2007, 12 and 12: Going to Shows

Few of the year's records grabbed ahold of me like the greats do—those records that, when playing on the hi-fi, helping me drift into "sleephood," as Björk once put it (more on her later), or keeping me awake while playing on the earphones wrapped around my head, begin to suggest new ideas about one's self and one's world... records in which every sound wave comes to embody inchoate emotions (and motions)... records which become the stuff of legend in one's personal history.

Nonetheless, the year provided plenty in the way of music appreciation, as it also wrought a particular contradiction: spending more time at home, alone, than I had in years, while live musical performances, some of which were the kind of big-name, rare-opportunity gigs one plans to attend months in advance, occupied my time and attention to a greater extent than they had in a decade.

The concerts in question: Peter Brötzmann, Vashti Bunyan, Jandek, The Shaking Ray Levis, The Howling Hex, Daniel Johnston, Sir Richard Bishop, Animal Collective, Björk, Joanna Newsom, Dinosaur Jr., and Neil Young. While I'd experienced Brötzmann in varied groupings, Bishop both alone and with Sun City Girls, a different version of the Howling Hex band, The Shaking Ray Levis, and Animal Collective before, the other seven artists I'd not only not seen live, but in some cases had come to assume I never would. While the range of expectations I had going in was thus quite broad, the thoughts I had going out are further variegated: an anti-distillation of the messy essence of going to shows, with all those other people, in their shifting shadiness—not to mention their interfering chatter (at least insofar as we did not stray from nightclubs).

While I usually write about, and often only care for, recorded music—mostly albums, and my perception of them as fragments of larger historical chronologies, albums that are, as such, ripped from the situations constituting their production and claimed by the writer himself (contextualized)—here I only offer fading memories of these artists engaging in rituals of cultural production and economic exchange, and of audiences engaging in rituals of cultural consumption and social interaction. As such, compared to my writing on recordings, I am not as concerned with, or capable of, positioning these performances within larger histories of the artists' development, or of the cities and scenes in which the gigs could possibly have played a role. Still, I place these events in my own histories; I seek conquest, possession.

The colored squares offer links to other articles about, or footage of, the performances in question.

Peter Brötzmann / Marino Pliakas / Michael Wertmüller

Athens enjoyed a rare Free Jazz gig when Brötzmann came to town with his new-ish trio featuring the saxophonist alongside electric-bass-guitarist Pliakas and drummer Wertmüller. Though documented on the Full Blast disc recorded February, 2006, one must hear this trio live to realize just how amazing they are (as is the case with virtually any Jazz/Improvised group) and moreover that,contrary to some initial reports, it is certainly not a successor to the Last Exit quartet, Brötzmann's other major group-experiment in amplification [later half of the 1980's], which, however fondly-remembered as a performing unit, only left behind forgettable records. Granted, the comparison between the groups is not fair; the trio does not deserve to be characterized too easily as some sort of cross-pollination between Rock and Free Jazz like Last Exit did. Rather, it presents a rare instance of what we could call Freed Free Jazz: an improvising ensemble that refuses the boundaries imposed by its prescribed genre—which define any genre, no matter how "free"—and yet also does not pass into the realm of Improvised music preferred by many of Brötzmann's peers throughout Europe. Whereas Improvised artists like Evan Parker, Paul Lytton, Tony Oxley, John Butcher, and Paul Lovens take their "extended techniques" through elaborate/belabored expositions with devotion (and physical rigor) the audience is left only to marvel at, Brötzmann's sax work at once seems more intense and yet more inviting: the listener follows the line of forward movement with greater ease, the old standards of linear narrative perhaps at work. Meanwhile, Pliakas and Wertmüller are not wary of providing a steady beat to back up Brötzmann's explorations, even if they end up with rhythms not customarily heard in Jazz, or Free Jazz. The trio is thus akin to Brötzmann's projects with drummer Hamid Drake, notably the Die Like a Dog quartet or the Chicago Tentet, or to many of Tentet member Ken Vandermark's groups with or without Drake; to Tim Berne's Bloodcount, arguably the essential Free Jazz group of the 1990's; or, to look further back, the earliest records of another Tentet member, Joe McPhee, such as Nation Time and Trinity.

