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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bill Evans' "Another Time: The Hilversum Concert"

This surprising release comes with an interesting backstory.

Last year, Resonance Records released Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest, a studio session by the short-lived (six months in 1968) and under-recorded (a single, live-at-Montreux album) Bill Evans trio with the estimable rhythm section of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack Dejohnette. Not long after that, they were contacted by a fan who had a copy of a live broadcast that same Evans trio had recorded for Dutch radio, a couple of days after the Black Forest session and a week after their Montreux stand.

The Dutch radio tape proved to be a lost gem, documenting a looser and more assured performance than either of the previous releases, in comparable-to-studio quality. (All music fans should take a knee in thanks to the European national radio and TV stations that documented so much great music, jazz and rock as well as classical.) Then began a race against the clock, as Resonance sought sign-offs from the rights-holders (Universal Music Group, the Evans estate, Gomez and Dejohnette) so they could release the music legitimately before another, less scrupulous outfit who also had the material beat them to it.

None of which would matter if the music wasn't stellar. It is.

In 1968, Gomez had been playing with Evans for two years -- a gig he kept for over a decade -- and by his account in an accompanying interview, he was still working out his sound. You'd never guess that from his nimble solos on several of the tunes here, and the melodic dialogues he conducts with Evans, proving himself a worthy successor to the virtuoso Scott LaFaro. Dejohnette, having started his career as a pianist, was in between career-making stints with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis, and still processing the influence of Tony Williams, but he performs with admirable restraint (and brushes) here, and solos to good effect on Miles' composition "Nardis."

A classically-trained pianist who explored modal jazz with George Russell before joining Miles' sextet, Evans is known for a brooding, introspective style that he perfected after leaving Miles (whose Kind of Blue has his fingerprints all over it) and forming his trio with the aforementioned LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. On Another Time, the Gomez-Dejohnette tandem propels him into an energetic and animated performance, from the opening "You're Gonna Hear From Me" (a '66 Andy Williams hit) to Evans' customary closer "Five." Evans explores melodies with his characteristic elegant simplicity, whether playing show tunes -- Anthony Newley's "Who Can I Turn To?" gets a lively treatment, while Bacharach-David's "Alfie" is taken at a leisurely clip -- or his own compositions, including the sprightly waltz "Early On" (everybody might dig Bill Evans, but Bill dug waltzes, and not just for Debby) and the gorgeous ballad "Turn Out the Stars."

For lovers of jazz piano splendor, Resonance's Evans discoveries are as welcome additions to the canon as Monk and Trane at Carnegie Hall, or Jaki Byard's Keystone Korner series. And that's very welcome indeed.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Work In Progress: X___X's "The Monster That Ate Cleveland"

Since he formed the electric eels back in '73, John D. Morton's musical stock in trade has been a confrontational, abrasive minimalism. Pariahs during their brief existence, the eels and their Cleveland contemporaries, Mirrors and Rocket from the Tombs, have since been elevated to the status of proto-punk prophets.

Hagiography aside, it's also true that one person's abrasive noise is another's "soul rinsing" (to use Amiri Baraka's descriptor for Ascension). Eels emissions like "Agitated," "Jaguar Ride," "Bunnies," and "You're Full of Shit" hewed closer to rockaroll's primal essence than even Mirrors or RFTT's rawest work. And hearing Morton's electronic assault on Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" with X___X at Rubber Gloves back in 2016 felt like a cleansing ritual, not to mention making the Denton noise outfit that preceded them sound kind of silly.

The new X___X album, The Monster That Ate Cleveland, opens with a squall of metallic clangor totally at odds with the incongruous nursery school lyrics of "Little Baby Bunnies," giving way to slash-and-burn guitar that takes off from where Uncle Lou's "I Heard Her Call My Name" solo finished and progresses (once the wah kicks on) into atonal Godzilla shrieks reminiscent of the glisses on MC5's Kick Out the Jams, only here he's pissed.

