gunn and Pat Mastolotto). The current touring octet includes Mastolotto as one of three, count 'em, three drummers along with returning veterans Tony Levin (bass) and Mel Collins (sax). Setlists I've seen span the band's entire trajectory, including some surprises. This is probably my last chance to see them (which I haven't yet). Now all I need is a ticket.

Closer to home, Bill Pohl has an improv gig (billed as "The Art Five Live at Art 5") booked at Arts Fifth Avenue on Friday, July 28. He'll be joined there by Eddie Dunlap on drums and Joe Rogers on keys -- making this a de facto embedded Master Cylinder reunion -- plus Chris White on brass and flute, and estimable youngster Canyon Cafer on 7-string bass. Then on Saturday, July 29, Bill will play an Allan Holdsworth set at Lola's with Cafer and Christopher "Chill" Hill. Headlining that night will be Big Mike Richardson, who'll perform Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow in its entahrty, accompanied by usual suspects like Ron Geida, Lee Allen, Tyrel Choat, Steve Hammond, and the aforementioned C. Hill. (If I make the latter date, as I intend to, it will be my first time hearing Big Mike -- whose name I first heard from Bill and Kurt Rongey, some 15 years ago -- play electric. Shame on me.)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

7.15.2017, Fort Worth

It was a night of singers.

Transistor Tramps played their first show in five years at Lola's Saloon last night, on a bill with Panic Volcanic and Dead Vinyl. Three bands I want to see playing five minutes from mi casa is sufficient cause for me to venture out, so I headed over there a little after nine and was surprised (again, I don't get out much) at the number of cars parked on the street so early. Some of 'em were probably from Lola's Trailer Park (where a big TV screen had the sports on all night, rather than in the saloon -- good move, Brian Forella!), but both of the support bands are big draws, I gather. However it came about, a good house to start out with.

I'd seen Ansley-The Destroyer Doughtery for the first time a few weeks earlier, singing covers with Frank y los Frijoles in the Trailer Park while I was trying to sell records with Carl Pack at the Rock and Roll Rummage Sale. With Panic Volcanic, she was Something Entahrly Other: comparisons being odious, imagine Janis Joplin (minus the rasp, but with lots of power, projection, and presence) fronting the Grand Funk Railroad riddim section. (Offstage, I was surprised to note that she's quite diminutive, rather than the amazon I was expecting.) Behind her, drummer Chris Cole and bassist Zach Tucker (about whom more later) flailed 1970-length hair while kicking up a ruckus like Don and Mel at the Cincinnati Pop Festival. Stirring stuff. They release their second album at Main at South Side on August 4.

Dead Vinyl's trip is also replete with '70s referents, and they get bonus points for opening with Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" and closing with Elvis' "You're So Square (Baby I Don't Care)." Before he opens his mouth, frontman Hayden Miller comes across like a slacker Everykid, but put him on the mic and he campaign shouts like a Southern diplomat, with showmanship to spare. His band plays sweaty boogie rock with sass and swagger, like a less inhibited Free or post-Smokin' Humble Pie. Guitarist Tyler Vela channels Page and Kossoff with a brittle tone reminiscent of the Red 100s' Raul Mercado, while bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jeremy Diaz of Dead Sexy fame. In the engine room, the aforementioned Zach Tucker is joined by Parker Anderson, with whom he also plays in Animal Spirit and whom I first saw playing with Eddie Dunlap's Mondo Drummers a few seasons back. They're all stupendous.

Transistor Tramps returned to the stage after a lengthy hiatus while frontwoman Elle Hurley battled hepatitis-C (read all about it in Steve Watkins' piece here). The band -- Elle's husband Richard Hurley on guitar, keyboardist David Sebrind, and drummer Jason Sweatt, plus new backup singers Angie Ntavyo and Morgan A'lyse Gardner -- reconvened five months ago at the request of Elle and Richard's daughter Chloe for her 18th birthday. Their streamlined sound, a blend of '80s synth pop and late '70s rock without an ounce of excess to be found, serves as a vehicle for Elle's tough chick persona, and she really inhabits the songs she sings, with the backup vocalists giving the proceedings more of a celebratory air. When Chloe joined Elle to sing "Jackie Boy" at the end of the set, it was clear that she inherited her mother's pipes. I'm going to have to dig out my copy of the EP they released before the hiatus. They should be recording again soon.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

A visit to Stoogelandia (via the valley of the Dead) with Maria Damon

Maria Damon is a poetry scholar and Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at NYC's Pratt Institute. She's also, like your humble chronicler o' events, a fan of both the Stooges and the Grateful Dead. Her review of Jeff Gold's Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges As Told By Iggy Pop is in the current print edition of Rain Taxi. We recently chewed the fat online about our shared enthusiasms. I'm leaning; she's standing tall.

