Saturday, July 26, 2008

Toiling Midgets, 7/25/08, Bottom of the Hill, SF

Despite being very tired on a Friday evening, I managed to drag my ass over to SF from Oakland to catch the reunited Toiling Midgets at the Bottom of the Hill.
The two opening bands, Vir and Index of Clouds, played atmospheric, droney music. Vir was better when the singer stopped singing and played his reverb, chorus, and echo slathered guitar. Index of Clouds reminded me a lot of Painless Nights era Sleepers, minus vocals. Both bands played ambitious, long songs; this can sometimes feel a bit boring in a live setting, so I drifted in and out of appreciation.
The Midgets set seemed pretty ramshackle at times, and Craig looked to be going through some serious tech problems with his pedals. When they did hit their classic interlocked Hood and Gray guitar lines, though, it was glorious. I can't think of band that uses guitars as ethereal voices so well. For me, Toiling Midgets conjure up one of the best soundtracks for San Francisco's weirdly opaque environment. I guess they're not really a functioning band that rehearses a lot, so I chose forgive the occasional lapses and hold out for their shining moments, of which there were several. Their music pretty much requires this from a listener. They're not going to solicit for approval, so one has to take the music in on it's own terms. I bet they make their best music when no one else is around. I don't hold that against them. I woke up this morning with that sound still careening around in my head. The music had it's intended effect. I hold them in high regard.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Steppenwolf-Slow Flux

I'd venture to guess that for folks of my age and consumer profile, the initial exposure to Steppenwolf came from Heavy Metal glossy mags or compilations, extolling the band for their early utterance "Heavy Metal Thunder!". My first encounter with their sound came from their inclusion on an early 1980's Metal comp LP, Metal Battle . Included among tunes by then-current rockers such as Praying Mantis, Ian Gillan Band, Point Blank, and Angel Witch, was Born to be Wild. The liner notes featured an early press shot of the band, and of course noted their historical precedence to the early 80's proliferation of Metal. Through the years I've always enjoyed their music, long after the enthusiasm for most Heavy Metal passed from me. Any time Magic Carpet Ride or Sookie Sookie or, yes, Born to Be Wild (dig that drum break!), come on the radio, you'd best not touch the dial if I'm in the car with you.
Slow Flux is the debut recording from Steppenwolf's middle period, recorded after a two year breakup/hiatus, in 1973. In it's outward appearance, it looks like what could be an exercise in pre-Punk pro Rock bloat. The cover image appears half-baked (what is that stuff that the logo is rising up out of?), and the band pics make them look pretty dorky. Despite the homeliness, I took a a $2.98 chance on Slow Flux several years ago. It's a decision that I'm happy to have made.
Slow Flux is a record that rocks, but you have to listen really closely for that effect. Many of the songs sound outwardly to be stylistic exercises, but if you dig into the way in which the instruments hang together, and to the attention paid to tonal details, and you'll get it. Steppenwolf use 1970's Rock forms like boogie, biker, and work ballad on Slow Flux, yet stamp them all indelibly with their signature brand of wild, raw musicality.
The keyboard is more often than not a detriment to Rock bands. It's high falutin' expanse of perfectly laid out chordal structure can very easily add too much by way of the space it can take up. Too often bands with keyboards fall into this trap. Goldy McJohn proves a rare exception to the rule on Slow Flux. He's all over the songs, yet there is never the sense that he's trying to class up the proceedings a la Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. For a fine example of this style, listen to the keyboard during the verses of Get Into the Wind, where he gets a creaky, cracked sound from his Leslie. Check out his rhythm playing during the Cabaret Voltaire-like aural cut-up on Justice Don't Be Slow as well. That's some seriously funky keyboard playing. On other tunes he colors, romps, rocks, and rolls. His restrained use of notes and keyboard tones during the proceedings is exemplary, even more so for the fact that this record was recorded in the midst of an era that rewarded excess and pretension.
Bearded Bobby Cochran takes the role of lead guitar on Slow Flux. This he does with taste and style. His riffs are always sleek, and his cutting tones provide great melodic pleasures. His soloing never sounds forced; he even manages to coax a killer solo out of the much-abused and equally abhorred talk box on Jeraboah. Forget Frampton forever!
Of course, the voice and persona of Steppenwolf is John Kay. His growl can be so emotive, so satisfying for Rock listeners to hear. His characteristic vocalizing remains on much of Slow Flux, yet on songs like Smoky Factory Blues and Justice Don't Be Slow he takes a cooler, crooning approach, comparable to the likes of Jim Morrison or Paul Rodgers. This he does with style and seeming ease. Paired with the gruffer sound of his vocals on Gang War Blues (co-written by Kim Fowley!) and Get Into the Wind, he gives a multi-dimensional and emotionally satisfying performance. It would be tough to find a lead singer in the world who wouldn't sound dorky singing "I got a straight shootin' woman", but Kay pulls even this off convincingly. Let's not forget his rhythm guitar playing either. He provides solid chording and foundational playing for Cochran's explorations, especially on Jeraboah, where his guitar grounds the spacey riffing of the keys and lead guitar.
The rhythm section of drummer Jerry Edmonton and bassist George Biondi is snaky and quick, conducting the tunes with ease and grace. This is especially true of Edmonton, who sounds like he's using a classic, small kit. The fact that he coaxes so much sound out of so little owes much to the way he syncopates, driving the rhythm with kick/snare/hat patterns that swing the songs in classic, and now sadly forgotten, Rock patterns. Would that drummers of any current genre take more cues from Jerry's exemplary beat writing! Biondi's playing is fluid, full of fast runs that never sound like show boating, but always support the treble tones of the organs and guitars. It's fine foundational playing.
Even the presence of horns on fully 1/3 of the tunes on Slow Flux can't kill it's Rock power. Arranged by Edmonton, who smartly emphasizes lower tenor and baritone registers in the arrangements, the horns add drive and color, and never distract from the Rock rhythms and melodies.
Thirty five years on, Slow Flux holds up surprisingly well. It's clean production and utterly skilled playing assure it's immanent quality. The tones contained on it fit together like fine masonry or woodwork, allowing the perceptions to marvel at the interlocking grace of their forms. It's sounds are carved into tape, rising above the forms from which they spring, proudly shouting out the Wolf calls. Slow Flux is timeless Rock.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sun Ra-Dance of the Living Image