"Cleveland Sucks," replete with singalong chorus, takes the piss out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a couple of songs from the eels canon ("It's Artastic" and "Jaguar Ride") make a welcome resurgence. "Out of Focus," a veritable fuzz guitar orgy, sounds for all the world like Syd Barrett if he'd gone to Lakewood High School but is actually a Blue Cheer cover, while "Karma Bank" blasts off from RFTT/Dead Boys "Sonic Reducer" into hallucinatory space rock, all in under two minutes.

This recording, laid down at Bad Racket Studio in Cleveland, captures more of the band's live fury than 2015's Albert Ayler's Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto did. The guitars (in the hands of Morton, Andrew Klimeyk, and new addition Gary Siperko) bristle with stinging treble and ringing harmonics. The riddim section -- bassist Craig Bell and either Lamont "Bim" Thomas, Rich Rodriguez, or Steve Mehlman on drums (spot the difference!) -- pummels away with cool abandon. It's bracing stuff.

Morton plans to record another 20 minutes of music before shopping for a label. Meanwhile, you can watch the vid for "Little Baby Bunnies" on Youtube.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Brokegrove Lads' "Buluga Chic Push"

"A bunch of geezers go into the studio and come out sounding like Genesis produced by Giorgio Moroder. Go fig." Mixed and mastered by Matt Hickey. Recorded by Britt Robisheaux at Cloudland Recording studio. The Lads (on this occasion, Robert Kramer, Terry Valderas, and Your Humble Chronicler o' Events) with special guest vocalist, dramaturge Rob Bosquez. Originally titled "Buluga Push Transit" after a dream of composer Terry's wherein he was being pulled in a rickshaw by a whale, retitled in honor of Kramer's Bernard Edwards-esque low end theory. I was trying to mimic Frank Cervantez's economy, but wound up overplaying as always. The solo at the end marks the return of the "Buddy Guy if he just woke up" sound I employed on the Top Secret...Shh record.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

5.13.2017, Oak Cliff

It takes a lot to get me out of mi casa these days, let alone my zip code, and not just because my fellow Americans frighten me. But when I get wind of a bill with two of my favorite acts, and one I'm anxious to check out, at a new spot in Oak Cliff (still my favorite part of Dallas), I'm willing to venture out. Matt Hickey, taking a breather from goat-wrangling and mixing the new Brokegrove Lads shit, was along to navigate. (True to type, we still got lost, but only just, and I learned that there's a Buddhist temple in South Oak Cliff.)

Chateau Virago is a new performance space in the South Oak Cliff home of Andy and Alicia EV Borman. (Like their Facebook page to see show notices.) When they started at the beginning of this year, EV says, their intent was to present one show a month, but things have become a little busier than they planned. The performance space is well-appointed, with more attention to lighting than one often sees at house shows, and sound tech Justin Longorio  (also EV's bandmate in a unit that bears his name) was attentive to the performers' needs.

Sarah Ruth Alexander opened the evening with a set of spoken word and vocal alchemy. Accompanying herself on hammered dulcimer and electronic effects, she played a recording of the choir at her family's church, did some readings (from her "little girl diary" and the poetry of William Carlos Williams), got the audience to sing a simple, wordless repeated theme while she extemporized on top, responded (with voice and Kaos pad) to sounds of a squeaky door and the household dogs and cats (confined in an adjacent room for the evening), and performed a new piece that she recorded at the Echo Lab earlier this year. First she played the theme on dulcimer, then repeated it with effects, then played two unmixed, unmastered recordings of the piece, one a piano rendering by Paul Slavens (accompanied by percussionist Beth Dodds), then a thunderous, powerful version on which she's accompanied by Pinkish Black and Frank Cervantez (Sub Oslo, Wire Nest). Sarah Ruth's been on a roll since her Words on the Wind cassette release in 2015. Here's hoping she can find an interested label to release her new work.

