Monday, October 08, 2018

The Ballad of the Occasionals

After the collapse, at the end of 1998, of the blues band I'd put together to get out of the supporting-the-bar-for-three-hours-to-play-three-songs rut of the jams, I had this instrumental R&B band for a minute. I wanted something that could gig small rooms where my being on DUI probation would not be problematic, and I knew the woman who booked bands for Borders. Instrumental because I'd had some static with the previous band's frontman that I wanted to avoid repeating. (When I first proposed the idea to Professor Robert Cadwallader -- whom I met sitting in with Tiny & the Kingpins in Dallas, before he went on to spend many years as James Hinkle's ivory-tinkler -- he exclaimed, "We can't go out there without a singer. They'll kill us!"). R&B because it wasn't rehearsal-intensive, and there was already a bunch of guys who jammed at my duplex in Benbrook every Sunday.

Ron "The Velvet Hammer" Geida taught two of my kids guitar and had played in a rock band called the Civilians. He was from Springfield, Mass., had a nice touch and lots of melodic ideas. He went on to tour Europe with country rockers Jasper Stone, and serve as the resident Jeff Beck simulacrum for years of Wreck Room and Lola's jams. I don't remember how we found Dan Bickmore, who was a corporate attorney from Oregon but had drummed in a Tower of Power-type band there. Later on, Dan and I played alt-country and rock in bands that never got out of the shed before he disappeared back into the ether. Bass was the hardest position to fill. We started out with a guy named Bill (I forget his last name) who was obsessed with Kustom amps. I'd met him sitting in with Dave Anderson's band in Dallas. After timely pause, Bill was replaced by Duke Nishimura, a superior technician with whom I butted heads over his desire to cover the Yellowjackets. Duke in turn was replaced by Ron's buddy Layne McConnell, who'd been in the Civilians.

Besides Borders, we also played one gig at a coffee house in Cleburne, and an audition at 8.0's where Ron was inaudible due to his reluctance to hump a Twin downtown and the foldback weirded us all out to the point of falling apart in the middle of "Pick Up the Pieces." Ron subsequently hustled us another audition at the Flying Saucer, for which Layne was unwilling to rehearse due to the Cowboys being on TV, so I broke up the band after 13 months. Several months later, we regrouped at an open jam hosted by the frontman from the aforementioned blues band and played "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" -- which we'd learned very laboriously over the summer when Ron and I saw the Allmans play it with an extended intro that we copied -- cold. Almost made me wish we'd stuck together. And learned more material.

I ran into Ron a little while ago, and he told me he had some tapes of the band he'd been thinking about digitizing. Daron Beck very kindly consented to do the transfers, and Ron and I were left with the task of listening to four shows, seven sets (one of the sets wasn't recorded) of ourselves, almost 20 years ago -- an exercise that feels a lot like brainwashing. The first show, with Duke on bass, was clearly the best, recording quality-wise, with a good balance between instruments and a definition the others lacked. You could even hear the tonal differences between Ron's 335 and my Telecaster. (Ron solos first until the last three songs, when we pushed the good guitar out front.) I realized, listening, that I played a couple of these songs ("Cissy Strut," "Chameleon") with Lee Allen years later at the Wreck Room, and one ("Rock Me Baby," although not this arrangement) with Lady Pearl Johnson at the Swing Club. Days gone by. Anyway, now there's a little digital home (on Soundcloud) for a band hardly anybody heard, who only lasted for a minute. So there.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Things we like: Self Sabotage Records

Ordering my copy of The Young Mothers' Morose via Discogs, I blundered into the online store of the distributor for awesome Austin indie Super Secret Records and their experimental arm Self Sabotage Records, some of whose wares we carry at Panther City Vinyl, and was rewarded with a stack of other releases I'm just now going through.

