Saturday, November 26, 2011

Janelle Monae, The Hearers and A Trip to the Moon

Gestures of love connect the seemingly desparate artistic events in my past day.  The image that stands for all the rest takes place by the bar of Lawrence's Jackpot Saloon last night.  Two men, probably musicians I don't know, running into each other after some time has passed.  I accidentally watch too long and notice that their welcoming hug turns into a brief squeeze and a softness in the eyes.  These street tough--looking dudes love each other.

Less overt but just as palpable an affection filled the Jackpot's air all night.  Such warmth even flowed through and from the swamp-blues-by-way-of-punk Mad Kings and the ironic gutbucket stomps served up by Drakkar Sauna.  Soft eyes all around.  The college kids may have gone home, but those who have returned were back with long chosen families.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the set by the Hearers, a band that can typically only get together for an annual Thanksgiving show at the Brick because they have migrated to every corner of the map.  Last night's show was apparently down two members from the Brick, and it got cut way down as the last of three late sets, still I couldn't tell what I was missing.  What I do know is that watching the Hearers' stage framed by loving, perfectly placed strokes of harmonica and glockenspiel by Jay Kakert and sweet backing vocals and keyboards by Chris Braun spoke to the deep camaraderie of this band, a band that lovingly crafts songs that seem like pure studio magic, into a wonderous, heartfelt live experience.  It was a beautiful set to close a beautiful night.

And that includes all of my night, which started in the early evening with my wife and youngest daughter at the mayor's Christmas tree lighting in Crown Center.  I had to go because Janelle Monae, a young woman I've written about three times in just over the past year (for this blog, for Pitchweekly and for Rock & Rap Confidential), a woman who gives me a lot of hope not just for the vision of Kansas City artists but for the state of contemporary music, had been invited to help mayor Sly James flip the switch on the Christmas Tree.

Accompanied by Nate "Rocket" Wonder of the Wondaland Arts Society she helped create in Atlanta, Georgia, Monae left her bandmate's side and joined the mayor to say a few words in support of the Christmas tree fundraiser for the city's poorest.  She spoke briefly, pointing out that she was from the other Kansas City across the river (not adding that she was from a part of KCK, Quindaro Avenue, that receives precious little attention from the larger city), but instead, adding, "but I'm all about unity, and I carry all of Kansas City with me wherever I go."

Those were important words to inspire youth who look up to her, a young woman who has gone from being virtually unknown to working with P. Diddy and Big Boi in the past few years, and just in the past year (and some change), to touring with everyone from Of Montreal to Bruno Marrs, Katie Perry, Prince and Stevie Wonder.  As her father once explained to me, the wonderous science fiction universe she's created in her lyrics and that incredibly eclectic music that merges Sun Ra to Nat King (and Natalie) Cole to Michael Jackson and OutKast, all of it, in some ways came as a retreat from a city she knew as essentially some hard mean streets.  To know how much thought and perspective went into the honesty of Monae embracing Kansas City as she did last night made it all the more poignant.

And the fact that Monae's three suite releases were inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 magical celluloid accomplishment (and 99%-er political statement) Metropolis connected directly with the joy I experienced today, again with my wife and youngest daughter, at Martin Scorcese's Hugo.  Taking any of the joy out of experiencing this film by saying too much about the heart of its mystery would be wrong.  But I have to say two things.  I am extraordinarily thankful to see one of our finest filmmakers make thematically and visually smart use of 3D.  More importantly, Scorcese made a brave choice with this film, particularly considering the cynicism of his canon, to focus on light in the darkness, in this case, the very real light of the motion picture's first great visual magician, George Melies.  Hugo is a love letter to Melies, that and much, much more.

Though I feel fairly confident that no one will ever try to write about Janelle Monae, the Hearers and Martin Scorcese all together again [wouldn't it be great if I'm wrong?], what they have in common strikes me, tonight, as something vivid and heartening.  Inherent in their make up, but also particularly vivid in the present tense, these artists all reach for the moon with their work, and that kind of vision is hard to come by (even among many of our finest artists, musicians and otherwise).  After all, when the Hearers sing "the stars can be your home/they're not very far away," Darren Welch's sweet lyric fights its way through Marc Tweed's agonized cries of doubt.  But what emerges from that struggle is a sense the limits of our imaginations are only problems to be solved.  All these artists show hearts and minds together find a way.   