Spent some time catching up with old friend Dennis Gonzalez before his new band, Ataraxia, celebrated the release of their new double LP Ts'iibil Chaaltun. Dennis clued me in on recent events with La Rondalla, the free music school -- to be clear, that's music instruction for kids, offered at no charge, not instruction in free music -- that he's operated in Oak Cliff since 2010. Recently, La Rondalla students performed with Edie Brickell during a series of reunion shows she played with the New Bohemians (whose guitarist, Kenny Withrow, teaches at La Rondalla), and Edie agreed to help the school out with a much-needed infusion of cash. Drew Chapa, another La Rondalla instructor, performed a through-composed solo piano piece in between Sarah Ruth and Lily Taylor's sets. Taylor's a performer I've meant to check out for awhile, and she offered a very different approach to solo vocal performance. She has a rich, powerful, gospel-soul inflected voice, and surrounds it with lush, gorgeously-textured settings.

I've already written about Ataraxia's record. Their live performance was also a stunner, revealing a mature band dynamic that was still developing when I saw them last year. Drew Phelps' tendency to dance around the One on bass, combined with Jagath Priya's to flow around it like water over rocks, means that the pulse in their music is often unstated, which requires the listener to engage with it differently than if the groove were more in-your-face. This leaves Dennis a wider field in which to frolic, and truly, I don't know when I've seen him having more pure enjoyment on stage. Beyond that, Drew Phelps played his ass off. And after a year, these guys are just getting to know each other musically. I'll be looking forward to hearing where this collaboration ventures next.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Father Figures' "Heavy Lifting" and The Feederz' "WWHD - What Would Hitler Do?" EP

Coincidentally, the package from Slope Records arrived the same day I read an article about George Lakoff, a retired UC Berkeley professor of cognitive science and linguistics who argues that voters make decisions based on subconscious worldviews, centered around beliefs about the family, rather than facts. According to Lakoff, conservatives believe in the "strict father family," where father holds the reins and has the right to punish his spouse or children when they disobey him, while liberals believe in the "nurturant family," where both parents collaborate to nurture children and encourage them to nurture others, including the weak and marginalized.

I'm sure Lakoff's theories have nothing to do with how the Father Figures chose their band name, but the songs on their new LP, Heavy Lifting -- their fourth release -- fulminate with anger at the state of TrumpAmerica. The album comes in a sleeve that includes complete lyrics -- frustratingly printed in a font that, while aesthetically pleasing, is as challenging to the eye as the ones on CD slicks. No matter; repeated spins of the rec will give you time to peruse 'em at leisure.

Besides, bassist-scribe Tom Reardon declaims his words forcefully, and his vocals are mixed high enough to be clearly audible. His lyrics reveal a sensibility as intentionally clear-eyed ("The trick I think is to never blink / And you have to know," he sings in "Ego vs Ego") as it is enraged, whether decrying the various narcotics we use to give ourselves the illusion of control ("Medicine Ball"), reporting on America's devastation from within ("USS Destroyer"), or roaring an Everyman's frustration with a deck that's stacked against him ("Rigged").

Instrumentally, Reardon locks his four-string thunder in with drummer Bobby Lerma's agile stickwork to create a pummeling, elastic groove, over which guitarist Michael Cornelius floats tense chords and jagged shards of melody. The Father Figures' most clearly audible influence is the Minutemen, and they wear it proudly, tipping their hat with lyrics like "It's everything / It's all my dreams / In '85 / I felt alive" ("Borrowed Records") and the shout-out to the corndog trio's hometown in "Hotel San Pedro."

Closer to home, the musos in the Father Figures had formative Phoenix influences like the Meat Puppets, the Consumers, the Exterminators, and the Feederz, who have a new Slope seven-inch, produced by Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood, with a full-length due this summer. On WWHD - What Would Hitler Do?, the Feederz -- who started out purveying their brand of surrealist agit-punk in biker bars -- fire a couple of improbably catchy salvos in the form of self-explanatory paeans to "Stealing" and "Sabotage." Frontman Frank Discussion sounds for all the world like a gremlin Marc Bolan, while Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro keeps things jumping. Bracing stuff.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Ataraxia Trio's "Ts'iibil Chaaltun"

Yow. Can it really have been a year since I heard Ataraxia Trio play their second show at a house/gallery up the street from me? Yep. Time sure flies these days. This Saturday, May 13, at 9pm, I'll be attending their record release party for their debut double LP, Ts'iibil Chaaltun (named after a ruined Mayan city in Yucatan), at Chateau Virago (2525 Bridal Wreath Lane, Dallas 75233). Cover is $5 and copies of the record will be available for $17, cash/check/money order/PayPal. (There's a download available, but this music really needs to be heard on vinyl if you have the means.) Strong support from Lily Taylor, Drew Chapa, and Sarah Ruth Alexander, too. So there!