On the recent LP Wires, guitarist Jonathan F. Horne and cellist Randall Holt use all the tonal, timbral, and textural possibilities of their respective instruments to create a cinematic music based on density, depth, and repetition. The cello is the predominant solo voice, but both instruments take turns looping arpeggios and ostinatos or daubing colors from an electronic palette. On Knest's Honorary Bachelors of Arts CD -- Self Sabotage's inaugural release from 2015 -- drummer Thor Harris adds his crash, thump, funk, and scintillating tuned percussion to this mixture. The sounds on offer run the gamut from crushing rock to invigorating modern chamber music. Among the latter, my jam is the beguiling "Motes Skate in Shafts of Sun-Raking the Table," which sounds pretty much like what its John Fahey-esque title describes. The propensity for verbose titles carries over to Holt's solo CD, Inside the Kingdom of Splendor and Madness, on which his instrument's lyricism and penchant for long tones come to the fore. Horne also plays on Call It In, a CD of noir-ish rustic rock tunes (really!) by songwriter Sean Morales that we like real much around la casa.

En Las Montanas de Excesos is a half hour plus space rock improv marathon combining the estimable talents of drummer Chris Corsano, bass colossus Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, pedal steel virtuoso Bob Hoffnar, and experimental guitar stalwart Henry Kaiser for a session that's out to lunch -- same place Sun Ra and Hawkwind eat at. Side one of the LP starts out in oddly metered syncopation before heading into galactic meltdown. Side two reintroduces pulse over a gliding Hoffnar ride through an electrical storm and into a celestial drone that hits like Pete Cosey sitting in with Neu! The bassist also has a solo outing, Hong Kong Cab, under the rubric Ingebrigt Haker Flaten's Time Machine that showcases his facility on acoustic and electric instruments as well as apocalyptic noise freakouts. Finally, Victor Lovlorne's eponymous debut CD is all lugubrious melody, sounding for all the world like a minimalist Leonard Cohen as he applies the most skeletal electronic background imaginable to his soul's-dark-night ruminations. I still need to check out the self-titled debut LP from exhalants, who come highly recommended by a Fort Worth muso I respect a lot. But now I'm hip that Self Sabotage is an imprint to watch.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Obnox's "Bang Messiah"

Genre mashups are the thing today, with dub production techniques popping up on pop-country records, and young bands conflating surf, garage, and punk like they were always one thing. Thus, it's unsurprising that Obnox mastermind Lamont "Bim" Thomas has used his prolific solo project away from This Moment In Black History to fuse garage rock and hip-hop. As Living Colour once said, "You ask me why I play this music / Well it's my culture, so naturally I use it." Or as Oliver Lake would have it, "Put all my food on the same plate." It just makes sense for musos to use everything they know, every time out of the gate.

I saw Obnox win over the young Denton crowd -- I realize I'm superannuated for club shows, but this felt like the Children's Crusade -- at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio my last time there before it closed in 2016, in between Bukakke Moms' improv free-for-all and X___X's stately punk jazz (for whom Bim kicked the traps that night). In between sets, he hung out making friends with the young fans behind the club. No star trip here, just DIY-ism at its purest.

Working with producer Steve Albini on Obnox's tenth full-length release, Bang Messiah (after MFKN RMX the Bang Messiah, who provided beats and programming here), Thomas crafted a sonic setting that swaths his live act's lo-fi immediacy in clouds of hallucinatory ambiance. From the jarring disorientation of the backwards groove that kicks open the door on "Steve Albini Thinks We Suck," Bang Messiah juxtaposes P-Funk falsetto vocals with riffs that alternately snarl and thump, veering into sinister video game music ("Baby Godmother") and creepy Barney the Dinosaur referents ("Cream," awash in keyboards), simultaneously evoking Eddie Hazel and Tony Iommi in a single solo ("I Hate Everything") before the "Cosmic Slop" groove of "40th St. Black" reminds us of how far we haven't come since the '70s.