I've seen Brötzmann several times before: thrice with the Tentet over the past decade, once in duo with Drake in 1999, and two other performances at the (Re)soundings Festival in Atlanta, summer '98: a duo with drummer Andrew Cyrille and a trio with Drake and Fred Hopkins (released as a vinyl-exclusive album on Okkadisk, partially in tribute to Hopkins, who died in '99). The duo shows tended to lag, but only because the demands placed on the musicians by the simple two-man line-up far excel the demands it places on the audience. The other performances were outstanding; overall, Brötzmann simply does not disappoint. And those thus satisfie are a diverse lot, despite the often-small audiences. They run the gamut from the Satanist Metalheads at the duo show with Drake (held at a Congregationalist church in Atlanta) to Bill Clinton, who expressed his appreciation in Oxford American magazine. The Tentet has drawn a new legion of listeners who generally seem unaware of the larger context of Brötzmann's work, but are generously appreciative still. In all of these respects, this gig was no exception. Various combinations of the three players, and Brötzmann's mastery of the tarogato and clarinet as well as the saxophone, allowed for the effective pacing and arrangement of the distinct pieces of the overall performance. The audience found itself astounded when Brötzmann pulled off yet another improvisation overflowing with evocative power and propulsive purpose, or when Pliakas struck his strings, staccato-style, with such force surely the skin would soon be breached, and blood come gushing out. Not so, as it turned out. But for all involved, these kinds of events—yes, events, perhaps even rituals, no mere "performance" or "show"—take a lot out of you, to use a colloquial phrase, but they also put a lot back in. You leave the venue exhausted, wanting more.

Vashti Bunyan

The Vashti Bunyan gig (like Brötzmann's, at the 40 Watt Club) showcased the British singer in a homely setting, with soft but intricate backing music that demanded quiet from a nightclub audience and (surprise!) actually got it. Songs from her first album, Just Another Diamond Day [1970], and her second, Lookaftering [2005], were performed with the calm equipoise they deserve. Bunyan's voice seemed not much different than its younger self, nearly forty years ago. Beyond the unencumbered pleasure of the performance itself, the audience gathers little scraps of the happiness Bunyan clearly feels, singing songs both from the past and newly wrought, the former which, one presumes, only a few years ago she thought she'd never sing again (at least publicly). While the musicians hardly challenged Bunyan like Animal Collective did on their collaborative record with the singer, Prospect Hummer [2005], I cannot deny I didn't care. The singer, the voice is the attraction here. As with Sibylle Baier's Colour Green (a truly lost album, in that, unlike Diamond Day, it was not released until 2006, having found its way to Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter of Elf Power and Orange Twin Records via J Mascis) the listener confronts a voice unlike most of those deemed by their possessors to be worthy of "instrument" status. It is fragile, not concerned too much (or not suspecting) that anyone would ever listen. It is similar to the singers of certain Free Folk music of this century: Christina Carter of Charalambides, Glenn Donaldson of The Blithe Sons, and indeed Animal Collective's Panda Bear, on Young Prayer. Rare voices: only because every voice is unique, and yet the minds they possess tend to be too concerned with effacing this uniqueness. Well... "only" was the wrong word to use there.