Ataraxia's the trio that estimable trumpeter-composer-visual artist-educator Dennis Gonzalez formed last year when he had a gig that his sons Aaron and Stefan, who enticed him out of musical retirement back in '01 to form Yells At Eels, couldn't make. Instead, he called on veteran Denton bassist Drew Phelps and Sri Lankan percussionist Jagath Lakpriya to form a unit that would explore quieter, more ruminative musical space than YAE. Since their first couple of gigs (in a library and a gallery), they've had time to get more accustomed to playing with each other, and develop more material. In advance of the show, Dennis kindly sent me a test pressing to hear.

The three musicians stake out their territory on the traditional Sri Lankan theme "Ukusa." Over a drone provided by Phelps' tamboura app, the bassist delineates a modal field, which Gonzalez fills with well-chosen notes, leaving plenty of space for Lakpriya's percussion interjections. There's pulse here, but the music floats freely over it. On his composition "Tsantsa," Gonzalez establishes the foundation with a (looped?) repeating figure on charango (a small Andean lute), over which he plays fragmented chords on guitar. (On this recording, Gonzalez returns to the extreme multi-instrumentalism of some of his earliest recordings.) Phelps responds with the deep, mournful song of his arco bass. Gonzalez's "Yarn" opens with a dialogue between Lakpriya's tabla and Phelps' darting pizzicato, to which the composer adds a brooding melody of Monkian abstraction. The recording captures every nuance of the group's intimate sound.

Turning the first record over, the Phelps/Gonzalez collaboration "Poem" opens with a burst of atmospheric percussive mystery from all three men, and the primeval sound of the shofar. (Ataraxia's music revels in multiculturalism.) On "Issy," a dedication to Gonzalez's beloved granddaughter and the album's first extended improvisation, Lakpriya establishes a loping groove over which Gonzalez is free to wander at leisure, shadowed by Phelps like a watchful parent. All three solo expressively, without ever departing far from the tune's path.

Side three opens with "Namesake," a standard from the Gonzalez canon (most famously recorded for Silkheart back in '87). Ataraxia's version has grown in confidence and assertiveness since I heard them play it last year. Lakpriya and Phelps keep their accompaniment relatively sparse and subdued while Gonzalez weaves one of his most intricate solos here. Then Phelps uses phrasing and space to swing propulsively, followed by another brief statement from Gonzalez, this time using a harmonizer, giving way to Lakpriya before they return to the theme. Phelps lifts the curtain on the trio composition "Parable" in a Charlie Haden-ish mood, then Lakpriya takes a solo turn, his hand drums evoking the spirit of lost ages. Gonzalez is particularly plangent here as the three men intertwine their sounds.

Phelps' "Thoink" was a high point of Ataraxia's performance last year, and it's even better here, at the top of side four. Lakpriya percolates underneath the composer's throbbing pulse, while Gonzalez dances on top. The Phelps/Gonzalez composition "Unguent" closes the proceedings with the bassist playing horn-like arco lines over clattering percussion. His harmonics reverberate against the sound of bells and gongs, bringing healing catharsis.

Ts'iibil Chaaltun is a fine document of a group whose music is rich in subtle detail, reminiscent of the AACM in Europe, Don Cherry's "world music," and sounds one can imagine from the beginning of time. If you're in or near the Metromess, you're strongly encouraged to take advantage of this weekend's opportunity to hear Ataraxia play this music in a small space that's conducive to deep listening.