Turn the record over, and "Enter the Hater" bowls you over with retro punk pounding before "Find My Way" carries you off to the arena with its synthesizer hook. "Rally On the Block" pulls you back down to the ground with its super heavy funk, leading into the pulsing throb of "Wake and Quake" and its evocation of '70s Blaxploitation soundtracks. Then descend into the maelstrom of "Off Ya Ass" and its Godzilla-groan cacophony before "Fluss" takes you out with a backwards groove like the one that brought you here. It's a different trip than, say, D'Angelo's Black Messiah, but one worth taking.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

King Brothers' "Wasteland"

Consider the fate of Japanese garage rock in the US: Guitar Wolf, the 5.6.7.8's, and Shonen Knife ghettoized in Noveltyland, and mighty Thee Michelle Gun Elephant -- signed to a major at home, where they played stadiums with ambulances on standby -- releasing their product via obscurantist indies and consigned to slogging around the rawk dumps.

King Brothers have been treading the boards since '97, and while they're unlikely to become as perennial Meercun faves as their countrymen in Boris and Acid Mothers Temple, their new elpee, released by estimable Berlin-based indie Hound Gawd, comes loaded with enough garage grease and grit to enthrall anyone who owns the entahr Estrus Records catalog. (Indeed, the out-of-control slide guitar showcase "Bang! Blues" could be the handiwork of the late, lamented Immortal Lee County Killers.) I'd had it for several days before I was working in the record store, Ted Stern threw it on, and my ears perked up.

A bass-less trio with instrumentation reminiscent of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (whom they namecheck, along with Guitar Wolf, in Wasteland's liner notes), King Brothers have the audacity to rip off the 'orrible 'oo's "Generation" (in "No! No! No!") and close their album with an unironic, harp-driven cover of the Stones' "Sympathy" (somewhere, Brian Jones shakes his blonde locks and laughs), but they're a lot closer to Boris' punky side than they are to Spencer's garage-blues or anyone's idea of "classic rock."

The real story, though, might lie in their lyrics -- sung in Japanese, but helpfully translated on the inner sleeve. They range from the pure nihilism of "No Want"'s "I DON'T WANT ANYTHING...EVERYTHING IS SO DAMNED PRETENTIOUS" to the more nuanced expression of "Break On Through" ("The time you've lost / Did it become a good experience? / But in the end / It doesn't mean anything / If you haven't changed") and this surprising call to action from the aforementioned "No! No! No!":

You can't forgive if you can't forget
If you think it's wrong raise your voice
Stupid things won't change
If you let it go that's THE END. 

Amen, brother. Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Living Colour's "Shade"

Swinging more than a little after the pitch here, but when this album dropped last September, I was preoccupied with other things.

Shade is the first album since Mark Growden's St. Judas and Lose Me In the Sand that I'd watched come together over successive live appearances (in this case, July 2013 and October 2014 at The Kessler). When Living Colour came through Oak Cliff in 2013, I went to see them with composer Curtis Heath and engineer-producer Britt Robisheaux, who'd both been spending time with Living Colour guitarist-mastermind Vernon Reid's old Decoding Society bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson.

It was our sad duty to inform Vernon that Shannon's health was declining, and the titanic drummer-composer would be returning to New York City to undergo treatment for leukemia. But something good came out of it. Back in Staten Island at the end of Living Colour's tour, Reid reached out to everyone Shannon knew in the city, and Shannon's final hospital stay included a great many visitors and reunions. "I can't believe Vernon Reid did that for me," a happy and incredulous Shannon said when he was back in Fort Worth, a few weeks before he passed on October 19. At Shannon's memorial service in Fort Worth, there were two large floral arrangements, one from Reid and one from ex-Decoding society bassist Melvin Gibbs. (Reid, Gibbs, and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun cut a live-in-studio record under the rubric Zig Zag Power Trio in Woodstock back in June.)

