Bite Your Tongue 2 (feat. Lucky Dragons, Corpusse, Nif-D, Feuermusik, Castlemusic)
Centre of Gravity. Saturday, November 21, 2009.
The furthest east I've been for a gig since... well, since the last Bite Yr Tongue. That lovely affair came with more headlining starpower. This time I was buying more out of trust for the organizers' curatorial skills. And headed to... a circus training school?
Indeed. The venue turned out to be a large, high-ceilinged room that gave the impression that it might have been a theatre once, long ago. A stage at the far end, with plenty open space in front and the floor sloping up a bit towards the back, where there was a sitting area across from the beer-dispensing bar. Circus equipment — unicycles, juggling balls, hula hoops — was stowed along the walls1. A large plastic sculpture by Jon McCurley, looking like an enormous fruit roll-up, was suspended over the stage. I rolled in a bit before nine-thirty, a few people scattered loosely around, listening to a cool mix of tunes.
Without much in the way of introduction, Jennifer Castle (who operates under the bandonym Castlemusic) launched into her set, sitting casually at the lip of the stage and slowly building up a guitar groove before unfurling her admirable pipes. The smallish early crowd hunched forward some and largely sat down — some of us up front on the cold concrete floor — and generally listened attentively. Gorgeous stuff, as always — as if the McGarrigle sisters went down to the crossroads at midnight, guitars in hand, waiting for the devil to make that deal to be the best guitar player in the world, only to get bored and settle for some brown acid from a passing mendicant. Her last album ('08's You Can't Take Anyone) was a pretty lovely bit of work, and accompanied by a string of fine performances before pausing for some parental leave. It seems like Castle is returning to live duty, and is quite worth checking out. Here, she played the bulk of her set as one continuous piece, hypnotically weaving one song into the next for over twenty minutes before pausing to chat with the crowd. A couple songs were performed a capella, her voice filling up the big room nicely. Ended with a nice diptych, the no-joy-in-here "For My Friends" (it begins "for my friend there is no sunny days", and things go downhill from there) was countered by a closing cover of Janis Joplin's "Get It While You Can".
Listen to a part of this performance here.
Next up was Feuermusik, the longstanding duo of Gus Weinkauf (plastic buckets used as drums) and Jeremy Strachan on sax. I'd seen Strachan playing in a couple different contexts recently, but this was the unit that brought him most sharply into the public eye. The stripped-down format gives the music2 a raw immediacy, like street-corner buskers that aren't going to mess around too much with abstraction until they've caught your attention with a tune. After an opening number (that included some jaunty Ayler riffs) the pair were joined by dancer Abbe Findley (visiting from Kansas City) — appropriately enough starting with the aptly-titled "Holding - Sway". Now, there's a whole lot that I don't know about "The Dance", so I'm hardly qualified to offer much in the way of insight, but it was interesting to see a different kind of improvisation tossed into the mix. During "Tyranny of Appearances", Findley definitely did seem to catch an idea, playing off the differences between the textures of the two players — moving more smoothly to the saxophone's flow while moving in a clockwork-like mechanical rhythm3 to the drumming. The pair closed out the set with a rousing run through the supremely catchy "Doppelspiel".
Listen to a track from this set here.
"It's okay to clap — and it's okay to dance," said Matt Smith (a.k.a Nifty and/or Nif-D) as he started his set. Some folks were milling around, some still sitting on the floor as he flicked the switch and starting stitching his loops together, bent over his laptop and case full of electronics. He let things build up for about five minutes before a big beat kicked in and suddenly the place was full of people dancing. After a few minutes the track ended and he started another, this one kicking right into dance mode — and holding the groove for about ten minutes. Rhythmically intense, there were vocals buried back in the mix, but they were very much just one more flavour until the drums loops fell out and he eased things back with a one-man chorus of voices building up until the beat kicked back in. Effective in a get-the-floor-moving kind of way — not the sort of thing that's suited for over-thinking. Not especially my thing, but I will say this: I have seen Smith play three or four times in different contexts at different kinds of shows, and he always does a good job of melding his sound to suit the crowd and the environment. So even if I wasn't totally moved, I can report it was a great success.
Listen to an excerpt from this performance here.
And then — oh my — Corpusse.4 The music, provided by an unspeaking accomplice standing behind a raised dais, kicked in — synthesizers and a drum machine, what we woulda called, back in my day, minimalist industrial. But under Corpusse's presence, it was pure metal. Metal... as irony-free performance art. Dressed in black, with tattooed arms, kabuki raccoon eyes, a feather boa and hair spiked a foot high above his forehead. And lyrics spat out in an angry demon voice: "Wake up Suzanne Sommers! Wake up Lindsey Buckingham! Wake up... Kevin Costner! It's time! It's time! It's time! It's time... to... die!" Most of his lyrics were equally quotable, the next one beginning: "I have a feeling... tonight.... will be HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRD!" This song turned out to be about panties.