As one grows old as a listener, and as a concert-attendee, only rarely is one genuinely surprised by the music performed by any given artist at any given gig. But in March, I was. And by an artist still only beginning his career as a concert-performer, though he has been making records for nearly three decades. I speak, of course, of the mysterious Jandek. Despite the rarity of his performances, and the lingering memory of the pleasant shock one got in 2004 when first hearing the news that Jandek would indeed make a public appearance, by the time the Atlanta gig came around, his gigs had become common enough (and been documented extensively) so as not to expect something different. Coming into the show, the audience knew that the singer prefers an improvised approach, reflecting his own off-the-cuff, quick-intuition methods of making albums. Besides his close cohort, Richard Youngs [another contemporary legend in music; every man alive should hear his record Advent [1990], an epic of grand proportions that still manages to be deemed Minimalist] Jandek has worked with other extraordinary improvising musicians like drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Matthew Heyner. With these men and others, he'd staked out a fuller version of the slow, disemboweled Blues-Folk-Rock that is Jandek's forte, the important criteria being that his vocals get their needed room to move. While I knew that on some occasions Jandek hadn't played guitar, that new avenues were traversed, I still had my expectations.

They would not be met. Playing the piano, Jandek's vocals suggested a poetry reading rather than a Rock show, and in the longest number of the night took on a secondary role to Jandek's piano and the other instruments: Seth Coon on bass clarinet, Ana Balka on violin, and Kelly Shane on percussion. In that piece, the four musicians twice abandoned the stately pace and calm deliberation of their improvisations in favor of a quick flurry of wild abandon. The lyrics Jandek plaintively sang, reading from a notebook, conceivably told the story of Jandek himself, as the narrator weaved the tale of a man going out into the word hesitantly, awkwardly and in turn finding that the well-worn paths of righteous purpose and rebellion lead nowhere. Jandek's vocals possessed a smoothness and clarity uncommon to his work, serving as an appropriate companion to the excellent, if somewhat one-dimensional, music of the night. In other cities, Jandek has similarly worked with new collaborators. Perhaps theres too he has drawn forth similar diversions from our assumed Jandek norm.

The Howling Hex

Since early 2005, when I wrote the essay on The Howling Hex found here at Sweet Pea, I'd waited for what would become of Neil Hagerty's amorphous, open-ended project—or wondered if something had gone awry. You Can't Beat Tomorrow [2005] presented a peculiar amalgamation of what seemed to be rough sketches of new songs played by a full, yet barely-rehearsed, band plus an accompanying video-disc of a collage-like "television" program with the same name as the album. Hagerty then seemed to veer in a different direction with Nightclub Version of the Eternal [2006], which when promoted on tour saw him fronting an entirely new band with a decidedly Rock orientation. In other words, having flirted with the idea of returning to the Rock ensemble with Neil Michael Hagerty and the Howling Hex [2003] and the performances prior to and promoting that album, only to venture into the three limited-edition Howling Hex L.P's [Introducing: The Howling Hex [2003] and Section 2 and The Return of the Third Tower [both 2004]; selections from these records constitute the compilation 1-2-3] satisfyingly-bewildering records that surely forced several journalists to redefine their notions of "commercial suicide," Hagerty now was back with a sound not too far removed from where he left off in 2003: loose, Soul-inflected Rock. Nightclub offered something new as well: Hagerty not being the lead guitarist, instead playing the baritone guitar, which presumably gives him the ability to handle bass duties and yet still take the lead on occasion. Mike Signs, as his last name is spelled in the liner to the latest Howling Hex record, XI [2007], effectively pulled off the difficult task of usurping Hagerty on Nightclub [where he was Mike Saenz], thus making that record a good-enough successor to the excellent All-Night Fox [2005], with the minimalism of the former a factor again in the songs, usually consisting only of mantra-like melodies, but giving way when it comes to the music, allowing for long guitar work-outs.

Guitar freak-outs, though, were what I witnessed at a gig in New York, September, 2006: with Signs absent, Hagerty traversed far into, and back out of, the realm of pure "noise" with remarkable ease. Saxophonist Rob Lee also ventured far "out there." Hagerty's talk over the years of pursuing the methods of Ornette Coleman's "harmolodics" seemed finally to come to fruition. Unfortunately, the regular line-up, both during its gig in Atlanta in March and on XI, has taken a step back. When songs from the three Neil Michael Hagerty records [Neil Michael Hagerty [2001], Neil Michael Hagerty Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll [2002], and the aforementioned 2003 first Howling Hex record (that is, the last Neil Michael Hagerty record—got it?)] were played at the New York gig, they came roaring into an existence quite unlike their recorded versions, as live versions should. At the Atlanta gig, though, they were short: perfunctory and hurried. The new songs didn't fare much better. On XI, Hagerty, Signs, and Lee, and other members drummer Andy Macleod and second-vocalist/percussionist Andy Jenks all contribute songs and sing, making it truly collaborative. But neither Hagerty nor Signs have much room in which to branch out as guitarists, and the songs don't leave a strong impression. Thus... we wait again.