Those Kessler shows were highlighted by two covers, which also serve as thematic signposts on Shade -- an album whose concerns include the passage of time, mortality (the included list of musos who died during the album's making is sobering), and roots. Biggie Smalls' controversial and violent street saga "Who Shot Ya?" -- Living Colour's take on which was originally released on a 2016 mixtape in advance of the album -- took on new meaning in the wake of the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by St. Louis police, which occurred just a month after Eric Garner's killing by NYPD. Having watched in horror on my laptop as police fired tear gas canisters into residential neighborhoods in response to community members' protests following Brown's death, it was stirring to hear Corey Glover declaiming "Hands up! Don't shoot" from the Kessler stage -- and the overwhelmingly white, middle-aged audience responding in kind. We couldn't imagine then that the next few years would bring an ever-lengthening litany of police shooting victims, Vegas, Parkland, 3D printable guns, and on and on. Corey being himself, he sings rather than raps, investing the tune with a gospel vibe similar to the extended "testifying" intro he sang before "Open Letter To A Landlord" at the Kessler.

Delta blues legend Robert Johnson's "Preaching Blues" might have seemed out of character for a band of metallic jazz-funk rockers from the hip-hop era -- of which bassist Doug Wimbish, who joined Living Colour in time for 1993's Stain, was an originator, having played in the Sugarhill Records house band -- when they used it to open their 2013 set, but only if one forgot that Reid produced four blues-oriented albums for harmolodic guitar master James "Blood" Ulmer in the '00s, and had planned to do a similar one for Shannon -- whose roughly-sung versions of Jimmy Reed numbers once served as respites in free jazz supergroup Last Exit's raging sets. Living Colour's take on Johnson's classic highlights all four band members' virtuosity over a groove as crushing as history itself. Elsewhere on Shade, "Who's That" reminds us that as a teenage axe-slinger, Reid had his aesthetic formed by Johnny Winter as well as Fripp and McLaughlin, while "Invisible" (shade of Ralph Ellison here?) could be the work of an early '70s blues-rock band like Cactus. Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" -- still sadly on point after 46 years -- serves as a kind of bridge between Biggie and Robert.

Living Colour's lyrics have always reflected the social situation in America at whatever time they were written. Vivid's "Cult of Personality" has seeped back into people's consciousness since the 2016 presidential election, but "Open Letter To A Landlord" predicted this decade's gentrification trend way back in '88. (Who knew when Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was new that the white "urban pioneer" with the bicycle was the future?) "Funny Vibe" and Time's Up's "Someone Like You" depicted the perils of living while black in a way that's still topical, goddammit, while their 2003 release Collideoscope was as redolent of post-9/11 NYC as both Sonic Youth's Murray Street and Spike's 25th Hour, even when Corey wasn't singing about it overtly.

Shade's originals bespeak boiling-over frustration, but you have to listen closely. The opening "Freedom of Expression (F.O.X.)" sets the scene ("The news you use has been falsified / To use my fear against me inside") before throwing down the gauntlet:

When you have a philosophy or a gospel
I don't care whether it's religious gospel or political gospel
Or economic gospel or a social gospel
If it's not going to do something for you and me right now
To hell with it

"Program" speaks truth even more plainly:

Cops always harass the brothers
They like Clorox bleach
Good for whites, bad for colors
So when they ask to search us
I get nervous
'Cause Mike Brown was shot down
By the people hired to protect and service
Went from the lightning into a dark zone
Millions of dumb people walkin’ around with a smart phone

In troubled and troubling times, part of the artist's task is to bear witness. Our time calls for action, not anthems (although I'll take Time's Up's "Fight the Fight," if forced to choose). Living Colour's sound hasn't changed a lot through their 35-year odyssey from CBGB's to stadiums with the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger was an early advocate) to a five-year hiatus, from which they emerged to play everywhere from metal fests to cruise boats to small listening rooms like the Kessler and the City Winery chain. I'm glad they're still around.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Things we like: Tornup, Mean Motor Scooter, Beck/Holdsworth night