K: I am simultaneously amused and mortified that the sole Dead show I attended (Dallas '78) was so lousy that people don't even trade tapes of it. 

M: Yeah, they are the first to admit that they bombed here and there. It's amusing to me that people have such strong feelings about the Dead, both pro and con. I saw them once at the the Greek Theatre at Berkeley, an ideal venue. And I saw the Jerry Garcia Band at the Keystone in Palo Alto, both in 1981, my first year in grad school. Both occasions were excellent.

K: It is interesting the depth of feeling they inspire. Probably only prog rock comes close. I'm an idjit for missing Watkins Glen because my best bud from middle school and I were at some kid's house getting high and jamming endless versions of "Savoy Brown Boogie" and "Smoke On the Water" instead. I read the interview with Steve Silberman where he talks about how transcendent their soundcheck was. 

M: I spent the summer of Woodstock learning to weave, and listening to the festival on the radio. I had been so envious of the whole thing beforehand, but when reports of the torrential rain and the problems it caused came across the "transom" (as it were), I felt relief.

K: I watched news reports of Woodstock with my grandmother in Hawaii, on the same TV where we'd watched the Apollo moon landings a couple of weeks earlier. We didn't share enough language to communicate, but always got along. How bizarre that all must have seemed to her (b. in Japan at the end of the 19th century). Anyway, you're still weaving!

M: Yup, my preferred zone-out activity. The amount of time I devote to emptying my mind ... it takes up most of my day and night, really, but yeah, not through getting high.

K: I always think of the last semester before I dropped out of college as a waste (and a very dissolute time in my life), but that's actually when I learned about musical structure via my roommate forcing me to learn songs off records and play them over and over. If I'd been smart I'd have majored in journalism or English, but I was too chickenshit to commit myself to something where I feared failure...which I'd go on to experience in life anyway.

M: I  also feel very close to the experience of failure even though from the outside one could say I have it easy. I think that's why I love the Stooges and Iggy so much. Their failures were so spectacular and also an integral part of their identity and their strength. I like that zone where failure and achievement are so intertwined that they're hard to tell apart.

K: Something the Dead and the Stooges have in common! Walking that tightrope...

M: Ah yes! Never thought about that, but of course.

K: It's interesting to me that there was a direct linkage between the Beats and early psychedelic culture, including the Dead. And seeing how that translated to the midwest a couple of years later. (Ann Arbor as an extension of Berkeley, MC5 manager/Trans-Love Energies/White Panther honcho John Sinclair as a sort of latter day Beat-Leary amalgam).

M: A psycho-geographic mapping of psychedelic culture. Thinking too about the darkness hovering right around the edges of Jerry Garcia's easy-going funster persona.

K: The terrible tragedy is that the Dead's success destroyed him. He said he wanted to have fun, but carried the weight of all those people's economic need. They became too big for him to quit. In my mind's eye, I see them folding the tent after '74 and him going on to play little bluegrass and jazz gigs around the Bay Area. It's a nice fantasy.

M:  Yes, but I think there's something more. I don't think it was just benevolence and a sense of responsibility that kept him playing instead of resting. I think there was an enormous reservoir of grief that he didn't want to deal with, so he "kept busy," as it were, and then had to medicate to keep up the pace.

K: I think the jump to stadiums changed the essential nature of what they did. The direct communication that was the basis of their gestalt was no longer possible.

M: Yes, the Long Strange Trip documentary touches on that. Jerry always wanted the lights up a little so he could see the people's faces even in the stadia. I mean their individual faces.

K: And the loss of his father and his mother's absence created a big void, no doubt.

M: Yes, on top of the grief of being human.

K: Absolutely. One reason American Beauty resonates for so many is it really is an album about grief and loss. I didn't know why "Box of Rain" and "Brokedown Palace" evoked the emotions they did, but now I have a better idea.

