Makeup For The Silence

The digital home of music writer Jesse Richman

Makeup For The Silence

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Woody Guthrie at 100

My college years, 1997-2001, were kind of a strange time for me musically. The grunge/modern rock revolution had died and rotted into a nu-metal carcass. I’d grown up and thus grown out of indie rock, but hadn’t quite grown up enough to know how to fully welcome the boy band pop that was then dominating the charts into my world. The rise of emo, which would make me fall back in love with new rock music, was a few years away.

One genre that did grab me during those years was alt-country, which was bubbling under (and soon bubbled over when, in 2000, the release of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou thrust Americana into the mainstream, which led to a sort of faddish popularity that popularized it in the short term and basically killed it in the long). It was a Usenet group, alt.music.replacements, that turned me on to the Old 97’s, and from there, down the rabbit-hole I went. Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt, Slobberbone, Matthew Ryan, Bap Kennedy, Jon Dee Graham, I ate it all up. I was way more likely to be found reading a copy of No Depression or, later, Paste, than Rolling Stone or Alternative Press. I even made a point, on my cross-country move in late 2002, to pass through Austin as Austin City Limits festival was happening. (It’s much bigger and more diverse now, but at the time ACL Fest was still primarily about Americana in its various and sundry forms. That said, one of the highlights of the 2002 festival was seeing Luna play one of their final shows alongside a glorious sunset to close out the evening.)

The more I dug into the genre, the further back I went. Between the moon-rocket rise of internet file sharing and the impressively large catalog we had at WBRS (where I DJ’d a show called Southern Rail every Saturday afternoon from 1-3 for over a year) I had the opportunity to listen to everything from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to Jim & Jesse, John Hammond, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and more. Great music, and a great education.

And of course, as I climbed through the roots of American roots music, I ran repeatedly into Woody Guthrie. Prior to this, I had primarily known Guthrie as “the guy Bob Dylan was trying to be”, and not being much of a Dylan fan had never really paid him much attention, but the truth is that their songwriting styles could not be further apart. While both were masters of the clever turn of phrase and the biting quip, Woody’s music is so much more direct, sharply honed, rudimentary in the same way early garage rock and early punk were. His lyrics are poetic but they’re a sort of economical poetry, saying much while stating little, almost Hemingway-esque. I particularly adore his Dust Bowl Ballads, which are really just as political as his more overtly-political later work but get there in (what I find to be) more interesting ways.

Woody Guthrie succumbed to Huntington’s Disease (a particularly awful way to go, and one that affected his mind as much as his body, sadly) in 1967. Had he lived, he would be turning 100 today. I wish he were alive now; in a lot of ways, the culture wars of today don’t seem so different from the ones Woody fought during his days, and while I don’t think there’s much question as to what he’d say now I’d still like to hear him saying it. Sadly, it seems that the process of making Woody into an American Icon required remaking his image as something more broadly palatable. They say history is written by the winners, but sometimes it’s just rewritten to make it look like everybody was a winner.

I’m glad to see there’s been some publicity around Woody’s centenary; too often, he feels like a name consigned to history, but his music is readily available today, and while it might take a bit of time and tolerance to open up to the sound quality of early recordings, it’s not at all inaccessible. I enjoy the Mermaid Avenue albums, in which Billy Bragg and Wilco team up to set a trove of unrecorded Guthrie lyrics to new music, but while they’re worth your time they’re no substitute for the real deal. I can’t vouch for the newly-released Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection box set, but the Asch Recordings series of releases make for a great career survey, though personally I’d start by picking up Dust Bowl Ballads. And if you’re interested in learning more about Guthrie’s life (and you should be, he’s a truly fascinating character, a modern tragic hero) I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life, it’s one of the best musician bios I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them.

100 years after his birth, Woody Guthrie’s music is still out there, essentially hiding in plain sight. I’m glad I found it.

RIP Davy Jones

The very first concert I ever attended was The Monkees at the Oakdale Theater in CT in 1986.  Weird Al opened.  I was 6, almost 7. The Monkees had become a staple on the nascent Nickelodeon a year or two prior. I don’t think I had any conception of who the Beatles really were, or that the show was basically a take-off on “A Hard Day’s Night” and their other movies, but you didn’t need any kind of context to enjoy the Monkees and their lighthearted, goofy, off-kilter antics, not to mention the songs.