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lean Forward Again: The Bottle Rockets Unplug, Storytell and Fashion Warming Light from Biting Darkness

The title Not So Loud reminds me of when the Bottle Rockets blew out the speaker system Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit hoped to use (they fixed it, he did) in Carbondale, Illinois.  The Bottle Rockets can pretty much define the word loud, and righteously so, which may be part of why I let this acoustic set kick around my floor a couple of months before playing it. Or maybe (more likely) it was just my usual "glued to the ceiling, spinning around" state-of-mind.  On either count, the band gave me what I needed this Black Friday morning, running errands on a cold, gray day, still overstuffed from yesterday and lonesome in that way only the holidays can make us lonesome.

For starters, lead singer, primary songwriter and--as shown here--hot banjo enthusiast, Brian Henneman makes great company.  His introductions are always warm and often very funny, nowhere more so than on the hilarious story about trying to see Dolly Parton amidst a hostile St. Louis crowd, an experience which led to the song, "Perfect Far Away."  The humor takes an edge off hard pathos when he talks about the year Doug Sahm and both of his parents died.

"Not saying Doug Sahm was as influential as my mom and dad, but he was actually more influential musically than my mom and dad were, so it was a heavy year to be sure, for me.  So, we sat around and we waited and we waited and we waited for the Doug Sahm tribute album to come out because they'd made tribute albums to everybody I could possibly think of and people I didn't even know who they were."

When it didn't happen, the band decided to make Songs of Sahm.  Before starting up a beautiful version of "I Don't Want to Go Home," Henneman says, "I was really mad at my musical peers for not doing it.  It was kind of like they should have known better....I always thought he was a superstar.  I had no idea he was obscure anywhere...."  John Horton earns special kudos for the way his lap steel delivers all the yearning that goes beyond words here, just as he does later on "Kit Kat Clock," a song Henneman describes as a "little kid's favorite song about an old guy who's feeling very sad about being an old guy."

"Early in the Morning" and "Kerosene," of course seem made for this treatment, but a rich-textured song like "Gravity Fails" proves remarkably durable and infectious in this setting.  "Turn for the Worse" and the barn burner "Rural Route" (both of which feature that aforementioned banjo and guest guitarist Kip Loui) never sounded better than they do here.  Keith Voegele's upright bass and Mark Ortmann's "shaky things" add just the right traction to make this "Rural Route" both fun and dangerous.

But nothing here could be more poignant than the closer, "Mom & Dad," a song from 2003's Blue Sky, a song about talking to lost parents while mowing their lawn, picking up their mail and petting their cat.  It's a song about those questions we all ask the dead, that dialogue that doesn't stop simply because one speaker's not here anymore to take part in the conversation.  In a way, it's about the leap of faith that goes into writing a song, often as not, a conversation with ghosts. 

And with guys like me....driving around on a holiday morning, needing the sort of magic to be found on a record like Not So Loud.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sara Swenson, the Pearl Snaps and the Soft Touch of Human Ties

It's a kind of irony that Sara Swenson's most famous song, "Time to Go," featured on the season finale of ABC's "Private Practice," is about letting go.  Of course, valuing such an act enough to sing about it comes from thinking about our need for one another, and Swenson's music is about such precious needs.  More often than not, it's about holding on.

Give or take that slippery fish on "Windows and Doors," her new EP, Never Left My Mind, showcases Swenson's voice as a means of connection--reaching out to a lonesome friend across a crowded room ("Never Left My Mind") and holding on "till the morning brings the daylight" ("Brother").  On verses, Swenson's words sound carefully weighed (if you can imagine the ballast that goes into the bouyancy of a Dolores O' Riordan), but when that soaring voice takes flight--with wings I can only describe as a kind of Gaelic lilt--she gathers the listener close against her well above the hard surface of the earth.

She knows "this night's impossible alone," and the musicians surrounding her, the Pearl Snaps, provide true fellowship in the darkness.  Roger Strong's pulsing bass and the driving rhythms and splashes of color from Brandon Graves' drums create the almost invisible foundations necessary for such ethereal work.  They also serve up a whip smart crack on "Windows and Doors" that more than bolsters Swenson's confrontation with an unreliable charmer--turning what could be profound sadness and vulnerability into irreverent strengths.  The guitar work by both Ian Davidson and John Flynn never calls much attention to itself but serves just the right grace notes to complement Swenson's vision.

A perfect example of the way this band works together can be heard on the closing cut, "Always and Everywhere."  Acoustic guitar and mandolin begin a soft conversation behind Swenson's nearly a capella opening pledges.  On the second verse, Sarah Magill's piano works its way in alongside Davidson's steel, and the band's sound builds, turning the song's promises into a kind of manifesto.