M: Springteen has said that rock and roll is just one long cry: "Daaaaaaad-dyyyyy!"

K: Pretty much. But it changes as we grow older. As art does. But back to Stooges-Dead, I think what electric music offered Jerry was the opportunity to be expressive without the strictures of bluegrass. What he wanted to preserve was the "conversation." He intuited that with acid, they could learn to play together in a way that hadn't been done before. And for awhile, they did.

M: Yeah, I guess acid really worked for them. I was always afraid to find out if I was one of those "mentally unstable" people who really shouldn't do acid, so I played it safe. but I get some of the vibe anyway.

K: By the time psychedelic culture had filtered down to my backwater burgh on Long Island, it had become more of an insular, less of a communal thing. And it fucked up a lot of people I knew, including myself.

M: Yeah, now I'm kinda relieved that I never took the plunge, though I also feel like I missed out.

K: Nothing exceeds like excess. I knew lots of acid casualties. Couldn't listen to Hendrix for a decade after college because of all the ones who fried themselves in the name of being "like" him. Not something to toy with. But...we were children.

M: Yeah. I'm kinda glad I ... well, I'm ambivalent, like I said. But it's too late now. I'm not gonna go out and do it now.

K: Drugs were such a part of my growing up that it's hard to believe that now I wonder, "How many of the changes were from the things you were using, and how many were just...growing up?" I'll never know.

M: You don't need to know I guess... growing up is hard enough...

K: True.

M: I watched part of the Sunshine Daydream film [the document of a '72 Dead concert in Oregon], and it kind of grossed me out. All these blond white kids dancing naked and exposing themselves to melanoma, getting super sunburned, was all I could think. it didn't look ecstatic to me, it just looked stupid and misguided. But the music! For me, it stands on its own. Every year I get into a Jerry groove for a few days, and then something happens to pop me out of it, I think the underlying sadness gets to be too much. It's funny because though the Stooges are said to be "nihilistic," their music is far more life-affirming, ultimately. And of course Iggy is the ultimate survivor, while Jerry succumbed.

K: And that is totally luck of the draw. Ig had his addiction scene when he was young and strong. Jerry, when he was middle aged and pretty sedentary. Plus there's genetics. I find the Stooges pretty life-affirming myself. And a great story of historical validation late in life. The MC5 made a better movie, but the Stooges always win.

M: Yes, so glad Scott and Ron Asheton went out on a high note.

K: The victory lap was probably the last thing the Asheton brothers saw coming. The Stooges were Everykid. Any bunch of corner-loitering hoodlums in America could have done what the Stooges did. But they did it.

M: I think Iggy's ambition and his ability to corral the others into the band had a lot to do with their getting it done...I mean executing the vision, and they really had something pretty unique even if any group of kids could have done it. I really trust Iggy's revelation by the banks of the Chicago River ... it changed rock and roll.

K: Three things to remember: 1) He had some organizational ability (class president). 2) He was a better musician than any of them (drummer in a blues band). 3) He was like their sociologist from Mars -- observed their rituals, wrote songs about 'em.

M: Vice-president. Yes, that was the thing I focused on... the auto-ethnography. What rankled in that book I reviewed: Iggy takes credit for everything.

K: As last one standing, he now owns the story. He was alienated, but they were super alienated.

M: He was their link to the functional world. He used their alienation to fuel his art.

K:  Precisely. He created the frame to present them. Also interesting that they couldn't get a good take without him dancing in the studio. It really was a synergy (as overused as that word is).

M: Yes, it was synergy.

K: Was talking to a friend [Nick Didkovsky] who studied with Pauline Oliveros. He said they did an exercise where all the people in the class held hands and when you felt a squeeze, you squeezed the hand of the person next to you and made a vocal sound. She said there were two ways to do it: to think about it, and to feel it in your guts. It's a neural/spiritual connection -- musical performance as communication without words. Which you can relate to both the Stooges and the Dead. Her whole concept is "deep listening," which requires more than just attention. She relates it to meditative states, and the Stooges were definitely trance musicians. As were the "Dark Star" Dead.

M: Thich Nhat Hanh also uses that phrase but somewhat differently.