Ultimately, I saw the Monkees in concert four more times, mostly during my college years when my Monkees-obsessed friend Lee rekindled my dormant love for the group. We caught them together a couple times, including one memorable trek up to Lowell in a snowstorm to see them. We must have been the youngest people in attendance by a good 30 years, and of course Mike Nesmith wasn’t with the group (after a falling out in 1970, he had but one brief reunion with the band), but it was undeniably a blast. I had the opportunity to catch a sixth show last year but ended up passing it up.  I’m regretting that now.

I’m not going to write a Monkees history here; there are a number of truly excellent ones out there, just a Google away. Suffice it to say, while they were created, they were as great a creation as one could hope for; when they took hold of their own destinies, they became (briefly) even greater.  They began playing timeless classic songs written for them by others; they finished writing their own just-as-classic bits of timeless pop. It’s too easy to forget just how great the music was.

Davy only took a couple lead vocals on each album, and I think Mickey and Mike got most of the best songs.  Of Davy’s, “Daydream Believer” is undeniably the best, but you don’t really need to hear that one again (also, I’m sure you will be hearing it everywhere for the next week).  Of the rest, I think most people would argue for “Star Collector” or “Valleri”, but “Hard To Believe” is pretty damn good.

So fare thee well Davy Jones. There’s been too much death on this blog lately.  Is that what happens when you hit a certain age? Life turns into watching as pieces of your childhood die, one by one? I don’t remember signing up for this.

Introducing: The Justice Review Archive

Introducing: The Justice Review Archive

James O’Brien and Karaugh Brown: Live Performance at Cholmondeley’s

There’s something special about Chumley’s.   The little coffeehouse plays host to its fair share of student performances, and most of us have been by there for a scoop of ice cream and a cup of hot chocolate at some point.  But over the years, Chums has also welcomed some of the best and brightest performers in the folk world, a distinction that all to often goes unmentioned and unnoticed by the undergrad population.  Witness this Friday night, where before an appreciative crowd of 20 or 30 singer-songwriter James O’Brien offered up and hour and a half of caustic + Add New Category agony, resilient hope and some of the purest emotion I’ve ever seen grace a stage.

O’Brien is as much a shaman or a channeler as he is a folk singer – he summons forth the demons in his head and lets them speak their peace, wrestling to keep them under the harness of his powerful yawl, blasting them forth from an acoustic guitar with the power of a jackhammer and the precision of a jigsaw.  Shearing through his set with a punk-rock intensity, O’Brien nonetheless manages the perfect phrasing of a man who seems to know exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.

O’Brien is a master of control.  Vocally, he slides from a voluminous boom to a brittle falsetto with grace.  Instrumentally he does the same, deftly hopping from a gentle finger-picked introduction to a searing chorus, straining to contain the massive burst of energy flowing through his skinny frame.  It’s a radiant, contagious energy, the kind that jumps from the stage to the audience and sets a kinetic buzz about the room, one that was impossible not to pick up on in the cozy confines of Friday night’s show.

Opener Karaugh Brown played the stereotypical folk-waif – her 45 minute set adhered to all the conventions of the genre: complex lyrics, pretty but complicated melodies, weak choruses and little vocal range.  All well executed, Brown didn’t lack for talent, but for originality.  Still, the audience sopped it up, calling her back for one of those rare, unplanned encores.

originally written 4/29/01

Islam Awareness Week Event at Usdan Student Center’s International Lounge

In the first major event of this month’s Islam Awareness Week, attendees were treated to the art of Islam in its diversity.  On Monday night in the Usdan Student Center’s International Lounge, an audience of around sixty Brandeis students and friends had the opportunity to experience the modern expression of Muslim tradition through the physical art of Abdul Badi Abdul-Musawwir, the delectable delicacies of Turkish gourmet, and the rousing Muslim Sufi ear-stravaganza of members of the Cambridge Turkish Music Group.

Following a brief prayer session for the observant Muslims in attendance, artist Abdul-Musawwir took the floor.  Abdul-Musawwir introduced his work by introducing himself: the son of a half Cherokee/half African-American father and a mother of Dutch ancestry, he converted to Islam at 16 after a spiritually transformative vision of the word Allah while reading a Christian text.  Though he left art for 25 years (he spent much of that time as a counselor, including 10 years as the resident Imam of Walpole State Prison), he experienced a personal renaissance during a visit to the United Arab Emirates three years ago.

Abdul-Musawwir’s works are dually informed by his ken for modern art – during his talk, he cited Jackson Pollock and Modigliani, among others, as crucial influences – and his devotion to the Muslim faith.  Asserting that he strives to portray “humanity in its diversity and its unity at the same time” through his art, Abdul-Musawwir proceeded to unveil a series of slides of his work, primarily paintings and mixed-media compositions featuring pastels.