The Shaking Ray Levis

In the spring, The Shaking Ray Levis and Athenian musician Killick Erik Hinds released a record of their 2006 collaborative performance at Eyedrum, the art gallery/performance venue in Atlanta, and marked the occasion with two more performances, in Atlanta and Athens. With about five other patrons in attendance at the Athens gig, I got to see The Shaking Ray's for the first time in seven years. Here and at the Jandek gig, I came to understand that I had been ignoring artists who have much in common with my own interest in the redefinition of the art of song. In this case, the artist in question is vocalist and electronics-musician Dennis Palmer. With his duo-partner Bob Stagner providing a subtle backdrop with a method that rests comfortably between the broad spectrum of sound and method associated with "free" Improvised music and the reserved, graceful purposefulness of the great Bebop drummers, Palmer takes center-stage. His approach to electronics is striking enough: in a time where the electronic sounds preferred by so many artists suggest austerity and intractability, Palmer is a rare artist unafraid of sounds that are ostentatious in their character, blunt and often humorous in their effect. But I'm more intrigued by his vocals...

Most accounts you'll hear or read of Palmer's style will undoubtedly mention the Southern-accent affectations and the seeming imitation of the hysterics of a zealous religious preacher. Fair enough... Take a step away though, and consider how pre-arranged songs (though probably not arranged much at all) and oft-told stories reconstitute themselves in ever-unique forms during the performance. Don't let the whimsical, camp humor of Palmer's approach distract us from realizing the rarity of a singer taking the kinds of chances he does. Meanwhile, one can hear on the record in question, ASAP Wings, that Killick in some cases willingly takes a backing role but is willing to move into the forefront as well. His hand-crafted H'arpeggione fits in beautifully with the Shaking Ray's music: an instrument that at first glance might appear unwieldy and obtrusive actually allows its lone master a wide range of sonic options, so that Killick's solo records ebb and flow quite unlike most albums of solo-instrumental music. As with the Shaking Ray's, categories are rendered powerless, boundaries become amorphous frontiers.

Daniel Johnston

In early August, Daniel Johnston headlined the Athens Pop Fest organized by the Happy Happy Birthday to Me label. Johnston occupies an awkward space between the adventurous acts that have graced the Pop Fest's stages the last two years (notably, Pylon in 2005 and Deerhoof in 2006) and the Indie "pop" which is its usual too-typical fare. Though supposedly a legend to the crowd on hand, the 40 Watt Club these days is not kind to artists who draw a crowd large enough to play at the venue, but not known well enough to command the patrons' attention when forced to compete with the combination of alcohol, courtship rituals, and the 40 Watt's excessive lighting. Nonetheless, whether alone, accompanied by another guitarist, or with a backing band, Johnston's presence is commanding. The modus operandi of Indie "pop"—the cruel-but-true logic of forced fun: masking social awkwardness, not to mention obliviousness toward all the paths explicitly rejected—was rendered null and void. Johnston surely deserves the recent wave of attention he has received, in the form of a new compilation, the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and exhibitions of his visual art. One cannot but hope for him, and hope that this hope does not appear to be condescension. He is an excellent songcomposer, and was an extraordinary pioneer in the home-recording revolution; in person, he performs with the gravitas his songs deserve; perhaps a few of the "poptimists" paid attention.