K: I re-read your piece, and it got me thinking of an int that Ig did with Detroit DJs Deminski and Doyle the day after Ron died. He sounded as though he was in shock, and mainly wanted to talk about old days. He called Ron "my best friend." After that, he got his game face back on, I guess, before he talked to Jarmusch and the book interviewer.

M: I remember that interview! Very moving and genuine. I think he goes through phases.

K:  As do we all. It was...surprising to hear his vulnerability in that moment. Although it shouldn't have been.

M: Also there was one with Terry Gross where he was very reflective about death, and remarked about Ron, "He knew me." Suggesting that there were fewer and fewer people of whom that could be said. That too was honest and vulnerable.

K:  Yes. I think Bowie taught him to hide behind the persona. Before, he just kind of ate the acid/did the show, and what you saw was what you got. Bowie's lesson enabled him to survive, but came at a cost.

M: Hmm, that's interesting. Do you mean Bowie explicitly "taught" him that, or that Bowie modeled that and it looked good to him?

K: I don't know what conversations they might have had, but he's spoken in interviews of how his time in Berlin with Bowie taught him that lesson. I suspect the modeling was a big part.

M: Oh, that's interesting. I've heard/read interviews in which he talks about Bowie's work ethic, but not that particular element of performance.

K: I think it's all part of a package. Iggy might have been the most "together" guy in the Stooges, but I think being a solo artist requires a different set of skills -- being a personality, rather than a member of a gang.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Things we like: Nick Didkovsky

I was crate-digging at Recycled Books in Denton the other day when I stumbled on a copy of Doctor Nerve's Out To Bomb Fresh Kings LP -- the original US indie release, not the German reissue! -- stuck in the jazz bin. (The estimable Denton muso-broadcaster J. Paul Slavens reminds us that uninitiates often mistake progressive rock for jazz. The very presence of saxophones is enough to trigger this response; add some dissonance, and it's a foregone conclusion.) Doctor Nerve is the band that Nick Didkovsky -- the NYC-based guitarist-composer already known to me as the brains behind the $100 Guitar Project and the Pretties For You NYC band -- has led since 1983. The record's an explosion of high-energy hi-jinks and rock-fueled, funkafied freeblow, activating my Zappa/Beefheart and Soft Machine pleasure centers in the same way as Tin Huey, and inspahring me to hit Didkovsky up for a German CD reish of Doctor Nerve's live '97 career summa Every Screaming Ear. (He's also got reissue CD copies of their weighty '95 opus Skin for them what wants 'em.)

That very night, I was able to catch Didkovsky on a radio show, playing and talking about music from some of his many projects. Didkovsky was a composing member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet (two CDs on the Canadian label Ambiances Magnetiques, plus all the quartet members guest on his solo-with-overdubs album Binky Boy), and played in a power trio, BONE, with ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (two CDs on Cuneiform). His compositional strategies include conducted improvisation and algorithmically-generated composition, using software he developed. Didkovsky studied composition under Christian Wolff, Pauline Oliveros, and Gerald Shapiro, but he's also a dyed-in-the-wool rockarolla who's mastered the emblematic '70s styles of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and Alice Cooper's Glen Buxton; he plays metal with Hassliche Luftmasken and grindcore with Vomit Fist. There's also Petromyzontiformes, a series of electric chamber pieces. Quite an extensive and varied body of work, of which I need to hear more.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Roscoe Mitchell's "Bells For the South Side"

The school of composing improvisers who first came to prominence via their association with Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the '60s and made their mark on the '70s Lower Manhattan "loft jazz" scene before settling into academia in the succeeding decades are now claiming their place among the serious American composers of the 21st century. (One could argue that Ornette did it first, as he did with many things, but it's taken critics a few decades to wrap their heads around the idea that improvisation is just on-the-spot composition.) Anthony Braxton -- whose compositions always unashamedly displayed European influences -- had his McArthur "genius" grant as early as '94. His former trumpet foil, Wadada Leo Smith, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013, before Henry Threadgill, who led a succession of colorful ensembles beginning with Air in the '70s, won the 2016 music Pulitzer.