Much of the work he displayed focused on similar thematics, involving Islamic symbolism (both through traditional Muslim architecture and the different stylized forms of Arabic calligraphy) interweaved with modernist technique.  Most of the pieces displayed featured portions of text from the Koran and other holy Islamic works; generally, the work itself symbolically highlighted the themes of the textual inclusion.  Though it revealed itself most prominently in a work featuring the Arabic text “all praise be to Allah, the lord of all the worlds,” with the jagged lightning-strikes of text screaming towards the heavens in stark black and white, this type of symbolism pervaded much of Abdul-Musawwir’s work.

Other pieces required more explanation; one truly exquisite work (and oddly enough, his first) envisioning an abstracted mosque fronted with a funeral ground was explained as “the mosque is calling loudly; the graves are calling softly; can anybody hear me?”  Though his overweening use of monotones and the occasionally hodge-podge nature of a few of the selections presented detracted somewhat from the overall affect, Abdul-Musawwir’s art served well to further the religio-cultural dialogue.  Indeed, a question-and-answer session following the presentation turned into a short primer on the basic tenets of Islam.

Following a delicious catered dinner of traditional Turkish food including some perfectly sweet desserts, four members of the Cambridge Turkish Music Group (plus a Brandeis student who chose to join in the fun) presented a brief showcase of traditional Sufi Muslim music.  Featuring the steady propulsion of darbouka drums and the tortuous maneuverings on the fretboard of standout Turgay Erturk’s oud (musically, a cross between a guitar and a sitar; physically, a likely precursor to both) backing lyrics derived from the great Muslim spiritual poets Rumi and Yunnus Emre, the group took the audience through three pieces.

Aside from a few short introductory taksim (brief improvisory introductions to musical works), the focus of the music Monday night was on concentrated groupwork, the steady synchronization of drums and vocals amongst the members.  The resulting performance drew its power from its rigid focus as much as it’s liturgical theme.

Throughout the night, there was a clear cultural exchange – the crowd, seemingly about half Muslim and half not (if the earlier discussion was any evidence), took the opportunity to engage in their own discussions on religious pluralism and multiculturalism, during dinner and beyond.  As an art exhibition, Monday night’s program was a clear success; as a fundament to Islam Awareness Week, it was even more so.

originally written 4/03/01

Garageland – “Do What You Want”

Garageland hail from New Zealand.  Geography isn’t usually the best way to start off a review, but when it comes to Kiwis, there’s just no escaping it.  Perhaps it’s the distance; maybe it’s simply the isolation.  But whatever it is, New Zealand pop-rock (as well as the same from neighboring Australia) has a distinctive sound that can only be quantified as “Down Under-ness.”  It’s the kind of quirky sound that might escape from an alternate universe where the Replacements and Pavement were million-sellers and Kurt Cobain never got around to offing himself.  And it’s something Garageland deals in spades.

On “Do What You Want,” the band’s second release (and first with major stateside distribution), it’s a boon and a curse; the Kiwi sound is pretty unique, but to untrained American ears they sound like pretty much every other band from the land of sheep and more sheep.  Like Blur’s Damon Albarn on a bender, lead singer/songwriter Jeremy Eade moans and yowls his way through 13 tracks of droll, self-aware lyrical pap, while his schizophrenic backing band can’t remember when to crunch like Nirvana and when to prog-squeek like Radiohead.

Everything about Garageland screams “critic’s darlings.”  Well, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be that critic.  Garageland make the kind of conventional indie-rock you can hear wafting out of a thousand midwestern basements, none of it particularly inspired or interesting.  Apparently in New Zealand it makes for top twenty hits, but we’ll have none of that here thank you very much.

originally written 3/24/01

Judicial Revue 3 (Louis Magazine Fundraiser) – Live Performance at Schwartz Auditorium

(feat. track – “The Moon Got Broken” from No Love Lost by Kate Schutt)

Eclectic can be a good thing.  It’s nice to expose people to diversity, to let them know what’s really out there in the range of possibilities.  But sometimes eclectic doesn’t quite work.  Witness Saturday night’s Judicial Revue 3 fundraiser for Louis Magazine.

Perhaps it was that Culture X, Pachanga, and VoiceMale’s ICCA competition (among other events) were all scheduled for the same night.  But it seemed that while each performer drew a crowd of fans, none were interested in sticking around to see what else was going on.  The result: a lot of in-and-out traffic, a half-empty Schwartz auditorium, and a lot of people standing around waiting for their band of choice to take the stage.