Sir Richard Bishop

Richard Bishop came to town having released two albums in '07 (While My Guitar Violently Bleeds and Polytheistic Fragments) even as he and his brother Alan suffered the death of Charles Gocher, their friend and collaborator in Sun City Girls for more than 25 years, in February, after a years-long struggle with cancer. In a tribute to Gocher, Bishop sang "The Ballad of (D)Anger" and "Bitter Cold Countryside," the songs that open the second disc of Dante's Disneyland Inferno [1996], the first of which was originally sung by Gocher. The performance ended, as Bishop is wont to do, with "Rasheed," his calling card; but, whereas when I saw him perform in 2005 he played the song in its original, acoustic form (as heard on both his first album, Salvador Kali [1998], and the C.D that came with issue 4 of Halana magazine in a raw, better version) now a pre-recorded drone offered accompaniment to this song which, for this listener at least, never seems to grow old. After the rare vocal turn from Bishop, the performance had come to seem incidental. A few short numbers passed by with little effect. But "Rasheed" captivated the audience; though an opening act for Bill Callahan (Smog), Bishop emerged as the focus of attention. As with the Bunyan show, the audience quieted, listened, revered, and, when it was over, cheered.

Animal Collective

While Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam has drawn high accolades, it has been overshadowed by the wide-reaching acclaim for Panda Bear's Person Pitch. Arguably, the latter is the only record in '07 to receive and deserve the effusive attention it drew, whereas in '06 the same could be said of four records: Cat Power's The Greatest, Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere, Bob Dylan's Modern Times, and Newsom's Ys. That said, we can't help but think that most of the acclaim was inspired by the album's best track, "Bros," an epic, to say the least. Moreover, despite the copious commentary it has incited, I cannot but feel that Person Pitch's appeal hasn't been described plainly enough. Think, first, of its composition: the frequently noted use of a diverse array of samples, none of which (as far as I can tell) are easily recognizable. Second, the album is the work of an individual, at home, whose instrumental contributions are his vocals, mostly or perhaps entirely. As such, Person Pitch [perfect title] evokes the general trend in popular music toward electronics-and-vocals (in place of ensemble-and-vocals, or merely guitar-and-vocals) without seeming confined by it. Indeed (although few of its fans would admit as such) it mocks the narrow pursuits of much popular music of the present-day, with its insidiously condescending pseudo-embrace of Hip Hop and its pitiful recreations of early-'80's electronic sounds.

Meanwhile, Animal Collective reached yet another peak in their remarkable oeuvre with Strawberry Jam, the group's third album as a quartet (following Here Comes the Indian [2003] and Feels [2005]). Alas, Deakin temporarily exited the group not long after its release, leaving us with the trio version of the group that recorded Danse Manatee [2001] and Campfire Songs [2003]. Somewhat unexpectedly, the trio proves to be the best version of the band. Without Geologist, the founding duo of Tare and Bear tend too much toward tightly-composed works, and toward a child-like perspective which, however ambiguous, still comes off as light-hearted [Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished [2000] and Sung Tongs [2004] are the two duo records]. With Geologist, though, enough dissonance is introduced, and, most of all, enough space is opened up, for the group to excel as an improvising ensemble. While Avey Tare, as the principal songwriter and singer, is the center of attention, Panda Bear's schooling in the House-Techno lineage, more obvious in the Jane records done in collaboration with Scott Mou than in his solo record, pays off, as he forms the glue holding the performance together. Cascading rhythms, "beats" or not, intersperse with the on-and-off of the vertical-beam monochrome-lights standing behind the band. A total-experience, even as many attendees left bickering about the subtraction of "For Reverend Green" from the set list. Blah!


