How to advertise an evening of new music? Invite the public to hear part of it and be part of the performance itself. Earlier this evening in the high-ceilinged cafe/anteroom leading to Alice Tully Hall, International Contemporary Ensemble premiered group leader Nathan Davis’ gently mesmering electroacoustic composition simply and aptly titled Bells: they were scheduled to play later as part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing avant-garde Tully Scope festival. Perched in the balcony high overhead, Davis judiciously alternated between a series of bells and gongs, sometimes using mallets, other times bowing them for a flute or clarinet-like tone, at times smacking a huge Javanese gong behind him to add contrasting low, practically subsonic sustained tonalities. Below him, the rest of the group – Joshua Rubin on clarinet, Claire Chase on flute, Eric Lamb on both piccolo and gong – interjected occasional terse, sustained notes or simple motives while a dozen other players on “spatialized crotales and triangles” wandering casually, almost imperceptibly through the crowd. When they weren’t adding the occasional, spare accent, they moved among the audience holding up their phones. Taking a page out of the Phil Kline fakebook, Davis wrote the piece for audience participation: an engineer ran the mix through what seemed an endless series of echo and loop effects, then sent it out on four separate phone lines available to audience members to call and then play back on their phones as the group continued to play. Given the limited amplification of the phones in use, the addition of a potentially unlimited number of unique textures never really materialized since the musicians were amped so loudly, but in a larger space the effect would have been more significant.
With the addition of quadrophonic sound – speakers in every corner of the room, each with a different mix – the overall effect was as psychedelic as it was comforting. The piece unwound slowly, a spaciously pinging, ringing, and occasionally booming tone poem of sorts, with breaks where it seemed that it was playing back on itself, other times picking up the pace with all the musicians contributing. Although it spanned what seemed to be the entire audible sonic spectrum, the melody didn’t move around much from a central tone, octaves and overtones playing a large role in the overall picture. There was a brief moment of what seemed to be feedback, which was as bracing as expected; otherwise, a kaleidoscope of tonalities and textures moved through the frame, and out, and then sometimes back again. After roughly twenty-five minutes, nonstop, except for a brief pause about two-thirds of the way through, it wound itself out gracefully if a little unexpectedly. The only thing missing was the interior of a planetarium: imagine what could be done with this at the American Museum of Natural History!
Monday night in New York might not be professional night anymore – every night is Saturday for the pampered sons and daughters of the ruling classes – but vestiges of it remain. If only out of habit, crowds are still smaller on Mondays. A crawl around town last night started out disappointing and ended every bit as ecstatically as hoped. This week’s installment of Chicha Libre’s weekly Monday residency at Barbes was cancelled, and the early act playing in the back room wasn’t exactly setting the place on fire, so it was time to go to plan B: Small Beast.
Small Beast is now a global event. Founder and Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch has taken it on the road with him to the Stadt Theater in Dortmund, Germany, but the original weekly Monday night series at the Delancey has continued on, virtually nonstop since he moved. Last night’s was Beast #103, if memory serves right, and it’s safe to say that at this point, at least stateside, this Beast is cooked. The night doesn’t even have a web presence anymore – none of the rotating cast of musicians who book it have bothered to update the Small Beast myspace page, or create a new calendar somewhere else – and without Wallfisch and his bottomless rolodex of amazing dark rock and rock-related acts, it’s been on life support other than on the few nights where Vera Beren or Carol Lipnik have taken charge. Which is a shame: its first couple of years will go down in New York rock history for being every bit as exciting and cutting-edge as the early days of CBGB were. To make a long story short, last night the room was practically empty and there was good reason for that. At least the drinks were cheap.
But the night wasn’t over. Next stop was across the river at Union Pool where Rev. Vince Anderson made all the shlepping around in the cold worthwhile. The place was mobbed, as usual. Like Bowie or Madonna, he never ceases to amaze as he reinvents himself or his band. This time they opened with a long, hypnotically circling Afrobeat instrumental – maybe the presence of star trombonist Dave Smith, from the Fela pit band, had something to do with it. Later they did a fiery, minor-key reggae song with a Peter Tosh feel: “You have to know the law to break the law,” Anderson insisted again and again, pumping juicy organ chords out of his Nord Electro keyboard.
The first set peaked with a long dance contest. The Rev. works a crowd like nobody else in this town, and he got everybody screaming as a handful of brave contestants showed off their Big Man Dance moves. “This is for the oldschool people here tonight,” Anderson explained. “I wrote this when I was fifty pounds heavier.” This particular dance is a soul shuffle where you stick out your gut, hold your lower back and walk with your legs apart as if it’s midsummer and you’ve run out of Gold Bond Powder. After a couple of elimination rounds and endless tongue-in-cheek vamping by the band, the winner got to enjoy a few seconds of triumph, a free glass of whiskey and a big shout-out from Anderson. After that, the woman who serves as Anderson’s excellent backup singer led the band in a volcanic, psychedelic blowout of Amazing Grace that actually managed to transcend the song’s dubious origins (the guy who wrote it was the captain of a slave ship). Baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson showed her usual wry virtuosity and spectacular range, but it was guitarist Jaleel Bunton who sent it off into orbit and wouldn’t let up, through a warped, reverb-drenched bluesmetal solo that must have gone on for five minutes and was impossible to turn away from. Even when the rest of the band had all come back in, he wouldn’t stop, alternating between sizzling hammer-ons and eerie off-center atmospheric washes. After all that, Anderson’s usual singalong of This Little Light of Mine couldn’t help but be anticlimactic. That was it for the first set: by now, it was one in the morning, the temperature outside had dipped into the teens and it was time to get lucky and catch a shockingly fast L train home.