The night’s slow start didn’t help.  While the night’s first two acts, The Royal We and Good Question turned in the requisite effort, both could use a little more work (and in the case of Good Question, a drummer certainly wouldn’t hurt).  Still, on a campus that’s rapidly becoming devoid of a music scene, every little bit helps.

Chappie and Pals faired far better in their semi-acoustic set.  Though it took a couple tracks to get into sync (especially with Matt DiCarlo ‘02, filling in on congas for the night), things hit their groove for the band with cover of 99 Red Balloons featuring a balloon drop over the crowd.  As entertaining for their antics as for their music, the band pulled out all the stops for their set –at one point, Mark Hopkins ’03 took out Josh Chappie ’03 with a flying tackle mid-song, and the entire band bared their chests at sets close.

Following Chappie were two Boston-based ska-core acts, Formula 1 (who leaned heavier towards the ska end of the spectrum) and Dow Jones and the Industrials (who took the “core” end head-on).  Both bands brought their own crowds with them, which was fortunate because by that point in the night the Brandeis contingent had abandoned Schwartz Auditorium almost entirely.  But for those who stuck around, both bands turned out excellent, energetic sets.

Still, by 1:00 a.m. the Brandeis audience had come back, in time for folk-punk Kate Schutt’s triumphant return to campus.  Schutt, recently off a tour plugging her just-released Brokenwingtrick, has built up quite a following here on campus, and from her set on Saturday night it was obvious as to why.  Schutt’s burning intensity absolutely explodes off the stage, and it kept the awestruck crowd dead silent for nearly her entire set.  Judicial Revue 3  was a long, late night by all accounts, but as seems to be an increasingly common event at Brandeis, Kate Schutt made it all worthwhile.

originally written 3/18/01

Ed note: I could not find any contemporaneous music from any of the artists referenced, so I opted for a track from Schutt’s 2007 release.

Company B “Commando” CD Release Coffeehouse live performance at Cholmondeley’s

Celebrating the release of their latest CD “Commando”, Company B pulled out all the stops this past Wednesday Night at Chumleys.  Spurred on by sterling performance from the University of Texas at Austin’s Ransom Notes, the B stepped up their already-strong game.  Though they stuck almost entirely to tunes on their CD, Company B proved that nothing compares to a live performance, flashing some secret-agent flair, come-hither coos and the occasional raunchy pantomime during their 45 minute headlining set.

Highlights of the set included Brendan Gannon ‘01 making like a sleazy 70’s hipster while showing off some formidable pipes in a rendition of Hot Chocolate’s disco-cheese number “You Sexy Thing” and Stacie Guthrie ’02 purring her way through the Cole Porter pop-jazz classic “Too Darn Hot.”  And as far as full-group performances go, no group on campus can match the precision timing and pitch-perfect harmonies of “I’m a Train,” which went off without a hitch.

Still, in a solid set punctuated by a few moments of brilliance, Company B saved the best for last, when the group pulled Leana Palmer ’01 from the audience to sing lead on “Chain of Fools.”  Palmer’s sultry, heartfelt solo brought the crowd to a reverential silence.  It was one of those rare perfect moments – the crowd hypnotized, all eyes forward – that just can’t be adequately put into words.

After an opening set by the Late Night Players, UT-Austin’s Ransom Notes put on an entertaining set, priming the crowd for Company B with covers of modern rock tracks like the Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly” and Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta’.”  Closing with an impressively devious take on the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” the Ransom Notes performance made for a pleasant surprise.  Still, it was Company B’s show, and they laid claim to it with a strong performance on Wednesday night.

originally written 3/18/01

Henry Rollins – A Rollins In The Wry

Henry Rollins, punk’s poet laureate and the posterboy for early 90’s angry-rock, seems like the kind of intimidating bulldozer you’d hope not to stumble across in a dark alley post-midnight.  But for all his tattoos and biceps, Rollins has a humorous side as well.  He rarely lets it peek out in his music; he’s a little looser about it during his multiple TV appearances.  But it’s in his spoken word where the man’s sense for sarcasm ultimately shines.  “A Rollins in the Wry,” recorded over a series of nine live talking sets at Luna Park in Los Angeles, culls together some of his better moments.

