Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mark Growden's "Saint Judas"

One of the most striking live performances I’ve ever witnessed took place when postmodern troubadour Mark Growden performed his apocalyptic cabaret act at the late, lamented Wreck Room during the winter of 2003. Weather was bad and the crowd was small, but the composer and multi-instrumentalist held us all in thrall with a highly individuated approach to music making that cut through his music’s folkloric trappings – as though Harry Smith, Kurt Weill, and John Cage had been reincarnated in a single body. He sang into the back of his banjo to generate sympathetic vibrations from its strings, dropped and slapped his lap steel while playing it for percussive effect, and ended the night standing on the bar, serenading the last-call holdouts with his accordion.

More to the point, Growden’s songs packed a mighty emotional wallop that went beyond their visceral immediacy. “Digging Up the Bones” grafted the power of incantation onto a mutant Delta blues. The psychosexual situations depicted in the self-explanatory “Fuck Boy” and “The Nasty” made certain audience members titter nervously as they squirmed in their seats with visible embarrassment. (More recently, he’s downplayed that aspect of his musical persona to avoid being tarred with the “novelty act” brush.) The weary waltz “Inside Every Bird” was transformed into a sing-along for the end of the world.

Now left-of-center music aficionado Billy Wilson -- who originally booked Growden and other Bay Area outsiders like Stan Ridgway, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Extreme Elvis and the Extra Action Marching Band at the Wreck – is bringing him back to Cowtown. In late January, Growden will play a pair of shows at both Lola’s locations: Thursday the 28th in the Stockyards, then Friday the 29th on 6th Street.

The Lola’s dates are part of a “slow tour,” with multiple performances in each city, promoting Saint Judas, Growden’s first studio album in an incredible eight years, which Porto Franco Records is releasing next month. (Copies will be available at the shows, or you can cop now via his website.) At home in San Francisco, he plays concerts in theaters as well as ad hoc, “site-specific” performances; on the road, he’ll play in bars or wherever else he can. He’s even talked about busking on the Stockyards streets before the show on the 28th.

Sure, comparisons are odious, but Growden’s new music invites several. On Saint Judas, he takes ownership of Leonard Cohen’s declamatory blues “I’m Your Man” in the same way as Jeff Buckley did with the poet laureate of somber songcraft’s “Hallelujah.” Like Tom Waits, he’s composed a lot of music for dance, theatrical, and film productions over the years, and he co-produced Saint Judas with engineer Oz Fritz, who did similar honors on the gravel-throated Angeleno’s albums Mule Variations, Alice, and Blood Money. There are no coincidences.

For non-San Franciscans, one of the special pleasures of listening to Growden on disc is the opportunity to hear his full band, which rarely ventures far from the Golden Gate. Not that there’s anything wrong with hearing him with the more stripped down ensembles he brings on the road (particularly the excellent standup bassist Seth Ford-Young, who’s been working with Growden for years), or solo (as he’ll be appearing live this time around). But while such minimal settings showcase his strengths in bold relief, the accompanying musicians on Saint Judas add depth and richness to the songs.

Guitarist Myles Boisen sounds as if he drank long and deep from the blues well; dig the long lunar notes he coaxes from his axe on the opening “Undertaker.” Cellist Alex Kelly blends his sound with Growden’s accordion in the ensembles and solos like a gypsy violinist on the haunting, desolate “Coyote,” which features the most interesting use of children’s voices (as –- what else? -- howling coyotes) since producer Bob Ezrin told his own children that their mother was dead and recorded the resultant chorus of lamentation for Lou Reed’s Berlin.

Percussionist Jenya Chernoff does interesting things with sprung rhythms, while trumpeter Chris Grady makes his horn sing sassy with a full array of slurs, smears, and muted wails. But the most amazing instrumentalist here is Growden himself, blowing a full-blooded baritone sax and playing a gorgeously ethereal flute solo…on bicycle handlebars. His most expressive instrument, though, is a singing voice animated by equal portions of power, pain, and passion, allowing him to inhabit any text he sings the way an actor would.

Listening to the Crescent City jazz fanfare that opens the title track and the loping second line strut that propels that song, “Everybody Holds a Piece of the Sun,” and “Take Me to the Water,” one can’t help but be reminded of the Katrina diaspora. That association is heightened after Growden sings, “If the gates that hold the tears of this world were to open / We’d all be washed away” on “The Gates” (which precedes “Take Me” and is the album’s centerpiece).

The air of despair that hangs heavy over much of Saint Judas is offset by “If the Stars Could Sing” (“…they’d surely sing of you”) -- of all things, a high lonesome country song that reveals a new, tenderly romantic side of Growden – and “Faith in My Pocket,” which starts out with Growden mistaking a trucker’s discarded cigarette for a shooting star and ends up revealing itself as a prayer of sorts. “I’m gonna lay a fat kiss on the cold wet cheeks of Winter / And watch her blush,” Growden sings, and as we enter this sad season, we could do worse than to follow his example.


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