The long-awaited Johnny Cash – From Memphis to Hollywood is just out today. As Volume 2 in Sony’s Bootleg Series, following the amazing solo acoustic Personal File box set, it’s a must-own for Cash fans. As with any posthumous release from an icon like Cash, the operative question is whether there’s anything left in the vaults that’s worth releasing and the answer is an enthusiastic yee-ha! The songs that everyone will be salivating over include what sounds like a more or less complete radio show from May of 1955 broadcast over West Memphis, Arkansas’ KWEM and sponsored by a local home remodeling center. This performance with Cash’s Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins on lead guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass) is understandably tinny, but through a good system it sounds better than it must have to Memphis listeners that day. And those who prefer mp3s won’t notice the difference. How does Cash solicit requests? By encouraging listeners to mail them in to the station. And in a characteristic stroke of humility, he even offers to learn the ones he doesn’t know. Listen to Johnny fumble as he reads the commercials, and be prepared to be amazed at how much higher the timbre of his voice is. Part of it may be nerves (this was his live debut on radio), but it’s obvious that at this point in his young career, he hadn’t quite settled on his signature style. Songwise, we get Wide Open Road, One More Mile, a brief Luther Perkins guitar instrumental and a matter-of-fact reading of the requisite “sacred song,” Belshazzar.
The first of these two cds also includes almost two dozen solo demos, some from an unknown session from around the time of the radio show, others recorded at Sun Studios. To call them fascinating doesn’t do them justice. I Walk the Line has Cash doing the first couple of verses an octave higher than usual: he finally goes down into his bass register for the last one. It’s obvious that these songs were for sale to anyone who wanted them, and some people did want them, among them Ricky Nelson and Marty Robbins. There’s a heartfelt When I Think of You, the rockabilly Rock & Roll Ruby, Leave That Junk Alone – a cautionary tale to a drinker which is funny for completely unintentional reasons – along with an absolutely chilling Nashville gothic version of Goodnight Irene, and an eerie western swing shuffle version of Big River (complete with extra verse that didn’t make it onto the original single), which is worth the price of the album alone. By the time he recorded these, in 1957, he’d grown into the Man in Black.
The second cd collects singles, b-sides, demos and rarities, most of them previously unreleased in the US, many of them included on the 1969 More of Old Golden Throat compilation. Five Minutes to Live, from 1960, has a stunningly surreal eeriness, echoed in Shifting, Whispering Sands, a creepy duet with Lorne Greene. Send a Picture of Mother has a Maybelle Carter autoharp solo; One Too Many Mornings beats the Dylan original hands-down. Put the Sugar to Bed, a co-write with Carter, takes an oldtime hillbilly melody and grafts on Bob Johnson’s fuzztone psychedelic guitar to raise the WTF factor. There are a couple of understatedly potent antiwar numbers, the grisly battlefield scenario On the Line and his boyhood friend B.J. Carnahan’s Roll Call, which bombed as a single in 1967, memorializing Vietnam War casualties from their hometown. There’s also a handful of duds which really shouldn’t have seen the light of day again, but those take up barely ten minutes worth of space here. The question is not whether or not there’s more unreleased Johnny Cash out there; it’s whether or not it sounds good enough to make up a Volume 3 to follow this one. Let’s hope there is.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #707:
Lloyd Cole – Easy Pieces
The British janglerock songwriter made a splash in 1985 with his catchy Rickenbacker guitar-stoked debut, Rattlesnakes. Following up with this one a year later, just as Elvis Costello – the guy he most resembled at the time – had hit a barren period, it looked like the world of lyrical rock might have a new guy at the top. It never happened. Although Cole wrote some nice tunes after this one, he pretty much gave up on lyrics, which is too bad because these are ferociously smart and match the bite of the music. Rich, the stomping opening track, savages an old corporate type withering away in retirement; Pretty Gone takes no prisoners as far as lovelorn guys are concerned. Brand New Friend nicks a line from Jim Morrison and gives it some genuine intensity; there’s also the beautifully clanging Grace and Minor Character; the big college radio hit Cut Me Down, the morose and pretty spot-on Why I Love Country Music along with the chamber pop James and Perfect Blue, foreshadowing the direction he’d take later in the decade. If you like what you hear here, Rattlesnakes and 1989’s lushly orchestrated Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe are also worth a spin. Here’s a random torrent.