At this point in time, Sun Ra's music is not too widely separated from many genres of American music. Just about every music scene, in some way or form, owes a debt to the pursuits of him and the long-term members of his Arkestra. So many Jazz, Rock, Funk, Ambient, New Age, etc. artists utilize modes, elements or methods that Sun Ra had likely touched upon long beforehand. Of course, this is a well known and well documented fact. I can think of a few whole web-sites and at least one print zine that specialize in all things Ra. That said, I consider myself a long time fan of his music and cosmology, and look back with great fondness to the Arkestra show I attended at Slim's in San Francisco in the early 1990's. His music is always worth checking out, and very often worthy of return listens.
Dance of the Living Image consists of rehearsal recordings from a 1974 Arkestra residence in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is Volume 4 of a series called The Lost Reel Collection, issued by the label Transparency. To their credit, Transparency have let the tapes exist as recorded, having only done some remastering for the sake of improved sound quality. And how does it sound? Let's just say that if you're looking for the more frenetic Arkestra sounds, you will be disappointed. These recordings feature a band working out tunes at a very relaxed pace. This gives the CD's a nice, warm mood. Instrument sections weave in, sometimes drop out, and interact loosely. This is all done with Ra leading from his electric organ. He plays chord changes or themes, and then lets the band vamp around them. During the longer vamps, the listener can be easily pulled into the trance states that live Arkestra performances so effectively induced.
Ra sounds really cool in his band leading approach. If there were any Buddy Rich-style control freakouts, they did not make it onto this tape. Background dialog can be heard at times, presumably coming from various players as they figure their parts out, but there are never any admonitions from the leader to shut up. He just keeps playing, occasionally calling out chord changes.
His organ playing is cool and spacey, both in the way notes are played in sequence and in the cosmic tones he coaxes from it. It seems to me that he spent a lot of time investigating tonal combinations and chord sequences. I'll take Sun Ra's Music of the Spheres over just about any other composer's. I can imagine a day when his pieces will be performed by symphonies as such.
Other sound delights come from the classic, and for Ra, indispensable, horns of John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, and Eloe Omoe. These smart, talented, men, who stayed with Sun Ra for so long, give huge validation to his prowess as a band leader. On Dance of the Living Image, you can hear them work out their chemistry, and it's a glorious sound. Rich, thick, heavy saxophones, played spacey and stately by Ra's dependable crew.
Despite the fact that he was sometimes derided as an Avant Garde huckster (see if you can find Abbey Lincoln's lowest common denominator description of Ra and try not to wretch), one thing that set him aside from the Avant Garde was his rhythmic sensibility. Most Arkestra tunes and recordings feature drumming and bass playing that is really simple in it's approach. Unlike in the Avant or even in Be-Bop, Sun Ra slowed down and really simplified the rhythm section's playing. Depending on your tastes, this can be annoying or sublime. I'm obviously inclined to go with the latter feeling. Living Image is filled with tranced-out, primitive drumming and bass playing, and it's really great.This approach grounds the tunes and vamps wonderfully, all the while giving the listener a pulse to follow. Sun Ra's simple conception here works in an almost Rock fashion.
Speaking of Rock, there is even some great electric guitar playing on Disc One of this two disc set. The player gets a nice wah-wah sound going, reminiscent of Ron Ashton at his most spaced-out moments on the first Stooges record (imagine what Scott and Ron Ashton could have done with Sun Ra!). It's a great addition to the sound, and I wish there were more of it on the discs.
Dance of the Living Image most likely would not interest the casual Jazz fan, but anyone interested in Sun Ra's repertoire, or the process of creating music for that matter, would have a lot to appreciate there. I plan on checking out a lot more stuff from Transparency.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jambang and the Taylor Texas Corrugators, July 4th, 2008, 12 Galaxies

