Music

Here Comes Your Man

The former Black Francis sauntered onto the Mercury Lounge stage on Saturday night looking more like a friendly, well-fed hardware store manager than the icon that he is. "My voice teacher says this is good for my voice," he explained while chewing on a piece of black licorice. He proved her theory true with a pitch-perfect rendition of "All My Ghosts": "If I could live to be several hundred, I could take a walk and really wander. All my ghosts, on every sea on every land, but who needs that now?" It seemed as if everyone in the room was silently praying that he'd somehow discover the fountain of youth.

Mr. Black's pleading vocals on "I'll Be Blue" snapped heartstrings, and he proved those voice lessons haven't removed all the grit from his throat on the Jagger-esque "Hermaphroditos." He made no secret about where he's been drawing his influences from lately, covering Tom Waits's "The Black Rider" and squeezing Arlo Guthrie's "Coming Into Los Angeles" into the middle of his own song about the city.

Another cover song: Frank Black gets blue.
photo: Rahav Segev
Another cover song: Frank Black gets blue.

The show was billed as "solo-acoustic," but that was only half true. In addition to Catholics member Dave Philips on lead guitar, the 21-to-50-year-old crowd provided backup vocals for the entire 90-minute set. Almost everyone knew the lyrics to Pixies classics "Mr. Grieves" and "Gouge Away" (introduced as "another cover song"), but it was surprising how easily they sang along to tunes from his new album, Dog in the Sand, released just a few days earlier. The highlight came when the first few notes of "Where Is My Mind" pierced through the air, and the crowd erupted in response. It was a truly incredible Rock Moment, one that would remain on everyone's minds for a long time afterward. —Ken Switzer


Horn Matter

Rhys Chatham is an odd gentleman. You don't often see cufflinks on stage at the Knitting Factory. But this was an occasion, a homecoming gig after 10 years in France. Abroad he's gotten both younger, digging electronica with his Hard Edge Trio, and older, modeling his stage persona and coiffure after the avuncular John Cage.

In 1993 Rhys switched from guitar to trumpet, and now makes his horn sound like Tommy Iommi's in Black Sabbath. He's claimed this was because trumpet fingering was so much easier. If true, it explains why he never used to change chords: His famous "Guitar Trio" has everyone strumming an E-something in just intonation (an exotic tuning beloved of minimalists); he performed the piece on Wednesday with a veteran of his 100-guitar orchestra. Just-intoned guitars build up overtones, so that what starts out as performance art—rock gesture as exercise in suspense and frustration—becomes an exhilarating, disorienting pulse of sound.

Then he's playing the old oddball again. "Give me funk riff #27, from the CB's gig in '88," he calls, getting a cheesy Late Show groove for his audience-participation tarot reading. He's having fun soliciting picks—"Sir? Ma'am?"—and commenting on the cards (lots of wands!), but he appears to be in earnest—he gives up on interpreting the contradictory hand, saying he's not up to it. Come to think of it, who can tell whether Letterman is joking anymore, either?

Rhys's electric trumpet doesn't sound even like fusion Miles; instead it's returned him to classicism. For all the distorted processing, the brass echo suggests English fanfare, and Rhys still blows the long notes of the first New York School. Jonathan Kane's backbeat is more martial than funky, and when David Weinstein hits the synthesizer hard with a dense run of two or three pitches, the group seems to have invented Minimal Baroque. And then it's over: "That was the end of the minimal section of the program." Ever the gentleman. —David Krasnow


Sliding Scalebacks at CMJ

Just months after celebrating the 20th anniversary of its successful Music Marathon, CMJ Networks—which includes cmj.com, the New Music Report, and the New Music Monthly—is in the midst of a massive restructuring. The company, founded by Robert Haber in 1979, gave more than 20 employees the pink slip on Friday, and began scaling back editorial content in the Monthly, putting the specialty music columns "on hold."

"This is a pretty sane reaction to the market," said one editor, who asked not to be named. "We staffed up quick in the irrational exuberance of last year, and now we're paring down appropriately." The expansion included a move from CMJ's cramped Great Neck offices into posh Manhattan digs in November. Writers also received pay hikes, and the magazines gained more helping hands for their overworked, underpaid staffs.

When new-media management and Internet venture funding firm Rare Medium merged with CMJ in November 1999, its stock rested at 27.75; in March of last year it reached a high of 44. But in late December, Rare's stock plummeted to a dismal 1.9. Rare has four other "incubator" companies, but CMJ's rapid expansion and the collapse of the Internet market collided at an especially inopportune time. Last fall, the Network hosted mini-Marathons in three cities: Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Each of them flopped, and the company laid off 19 employees in the Events division just after Thanksgiving. According to Haber, the mini-Marathons might be retooled for the future, and a nationwide CMJ tour of sorts is a possibility: "We're probably going to skew them to be more consumer-oriented rather than trade-oriented."

Despite the setbacks, Haber maintains that Rare Medium "is the best thing that ever happened" to CMJ Networks. And employees still have high hopes. "Maybe this is foolish optimism on my part," said the editor, "but I have some belief that the company is going to continue on to do some cool things." —Tricia Romano

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