Björk's Volta, like Strawberry Jam, seems to have caught critic-journalists in a bind: they've already mouthed the well-rehearsed, oft-repeated words of praise for the artist deemed appropriate by the mob-rule idiocracy; so whatever they say about the album would rarely captivate the Internet-reader's thirty-second attention span or compel magazine "readers" to do much more than look at a photograph. Björk particularly suffers from the cruel fate of album reviews wherein the writer recounts what's wrong with her work, compared to an ideal assumed to exist simply because of the artist's renown; or, they simply recount a basic characteristic of the music as a means of negative criticism, as if the reader and writer had agreed in advance what they're looking for (in fact, this maneuver is the named-but-anonymous album reviewer's trademark, as one could see by looking at the reception accorded another '07 record, Wilco's Sky Blue Sky). Radiohead are clever enough to have realized the problem: the free-download gambit they employed for their new album, In Rainbows, gave the magazine hacks and blogger-scribblers something to talk about other than the music. One fantasizes that Radiohead simply pulled an elaborate prank on the popular-music audience of the present day: take these computer files of our new album, because you'll end up listening to them in such format anyway; or if you're a yuppie looking for a new coffee-table showpiece, purchase the fancy promo-as-art-work canard we've prepared for you, because if you do so in sufficient numbers we may make the same amount of money we would've by releasing the album regularly, without the attention gained by this marketing ploy. Meanwhile, the M.P.3 listeners will make fools of themselves speaking in exicted tones about the revolutionary approach we've employed. Then, we'll release the album regularly sooner than we'd suggested, probably getting more people to buy it than otherwise would have, again without the attention gained by this marketing ploy. Not a lamentable sly move at least, because In Rainbows is a fine-enough record.

As for what was not discussed regarding Volta... We certainly could say that with Medúlla [2004] it forms a progression away from the largely-electronic work of her solo work from Debut on. Yes, Medúlla consisted almost entirely of vocals, while Volta features several tracks of common Björk methodology: that is, a famed producer contributes "beats," accompanied by other guests. But on Medúlla, there were imitative, human beats and other elements akin to, or drawing upon, electro-acoustic composition. Despite its assumed return to standard Björk fare, several Volta tracks are uncommonly, strikingly acoustic, including the two duets with Antony as well as "Pneumonia"; a few others, "Earth Intruders, "I See Who You Are" and "Vertebrae by Vertebrae" have their share of electronics but are not defined by them. Instead, the drums and/or the brass arrangements take center stage. "Vertebrae by Vertebrae," certainly one of the finest Björk concoctions yet, is especially revealing, consisting as it does of sampled acoustic elements; an unbroken circle after all. Still, on Volta the electronic parts serve as just one element of a broader palette, in stark contrast to what was heard in the hidden-away, confined spaces of Vespertine [2001].

Any way, Björk's too possessed by her music to worry too much about its inevitably-besotted fate after-the-fact. Besides, she embraces most of the other tasks awaiting a high-selling, big-draw popular-music act: video promos, elaborate shows, though not dealing with journalists [who does?]. For those live performances, she gets enough of an older crowd that entertains quaint notions of respect for the arts. In short, she successfully avoids the sad, jaded Indie world described above. At Atlanta's Fox Theatre, among other things the audience is greeted by a brass section, Chris Corsano [who, alas, gets no opportunity to show off his extraordinary talents], confetti, strobe lights, screens showing the hand-movements of the musicians handling bright-light-colored electronic instruments, and flags emblazoned not with symbols of national lore, but with merely lines, shapes, and color (as they merely should be—no, really are). While these theatrics, and attention to detail, call to mind the artist's previous elaborate stage productions, those previous shows also were tied closely to the album being promoted. Here, Volta was not given much emphasis; moreover, two of its less-compelling tracks, "Earth Intruders" and "Declare Independence," were showcased. More tracks from Homogenic [1997] were performed, and the audience, as appreciative as they are of the artist's later, more complex work, still most warmly welcomed "hits" from Debut and Post [1995].