Not writing as much these days as I'm staying fairly busy doing political volunteer work (a day spent pounding the pavement beats one spent yelling at my puter; being a verb beats being an adjective) and working weekends and Dan and Ted's days off at Panther City Vinyl (it's like being 16 again, minus the drugs and painful self-consciousness). We had our "grand opening" celebration after having been open six months in the original location and another month in the new one, across Magnolia from Benito's. Vaden Todd Lewis of the Toadies did a solo set, which was fitting and proper, as he and original Toadies bassist Lisa Umbarger (who'll be playing a sort-of reunion show with original guitarist Charles Mooney at the Ridglea Room on August 4th) worked with Dan at Sound Warehouse, and one of Dan's paintings graced the cover of the Rubberneck album (it now hangs in the store). Also on the bill were Mean Motor Scooter and Tornup.

MMS might seem like Next Big Things, but they've been around for close to a decade now (although their Rick Nielsen-ballcapped Dead End Kids look is a relatively recent innovation). The Stooge band (on hiatus now that Richard's in Colorado) played Inauguration Night 2017 on a bill with them, but I didn't get to see them perform that night. Since then, they've added Rebekah Downing on keys and vox, making them the only Fort Worth band I can think of offhand with four singers. Frontman Sammy Kidd, currently sporting hair in that Black Forest cake shade with no highlights, is a veritable songwriting machine -- so much of one, bassist Joe Tacke says, that they just recorded two EPs and haven't even mixed the second LP yet. Their Hindu Flying Machine album (released on Phoenix-based Dirty Water Records) mashes up surf, garage, and punk in a rough and rowdy manner reminiscent of the Fungi Girls, to which their live show adds another level of energy and excitement, propelled by Jeff Friedman's slammin' traps. Good value.

I first set eyes on Torry Finley a decade ago, when Conscientious Projector was still screening documentaries at 1919 Hemphill, and witnessed a couple of sets by his band Spacebeach (whose guitarist, Jake Rothschild, now leads Yaz Mean, an outfit steeped in '70s jazz-rock fusion that just cut an EP featuring guest shots by Oak Cliff trumpet legend Dennis Gonzalez and whirlwind drummer Christopher "Chill" Hill). In his conscious hip-hop incarnation, it was Tornup's misfortune to release a naively upful and Fort Worth-centric album, Utopian Vanguard (Heart of the Funk), that dropped on Election Day 2016 and got buried in the subsequent shit storm. Now he's got a new album in the works dealing with the prison industrial complex, with each track narrated by a different African-American character, and he plans to perform it live and for video with an expanded lineup (although he can also perform the tunes solo, accompanied only by his own bass and samplers). He's a personable and uplifting performer (he wears his Christianity -- which doesn't preclude cussing in his songs -- on his sleeve) who was easily able to get the crowd on his side, and I'll be looking forward to experiencing his new work.

Torry and the Yaz Mean cats were in the house (as were a who's who of local musos-in-the-know) when Lola's hosted a reprise of last year's incredible Jeff Beck/Allan Holdsworth tribute night, featuring a mighty triumverate of axe-slingers -- Big Mike Richardson, Ron Geida, and Tyrel Choat -- recreating Beck's career-defining masterwork Blow By Blow, and the slight return (from Colorado) of Fort Worth guitar-king-in-exile Bill Pohl paying homage to the late master of fleetly fluid fret calculus. Both bands were anchored by keyboard wiz Steve Hammond and the aforementioned "Chill" Hill, with low-end theory covered by my Wreck Room bandleader Lee Allen for the Beck set and the ever-amazing Canyon Kafer for the Holdsworth.