Roscoe Mitchell might have less name recommendation than some of his peers, since his individuality was subsumed for years in what my friend Charles Young calls the "communal ethos" of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a cooperative group with several composers that was known for its Afrocentric costuming and ritualistic, theatrical performances. But the Art Ensemble started out as Mitchell's band, as documented on records like 1966's Sound and 1968's Congliptious. On 1977's Nonaah, he could be heard transforming a confrontational solo improvisation into an intricate ensemble piece, and with the following year's L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples, he was blurring the lines between composed and improvised musics. Where Threadgill's Pulitzer-winning album, In For A Penny, In For A Pound, was a chamber music variant of his often carnivalesque earlier sound, and Smith's also-ran, the mammoth Ten Freedom Summers, shifted seamlessly between jazz group and chamber ensemble, Mitchell's Bells For the South Side merges and juxtaposes four trios in ways that showcase every facet of his oeuvre to date.

Mitchell's sidemen come from all over. The first trio teams him with colleagues from the Mills College faculty: percussionist William Winant, who's worked with composers Lou Harrison and John Zorn as well as the rock bands Mr. Bungle and Sonic Youth, and Taiwanese reedman James Fei, an alumnus of Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet. Trumpeter Hugh Ragin, a mainstay of saxophonist David Murray's large groups, was in Mitchell's Sound Ensemble and appeared as "special guest" on Mitchell's album of duets with trombonist-pianist-drummer Tyshawn Sorey, an estimable composer who seems poised to pick up the torch from leading AACM lights like Braxton, Threadgill, and Mitchell. Keyboardist Craig Taborn, a busy leader and sideman in his own right, has been a Mitchell collaborator since the '90s, including two recent trio albums with the British jazz/noise/hardcore/improv drummer Kikanju Baku. Detroiters Jaribu Shahid (bass) and Tanni Tabal (drums) have worked with Mitchell since the '70s in his Sound Ensemble and Note Factory bands.

Bells For the South Side was commissioned for, and recorded during, a 2015 art exhibition commemorating the AACM's 50th anniversary. Each trio performs one piece alone (two, in the case of the Winant-Fei unit) and the musicians are recombined in various permutations for the remaining seven. Mitchell's own multi-instrumental mastery -- to include multiphonics, microtones, and circular breathing -- is matched by his musicians' flexibility, placing a broad tonal and textural palette at the composer's disposal. Besides a multiplicity of reeds, there are high and low brass, keyboards (including two pianos) and electronics, acoustic and electric bass, and the Art Ensemble's percussion array, which rivals Harry Partch's instruments for corporeal beauty and was on display as part of the exhibit.

Among the trio features, "Prelude to a Rose" starts as a doleful lament for wind trio, with Sorey on trombone. Around the three-minute mark, the players' interaction takes on an impressionistic cast, alternately raucous and playful, before returning to the pensive theme. "Dancing in the Canyon" (on which Mitchell shares composition credit with Taborn and Baku -- the only piece here on which he does so) opens with sparse percussion clatter and electronic squiggles which give way to tone clusters and fragments of melody, gradually building to a volcanic intensity that peaks, then abruptly recedes. "Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand" opens with an episode of reflective beauty from Mitchell and Shahid (on arco standup) before Tabbal takes off on an exploration of the timbres of the trap set, then Mitchell unleashes a torrent of tumbling notes, and Shahid and Tabal jump in for a race to the finish. On "Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks" and "R590 Twenty B," Mitchell and Fei trade contrapuntal lines while Winant provides punctuation.

The other pieces are equally variegated, with the sound of surprise often present. "EP 7849," with its long tones and distorted electronic textures, treads on turf staked out in the '70s by progressive rockers King Crimson. The title track is Mitchell at his most minimalist, with Ragin's trumpet crying out plaintively. "The Last Chord" probably packs the most auditory events into the shortest duration (12 minutes, although it's not the shortest piece here), while "Red Moon in the Sky" is an extended soundscape with the gravitas of the Art Ensemble's People In Sorrow. A version of the Art Ensemble anthem "Odwalla" closes out the proceedings, allowing Mitchell to pay tribute to the past while keeping his eyes fixed on the future. Entering his world for the couple of hours and change it'll take you to listen to Bells For the South Side is a trip worth taking.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Grateful Dead's "Cornell 5/8/77"