“In the Wry” catches Rollins in a Denis Leary mood, witty, sharp and always on the edge of popping, letting the tension build around his lengthy jokes.  He doesn’t shoot for punchlines; rather, he lets his tales ebb and flow, with he wittiest remarks rarely reserved for stories’ end.  He’s not a comedian, and he doesn’t try to be one.  Rather, he’s the anthropologist, the writer, the observer with a genius for pointed expression, the loveable smarmy bastard-with-attitude.

But while Rollins can be bitterly sarcastic, he’s rarely vicious – perhaps it’s the result of years sleeping on the floor of a van, perhaps its always been in his personality, but Rollins seems to have an overwhelming respect for his targets.  In one of the disc’s funniest moments, Rollins gets almost reverential towards Bill Clinton’s agile defense to the Lewinskygate charges.  He hits on everything from homosexuality to foreigners to bad poets without ever sinking to -isms and phobias.  Its as though, in Rollins’ world, no topic is too sacred to opine on, and yet all things are treated with respect.  If there’s anyone he refuses to hold back on, it’s himself, and his self-criticism makes for a downright honest recording.

“A Rollins in the Wry” plays like a book reads – Rollins’ wit is dry, his flow literary, and you walk away feeling a little smarter for having experienced it.

originally written 3/17/01

Roberto Vizcaino – Live Performance at Cholmondeley’s

In a year where Steely Dan can walk away with Album of the Year while Eminem gets the shaft, it seems hard to put any stock in the Grammy awards.  But broken down beyond the hype, cultural relevance and superslick studio production, there’s one thing that all Grammy winners share: overwhelming talent, far enough beyond their fellow musicians that even their so-called peers seem merely adequate.  It’s in their ability to bring music beyond the creative arrangement of sound, to make it inspire feeling, emotion, dance and trance, energy and synergy.  And it’s something Roberto Vizcaino has in spades.

Roberto Vizcaino, music scholar and Grammy-winning percussionist, graced a packed Chumleys with his demure presence this past Tuesday night.  On leave from his native Cuba to tour and teach in the United States, Vizcaino proved ever the educator.  His lesson Tuesday night — that one inspired man, with only his hands, can reach the emotional pinnacles even symphonies only grasp at.  Stunning the crowd in an hour-long performance, Vizcaino banged and thumped through a set of primarily traditional Afro-Cuban tunes with an assured know-how and a deft mastery of his drums.

On the stage all by his lonesome, Vizcaino made like a master chef, mixing a dash of rumba with a taste of jazz, stirring the audience to a frenzy, bringing the air in Chum’s to a boil, backing down and letting the beat stew simmer.  His original compositions rose and fell with grace, but the credit belongs most of all to Vizcaino’s astute sense of his audience, his ability to manipulate the proceedings, to bring about tension and release at just the right moments.  His mining of traditional Cuban music and its African roots made like a history syllabus, and the inclusion of a few better known crowd-pleasers like the anthemic “Guantanamera” kept everyone focused front and center.

Though he confines his instrumentation to drums, Vizcaino’s skill is in utilizing them as agents of melody.  For the majority of his time on stage he confined himself to a set of four congas, each tuned to a different note.  But this limited arsenal, when combined with Vizcaino’s seemingly limitless styles of playing, allowed for a stunning range of tonal alterations, varying timbres and just outright cool effects.  Just as the best a capella groups manipulate the human voice into a lush backdrop of instruments, Vizcaino’s drums sing, squeal and hum.  And when he added in a few more percussion choices, working with both stick and hand drums at once, singing and stomping all in time, it was akin to watching an entire band perform.

He speaks almost no English (he was frequently joined on stage by Naama Laufer ‘03, whose admirable attempts at translation provided for some of the night’s funnier moments), but it mattered not on Tuesday — Vizcaino is living proof of the universality of music as a language.  Almost entirely without words, he communicated a depth of history and experience that the longest of books would be hard-pressed to match, and when he invited the audience to sing along in words foreign to most, it was clear that the meaning was part and parcel with the melody.

The audience, for its part, responded with a healthy enthusiasm.  Grooving gently, absorbing the music slowly at first, the entire crowd was dancing along (to a few hastily-taught steps) by the show’s climax.  Though a few attempts at letting the fans clap along failed miserably, their excitement trumped their lack of rhythm in the end.  But while Vizcaino worked his hardest to involve the crowd in the musical process, it was clearly his show from start to finish.

Which is as it should have been.  It’s a rare opportunity to witness a talent on the level of Roberto Vizcaino in such an intimate setting; for the lucky audience at Chums on Tuesday night, it’s a moment they’re not likely to forget.

originally written 3/17/01

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