This year's sets were even more stellar than last year's, with the benefit of more rehearsal time, better division of labor among the guitarists, Big Mike digging deep to blow some solos that were pure inspiration, Tyrel's talk box behaving better (and its owner unleashing a shredding solo that was the apex of an astonishing "Cause We've Ended As Lovers"), and the Allen-Hill rhythm section grooving relentlessly. The Holdsworth set was Something Entahrly Other. Bill Pohl has now transcended his influences and is unmistakably His Own Guy, even when playing familiar repertoire; the air in Colorado must agree with him. Kafer and Hill, who play together in guitarist Chet Stevens' band, have a gestalt that has to be heard to be believed, and when bass and keys strolled near the end of the set, Bill and Chill pushed each other onward and upward with the tsunami-like force of Trane and Elvin at the Vanguard. A couple of days earlier, I'd bailed on the Jeff Beck show in Irving to canvas in Como for Vanessa Adia's Congressional campaign, but I do believe I still heard the best music made in North Texas this week.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Ralph Carney and Chris Butler's "Songs for Unsung Holidays"


Reviewing Ralph Carney's last album back in 2011, I compared it to "a midwestern Bonzo Dog Band with chops," and indeed Carney -- a titanic multi-instrumentalist and go-to sideman for the likes of Tom Waits, the B-52s, St. Vincent, and his nephew Patrick Carney's band the Black Keys -- came across for all the world like the Bonzos' art school eccentric Roger Ruskin-Spear in a jazz classicist mood. It's fitting, then, that before he died unexpectedly last December, Carney collaborated with his ex-Tin Huey/Waitresses bandmate Chris Butler on this gem of absurdist musical humor, inspired by the likes of the Bonzos, Tom Lehrer, and Randy Newman.

Besides being a fave of your humble chronicler o' events, Butler is the composer of the seasonal perennial "Christmas Wrapping," but Songs for Unsung Holidays -- scheduled for a September 7 release on estimable indie Smog Veil -- is a collection of songs about off-the-wall invented holidays, co-written and recorded by the long-distance collaborators in their respective home studios. In this moment when every day brings social media reminders of holidays for every damn thing under the sun (in between the Russian bot memes and news reports of the latest outrages from the obfuscator in chief), it's apropos to have songs to sing on "Introduce A Girl To Engineering Day," "Bubble Wrap Day," and "Salami Appreciation Day."

"Bald and Free" is both a piss-take on the white guy blues (albeit one with sterling harp and guitar from Carney and Butler) and a wiseass rumination on the, um, lengths some gents will go to, to conceal their male pattern baldness (even in a time when the shaven head is fashionable), while "Cheese Ball Day" is a sonic homage to the era when secret prog rockers Tin Huey attempted to sneak under the radar in new wave clothing. The aforementioned "Engineering Day" conflates robotic synths and vocals with What's Going On sax obbligatos and Butler's earnest-but-unromantic ruminations on engineering careers before the two Ohio natives pay tribute to their roots on "Polka Day."

"Gorilla Suit Day" is an old-timey romp, sung by Carney, that puts me in mind of so many things: Leon Redbone, the Evans Vacuum Cleaner guy (Fort Worth-centric reference), the "shake hands with Gonga" scene in Wise Blood; "Put on the suit" indeed. "Day of the Dead" -- the only legit holiday in the bunch celebrated here -- returns to the concern with mortality that permeated Butler's Got It Togehter! from earlier this year. "Bath Safety Day" is a sequel to Chicago's "An Hour in the Shower" that winds up being a case of mistaken holiday identity (who knew Bath, Maine, had a safety day?). Most poignant moment here comes on "Hippie Day," when Carney and Butler's Dead-'n'-Allman (not to mention Marshall Tucker)-inspahrd jamarama gives way to a good old fashioned protest march call-and-response and themes Butler explored in his coming-of-age-at-Kent State 1970 remembrance Easy Life.

Carney was a one-of-a-kind muso who'll be sorely missed. This record is a nice memorial to his joyful spirit. (Another ex-Huey, Harvey Gold, was about to undertake a collaboration with Carney before he passed; the result is here).