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom has also blithely (wisely) ignored the cynicism and myopia of the Indie crowd that gave her such a strong career boost. While a few journalists and countless scenester brats still bemoan the sound of her voice and the pretentiousness of the Ys album, she continues on, in our case on a short orchestral tour that thankfully brought her to Atlanta. Performing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at their regular Woodruff Arts Center digs, Newsom drags us even farther uptown than the Björk gig. Empty office buildings locked from the outside, empty-looking homes of the rich and infamous locked from the inside, a few nightclubs with potential patrons standing in line to enter, and restaurants filled with humans and electric lights making anyone who walks by in the cold feel like nothing more than an envious homeless man looking in.

Newsom's voice is less sprightly and strained, the edges are rounded off; she has reached a relaxed state of awareness with regard to her own songs. Correspondingly, Newsom deflates the formality of the setting with her friendly interactions with the audience. Apparently, for those who didn't have seats close to the stage, the balance between the greater-amplified parts of Newsom and her Ys Street Band, on one hand, and the orchestra, on the other, was not even enough. But for those of us nearer to the source, the performance of Ys in its entirety was magisterial. Not much more needs to be said, as in such a setting little that is unpredictable or even charming comes to pass, even in the second set of the evening, where Newsom played only with her regular bandmates songs from both before and after Ys.

Dinosaur Jr.

The reunited trio-version of Dinosaur Jr.—the lauded line-up of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph—may not play with as much fervor as the reunited Pylon or Gang of Four, but they certainly do not make an utter mockery of themselves like The Pixies did. That said, the overall experience is subpar. Walking into the 40 Watt, a large crowd lingers. The 40 Watt rarely fills up like this anymore. More so than the "grunge" bands of Seattle (save perhaps The Melvins) Dinosaur Jr. epitomized the embrace of Hard Rock by bands that had come up via the Hardcore and Indie "underground" of the 1980's. While they didn't reap commercial rewards of the same magnitude as those enjoyed by the Seattle bands, they have a "name-recognition" that most Indie bands these days would relish. The decade or so since the mid-1990's has been in several ways a gradual dwindling of the once-substantial audience for Rock music; one could imagine that, for the individuals housed behind the unrecognizable faces seen at this gig, not much has happened in that time-span. For those chained by habit and routine, time contracts; for those in flux, time expands. No, rather, our memory of time past contracts of expands. In an era when Hard Rock has resurfaced in amorphous forms that merge easily with non-Rock structures and perspectives—hear, say, the music of Boris, Battles, Acid Mothers Temple, Sunn—Dinosaur Jr.'s music and the trio's reunion gigs descend into by-the-numbers affairs, uninspiring if not uninspired.

Neil Young

A little more than a week later, and we're off to see another Rock artist who benefited from those halcyon '90's times: Neil Young. Reaching New York for a six-night occupancy of the Reverend Ike's United Palace Theatre in Washington Heights, Young has also come to a point in his life-work where a tendency towards the self-referential threatens to take over the original self. The title of the new album, Chrome Dreams II, refers to the abandoned album, Chrome Dreams, set to be released thirty years prior, replaced by American Stars 'n' Bars. Chrome Dreams II makes this reference not because of any connection with the songs that would've been on the earlier album, but rather because it features a few tracks originally written or recorded in the 1980's, most importantly "Ordinary People." But these songs haven't appeared in the live sets; instead, on tour Young seems to be both promoting the new record (by playing a few of its newer songs, namely "The Believer," "Spirit Road," "Dirty Old Man," and "No Hidden Path") and remarking upon the pending release of the first of a series of Archives box-sets, which supposedly will make available all the unreleased (or only-released-on-bootleg) recordings that Young aficionados have raved about for decades, including those of Chrome Dreams, plus Homegrown, the other Great Lost Album, and more. Thus, unreleased songs like "Love/Art Blues" and "Sad Movies" mingled with perfunctory performances of familiar hits like "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man," as well as older songs not heard so often ("The Loner," "Oh Lonesome Me," "Mellow My Mind"). Meanwhile, throughout the full-band portion of the show (longer, though not by much, than the solo-Young part) an unnamed painter was at work behind the musicians. Canvases already completed, and canvases being worked on, contained the name of the songs played and an accompanying image. The painter placed the respective painting on an easel, stage-left, just before Young and the band (Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Ralph Molina) ventured forth into each song. Both this conceptual-performance piece, and the stage arrangement of the solo set, where Young was encircled by various guitars, aimed to evoke a musical "workshop," serving as a tangible counterpart to the theme underlining the selection of songs: an artist at work in real time, and across-time, songs from thirty or forty years ago as present as those written recently.