Y'know how, in regards to some vaguely transgressive things, people will say, "I didn't think he'd go there, but he went there!" Well, Corpusse went there, drooled on it, keeled over, and started humping the air before crawling around the stage. Singing all the while. Which is to say that the show was a mind-blowing spectacle on several levels all at once. Lyrically, the closest kin that I can think of would be Steve Albini's deadpan investigations of some of the lower emotional urges, but at operatic pitch. And physically, Corpusse was one hundred per cent into it, meaning the whole thing was hilarious, absurd. And yet — dare I say it? — poignant. In our day-to-day world, to just get by, you gotta compromise a little bit on pretty much everything. This is one man not compromising.5 Kinda awesome, kinda alarming.
Sound alone doesn't do it full justice, but check out a track from this set here.
That was such a weirdly immersive experience that it seemed unlikely anything would top it. And I had no knowledge whatsoever of the night's final band, Lucky Dragons out of Los Angeles, who were soon busily setting up in the middle of the floor. Their equipment actually looked something like a campfire, with a ring of gear including a laptop, some other electronic gear, a pile of stones, and a bunch of... sticks wrapped in fabric? The crowd loosely gathered about the pair in a circle, those up front sitting on the floor as the music began. With Sarah Rara adding etherial vocal loops, it was a chill sort of beginning — blurred slo-mo projections creeping across the blank wall across from the bar. Luke Fischbeck added some percussion and played a recorder, controlling things on his laptop. That classic slow build, I thought to myself, I've seen bands do this before.
But soon, the band wasn't doing it. Fischbeck picked up a rock from the pile and held it over what I'd taken to be some sort of effect pedal. It turned out to be a proximity sensor, and as he moved the rock over it, it triggered a pleasing oscillating noise. He repeated the action a couple times, passing the rock over on different directions and getting different noises... and then passed the rock on to someone sitting in the front rank of the crowd. So they tentatively passed the rock over the sensor as Fischbeck indicated that the rocks were there for the crowd's use. So, soon there were plenty of blurbling noises. And a couple enterprising types started banging rocks together to accompany Rara on percussion. Then Fischbeck started handing out the stick-things, with cords that led back to a patchboard in the centre of everything. They were drumsticks, or transmitting drumsticks in some manner, and as the people they were handed to started tapping the floor with them, their rhythms were added to the mix. The band were crowdsourcing their musical inputs!
But then came the ne plus ultra. Fischbeck handed out another stick connected to the patchboard, but this one with a bare metal end that he indicated the crowdmember should wrap their fist around, while he did the same thing with another stick. Then, he touched their fist with his other hand, completing the circuit and setting off a noise. He handed out more of the leads and reached from one person to another, setting off "their" noises. If that made the audience members smile with delight, it was nothing compared to the moments of realization — and I saw some expressions that looked straight out of the first part of 2001 — when the people with the probes realized they could complete the circuits by touching each other.
Soon Fischbeck's interventions weren't required as the crowdmembers spontaneously experimented with different connections and circuit bridges, creating an ever-evolving soundscape. Meanwhile, there were more cymbals and percussion instruments being passed around to add to the rhythm as Fischbeck subtly guided the process, shaping the envelope on his laptop and adding different elements of the live performance into the mix. It was a half-hour performance, and it was rather incredible, that simple caveman pleasure of making music together being enough to make it into a transformative experience. I left feeling a warm glow and amazed by what I'd just seen — even if I didn't actually remember what the music sounded like afterwards.
Hear the ending part of this experience here.
All told, an excellent night. Again, a superb job by the crew behind this — not only smoothly executed, but obviously very well thought out. Like crate diggers finding cool, obscure tracks to present to the public, this lot are digging out new spaces and new situations and I feel richer for having attended. Bring on Bite Your Tongue #3!
1 And it's a mark of credit that I didn't see any of the attendees try and play with any of the equipment close at hand. In fact, all things told, this was a rather good audience — attentive during a range of pretty diverse acts, there wasn't a single jabbering jerk that needed a good glaring at.
2 Er, or should that be the musik?
3 Bringing to mind, say, shades of Hoffmann's Olympia.
4 Pronounced corpus.
5 Corpusse's philosphy, as outlined on his website, underlines this: "Stay true to yourself./ Do whatever you want./ Don't let anyone tell you what to do./ Where there's a will, there's a way./ Fuck the banking job./ This is what I'm going to do./ This is what has to support me./ It has to be done./ There is no alternative./ This is it. This is my life./ I'll die doing this."