I'll be 60 later this month, which is when the Japanese say your second childhood begins (although I've long maintained that mine began at 45), and as I am no longer burdened with having to write stuff on spec (although I'll still pen an occasional review if someone sends me something that resonates), I'm free to explore stuff that interests me. The last five years or so, that's included delving deeper than American Beauty into the Grateful Dead canon, a body of work formidable enough to be forbidding to someone whose experience of the band, besides the aforementioned album, was knowing some entitled jerks who were part of their fan base before said fan base became a full-blown industry in the '80s; being impressed by a bunch of townie kids I heard playing "China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider" on a flatbed truck in a park in Albany, NY, one Sunday in the spring of '75; and attending a Dead show so lousy (12/22/78) that fans don't even trade tapes of it, where my Deadhead buddy I'd gone with informed me that the secret to being a Head was "knowing when to wake up" (after he'd slept through more than half the show).

(NB: I say "entitled jerks" in regard to the early Deadheads of my acquaintance because competing to see who could attend the most shows seemed to me, who always seemed to be missing bands I liked because I was broke or had to work, to be a form of conspicuous consumption -- although I'm aware that the Dead's band-audience gestalt was exactly the kind of music-as-locus-for-community that made the Who and their Mod cult, or the MC5's politicized commune, so intriguing to me.)

I recently made a mix CD-R for a curious buddy that included the entahr first side of Anthem of the Sun (which I now view as the great underappreciated American progressive rock album); "Mountains of the Moon" and "China Cat Sunflower" from Aoxomoxoa (the former a beautiful example of the Dead as "song band," particularly with the overdubbed choir that was excised from the '71 remix, and the latter heavier on organ and vocal harmony here than it'd be in its later live "China > Rider" incarnation); "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven" from Live/Dead, once extravagantly hailed as "the finest rock improvisation ever recorded" by Robert Christgau (hey, it was 1969) but nevertheless a good supporting argument for the Dead as the best listening improvisers in rock, and a fine example of the nasty tone Jerry Garcia used to get before he switched from an SG to a Strat; and two tracks from Sunshine Daydream, the released version of the Dead's August '72 stand on the hottest day of the year in Veneta, Oregon (a "Playing in the Band" that's a better candidate for the "finest rock improv" stakes and a "Sugar Magnolia" that's not as good as the one on American Beauty but representative, at least).

The way real Heads like to listen, it seems, is not by album but by show -- recorded with the band's blessing and traded hand-to-hand, fan-to-fan (in this subculture, no money changes hands) -- where the ebb and flow of the performance is part of the total experience. After the death of original rabble rouser Pigpen, this meant alternating between the transcendent moments of conversation-with-instruments that fallen bluegrass muso Garcia and his accomplice in experimentalismo, bassist Phil Lesh, led the band through (flow) with intervals of Garcia or callow kid brother Bob Weir fronting the Dead-as-competent-C&W-and-rockaroll-bar-band (ebb). Once they returned from a brief mid-'70s hiatus, the Dead played ever-larger venues, ultimately becoming the highest-grossing American band while sacrificing their unique sense of connection and communication with their audience. It's ironic that Garcia, the bandleader who just wanted to play and have fun, wound up destroyed by addiction when his band (and the attendant infrastructure) grew too big for him to quit.

Folks in the know say that the show the Dead played at Cornell University's Barton Hall on May 8, 1977, is one of their best, and it's been a popular item among tape traders and in their online archive for years. It captures the Dead at a moment where their musical gestalt was at a peak and they were in a position of having to prove themselves to an Ivy League college audience. Rhino recently saw fit to release it as a triple CD to coincide with the show's 40th anniversary. Now Heads and non-Heads can now enjoy it without having to deal with crappy computer speakers.

(I'll admit to having positive feelings about Cornell -- where the bells rang out Dead tunes to celebrate the show's anniversary -- that date back to my own misspent yoof, when my best buddy from middle school and I used to hitchhike there from the upstate NY farm where he'd moved after 7th grade, there to impersonate college students, buy wine, shoot pool, and shop at the record co-op. Also, my uncle went to Cornell on the postwar GI Bill and lived at Watermargin, an interracial and inter-religious fraternity formed in response to on-campus segregation. He was washing dishes in the kitchen the night Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit.)