"No Hidden Path" concluded the main portion of the show, while "Like the Hurricane" brought the encore to a fine, though predictable, end. Indeed, the big story of this tour has been the rise of "No Hidden Path" to the high status held in Young's oeuvre by songs such as "Like a Hurricane." Given Young's eclecticism, the nature of this "high status" requires qualification: it is neither like Young's revered somber, solo numbers ["After the Gold Rush," "The Stringman," "Pocahontas"], nor is it a confounding experiment that leads even Young's dearest fans to use the word, "perverse," in description ["Will to Love," Trans's Electro tracks like "Sample and Hold," Arc]. As with "Like a Hurricane," it is a base upon which Young takes his trusted electric guitar, Old Black, on a journey through the nether-regions of unadulterated sound. Critics may say that Young, in the history of Rock, is decidedly second-rate. No, not second-rate as in not being an essential artist whose work deserves close (really close) listening. Rather, second to Dylan as a songwriter; and second to Hendrix as a guitarist. And yet, while Dylan has gotten a second (third? fourth?) wind and made brilliant, new music even as he also engages in the mythologization of his past work and his persona, Hendrix is of course long gone. Frank Zappa is also gone, and Jimmy Page wouldn't dare. The great guitarists of later generations have also, for the most part, relaxed too much; they're content, though having come out of the Punk age, they shouldn't be. Sonic Youth? They allowed their diddling with "alternate" tunings to derail them. (Alternate to what, pray tell? Freudian slips are a cliché, but they're fun.) And when has Bernard Sumner played like he did on "Atrocity Exhibition"? What does Keith Levene do these days? Arto Lindsay? No comment. In short, no-one besides Young plays guitar like he does on "No Hidden Path." And the experience is cathartic.

Cathartic for me, that is. I wouldn't assume to know what Young thinks, or what he's doing. I speak not just as a non-guitarist listener, but as any listener. As it has gotten older, has Old Black, its sound already famously sludgy and murky, become harder to control according to the dictates of notated music? Either way, does Young feel the call of Crazy Horse again, as in 1976 and 1978, in circumscribed form in 1981 and 1987, and again at its naked best in 1990-91 and 1996? While Crazy Horse toured in 2001, and Molina and Talbot backed Young on the excellent Greendale [which, by the way, in its multi-faceted, charming sloppiness achieved what Hagerty was just beginning to work out with The Howling Hex] overall the Aughts have been a non-Crazy Horse time for Young. Then again, one also hopes that the process of digging through his archives, of coming to new terms with the past, will lead to something different.


P-S :: I missed a chance this year to attend a couple of performances by Excepter, arriving in New York one day late, and yet by the end of the year had finally listened to Tank Tapes, the cassette-only album they released earlier in the year, but which was supposed to come out in 2006, and was recorded in 2005, when the band also recorded Sunbomber and most of Alternation, their two previous records. A fertile period in their history is thus documented further, and thankfully so, as Tank Tapes in a roundabout way may stand as the perfect Excepter record. The crucial Dub-Reggae influence comes to mind, somewhat as it did with their 12" "Vacation" / "'Forget Me'," released in 2004. But again, only slightly in stylistic moves, more so in that nothing is wasted. At the wrong times, especially when one is wasted—wasted a lot of precious energy—Excepter's music seems too scattered, too bare, too reductionist. As with much innovative, experimental music, most who come across it don't have the time to listen. As with the best Dub though, when your mind coalesces, flows into the music, every single sound you discern, especially the minute variations you usually let pass, consumes your attention, drags you in. The meaning is there if you want it.

February 2008