After several months of waiting, I was able to catch Jambang at 12 Galaxies in the Mission District of San Francisco. My pal Scott Jones and I arrived early, and got to speak with drummer Steve DeLollis, along with meeting Greg Ginn, all the while enjoying the sounds of CCR coming out of the house PA.
The Taylor Texas Corrugators opened the show. Their set was made up of loose, improvised jams. The sound was heavily guided by the mandolin playing of Bobby Bancalari, which at times sounded more like a violin. His standout moment was an excellent Baroque style solo, given after an introduction by Ginn. Cliff Samuel's bass playing also featured heavily. His sound reminded me at times of Holger Czukay's, and it pulled the band forward with a tight focus. Steve played a lot more straightforward than on the Corrugator's CD's, less Swing and more Rock. There were brief moments when his playing moved into the style of Bent Edge, but for the most part he rocked hard. Ginn featured a melodic sound for most of the set. He played simple lines for the most part, coloring the sound more so than attempting to dominate it. He had a tone much like that of Jerry Garcia at times. His one extended solo in the set had the Harmelodic qualities of James Blood Ulmer's coolest moments.
In contrast to the overall looseness of the Corrugators, Jambang's set was extremely tight. They played most, if not all, of the debut CD, and stayed true to the tunes as recorded. I find it really fun to listen to Ginn's guitar playing with Jambang. His tone still has it's raw edge, but the more relaxed pace of his approach allows for more space with which to really hear it's depth. Ginn rarely solos during Jambang's tunes, but there is still a lot of sound coming from his amp to appreciate. The keyboard lines that he recorded on the CD were played as samples. The band cued around them tightly, and while one friend of mine commented that he found this approach somewhat annoying, I'm a big fan of Greg's tech-friendly ways, so for me it just added to the thrill. Bancalari's mandolin playing was a lot less clipped than on the CD. He played with more legato, using big, ringing chords instead of the percussive style on the recording. Cliff's bass was mixed a lot higher than on Connecting, giving the songs a much harder Rock drive live. DeLollis stayed true to his motorik style on the recording, which, coupled with the more driving bass, made Jambang a heavier live band than I imagined they'd be. The visuals by Joey Keeton were simple forms (raindrops on water, digitized blobs, faces, waves), inverted at times into negative images. I thought it to be a tamer version of the old Butthole Surfers backing films. Interesting, but I was more focused on listening to Ginn hold court.
It was a fun, low key show, and I look forward to seeing them at the Stork Club in Oakland.
SST continues to change in unexpected ways . More power to Ginn and his pals! See Jambang if you get a chance.