Perhaps the most poignant moment here, though, is the quiet, long lonesome night of "Brother."  Piano and electric guitar, drums and cymbal begin drawing beautiful soundscapes across the night sky.  When Swenson sings, "I can't take this dark all on my own," anyone listening can be thankful she doesn't have to.  Thanks to this EP, neither do we.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Wyco Low Riders Save My Blog (Or Is That My Heart?)

It's not all Don Lipovac's fault, but he's the most obvious culprit.  After all, his name was evoked twice Saturday night, by both Johnny Hamil (speaking for Mr. Marco's V7) and Jason Beers (speaking for the Brannock Device).  The King of Polka in Wyandotte County, internationally reknowned accordianist and bandleader Don Lipovac, genuinely inspired these two sons of the Dot, and their dedications were heartfelt.  With some slight irony, in each case, the music that followed might well seem designed to scare off any Don Lipovac fans who may have wandered into the house.

But I don't think it would actually.  It might well scare off most people who think they like cutting edge, avant garde indie rock (a style which seems more rigidly codified than the most traditional folk music) because such folks aren't used to having every presumption they ever owned about music overturned with such frenzied glee.  And glee is the word for that mad delight shining off of Johnny Hamil's face as he percolates feedback off of his nearly horizontal upright bass, and glee is what I sense behind that sly smile when stoic madman Jason Beers lets such things slip, for instance during dueling basses with Hamil on an Iron Maiden cover.  Yes, that sentence makes sense.

These folks are ornery, and ornery means playful, and that's at least one thing they have in common with Mr. Lipovac.  If I remember one thing from a Don Lipovac show, it's that it's the definition of fun.  The other thing both Mr. Marco's V7 and the Brannock Device have in common with the Don Lipovac Band is extraordinary musicianship.  Marco Pascolini is in both bands, and if he's not the finest evil genius on guitar in the Twin Cities (yeah, those of us who claim the Dot can say that), he deserves the chance to fight for his title.  Not taking notes Saturday night, I can't tell you a thing Pascolini did beyond surprise me with sounds I didn't think could possibly fit with everything else going on at the same time but, in fact, seemed to be part of the glue--or the electro magnetic field--that held things together.

I mean, a universe separates Mr. Marco's Arthur C. Clarke drunk on blotter lounge music--which can turn toward some kind of manic Turkish jam whenever it feels like it--from the Gang of Four circa Entertainment meets X doing its Ornette Coleman set vibe of the Brannock Device.  But that universe has folds, you know, and to be at a show with the two together puts a listener in Warp Drive.  All of it makes sense.

It makes sense that--during the Mr. Marco's set--Jason Beers takes the stage playing saw between Kyle Dahlquist and Mike Stover (both playing theramin) for an earnest cover of "Bali Hai."  And it makes sense that 14 bass players take the stage at once, including a woman better known for her fiddle (Betse Ellis) and another known for her voice (Elaine McMilian), and do a cover of "Boris the Spider" with KC's premier rock and roll showman Cody Wyoming. It makes sense that twice as many people as are on stage are watching this nearly all bass player band, the Wyco Low Riders, at 2:00 in the morning.  And it makes sense that one of the city's finest drummers, Kent Burnham, is willing to lend this molar drilling exercise his unabashed, supple and explosive, support.

It makes sense because this collaboration of over two dozen of Kansas City's finest musicians is born out of a great deal of love and mutual respect for the music and each other.  It's also born out of both the desire to have fun and the guts to risk making a fool out of one's self in the process.  It's born out of what it means to realize what it means to Be Here Now, as the good book says, and appreciate those around you.  I can't help but think those are sentiments close to the heart of what makes truly experimental music enduring.  That which challenges us the most, may even make us cringe, also asks us to stay present and in dialogue with the moment (and hopefully those around us).

I don't know.  That's what it told me Saturday night (Sunday morning).  It told me 5 years into my blog I might try writing a blog, not use the thing as simply a warehouse for writing that has no home.  I'm so dissatisfied with the state of music writing anywhere and everywhere right now, I need to vent, I need to experiment, I need to talk back.  Why not use this space, at least for now?  And why not not worry about whether what I'm writing is ready for the world?  I need to Occupy the whirlwind of activity around me in a more aggressive and present way, for my own mental health if nothing else.  For my sense that I can do that, I thank Jason and Johnny and all the shamalama shamen and shawomen who took the stage Saturday night.  Thanks to you, I'm ready to play.