The most striking thing about Cornell 5/8/77 on first listen is the astonishing clarity of sound -- the result of their LSD chemist/sound designer Augustus Owsley Stanley III, aka "Bear," hating audible distortion almost as much as he loved distorted perception, and recordist Betty Cantor-Jackson's penchant for placing the listener squarely in the middle of the sound. There's plenty of headroom, and you can hear all the instruments in exquisite detail, even at low volumes (which is how I listen to music at home these days), as the Dead come galloping out of the gate with "New Minglewood Blues," a take on the "Rollin' and Tumblin'" blues trope from their debut LP, here providing Garcia and keyboardist Keith Godchaux with a base from which to spin out lots of intricate lines.

Garcia's guitaring is as redolent of Django Reinhardt as it is of bluegrass -- a certain vibrato he uses, and those half-step bends to the tonic -- and he's one of the great single-coil pickup men, using the "in-between" toggle switch positions as adeptly as Richard Thompson, even venturing into Roy Buchanan territory with his molten-silver bridge-pickup forays on "Loser" here. His voice has the same cry in it as his guitar playing, like a less powerful Richard Manuel. The form on "Deal" from Garcia's first eponymous solo album wouldn't have been out of place in Louis Armstrong's repertoire, reminding us that the Dead were the most American of bands in more ways than just the Western imagery (in both the cowboy and beatnik senses) of their lyrics. The first set also includes Weir's hat-tips to Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard, as well as a few items in a Band or Little Feat groove, culminating in a long "Row Jimmy" that features some slithery slide in standard tuning from Garcia.

The second disc of Cornell 5/8/77 gets down to business with the last song of the first set played at Barton Hall, the disco-inspired version of "Dancing in the Street" that I found intolerable on FM radio when it was new, and which now sounds a little light in the bottom for a band with two drummers. Still, Garcia manages to salvage it with his highly idiosyncratic, envelope filtered lines. (Is there another rock guitarist who can sustain a solo as long? Nope. Not Hendrix, not Beck, not [insert name of your fave here].) The show hits its first peak with the sequence "Scarlet Begonias" > "Fire On the Mountain" that opened the second Barton Hall set. It's a particular favorite of mine; I must have listened to it a hundred times online. All the elements just gel somehow, the open-ended structures of earlier extended jam vehicles like "Dark Star," "The Other One," and the aforementioned "Playin' in the Band" here replaced by Latin jazz rifferama that recalls the (unfounded) rumor that Garcia played on the Champs' 1958 instrumental hit "Tequila." The disc closes with Weir's reggae-flavored "Estimated Prophet," my least favorite song in the Dead canon after the disco "Dancing," and seemingly a firm favorite on the XM radio Dead station, based on the innumerable versions I heard when I had a renter with the service for a couple of months (and whither "Dark Star?"). Again, Garcia's auto-wah excursions save the day, and the tune seems like a period piece from the era when Steely Dan ruled the FM airwaves.

The third disc provides the set's tour de force, as the Dead dust off "St. Stephen" for a stately and majestic rendition that contrasts starkly with the manhandling they gave the song on Live/Dead. Instead of "The Eleven"'s odd-metered romp (replete with distressed Appalachian opera singing to rival the Who's on "A Quick One"), the Dead then segue into "Not Fade Away," riding the same Bo Diddley beat that Quicksilver Messenger Service (whom one wag dubbed "the good-looking Grateful Dead") parlayed into a career. Garcia again stakes his claim on Roy Buchanan's turf, squeezing out stinging lines that throw off high harmonics like sparks, before the group mind takes over and the jam wends its way back to "St. Stephen" for a minute, then into "Morning Dew." That song's vision of a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland is sadly as topical today as it was in '67, and the Dead's plaintive treatment seems more apropos than the Jeff Beck Group's jazzier approach on Truth. Then Bobby takes it out with "One More Saturday Night." Overall, I'd rate the whole third disc as the Dead at their live best.

Being the polar opposite of a completist, I don't feel compelled to hear a ton more Dead shows in their entirety. But when that's what I'm wanting to hear, this is probably the one I'll be reaching for, even more than Live/Dead or Sunshine Daydream. While it's not "all the Grateful Dead music you and your family will ever need," it's one of the five or six things I'd recommend if you're a newb of a mind to check 'em out. As live things go, I love this as much as I love the '69 Velvet Underground and the '64 Mingus band, and that's saying a lot.