It was well after midnight last Thursday by the time James Chance and the Contortions took the stage of the Bowery Electric. Dapper in his dress jacket and dancing shoes, the 63-year-old Chance made it clear he was there to boogie. The grotto-like basement space was packed with people who clearly didn’t give a fuck about a day job. Feckless twentysomethings squeezed back-to-belly against grizzled survivors of three or more decades of musical nightlife, ready to spend the first minutes of a new day with a legendary downtown iconoclast.
Multiple opening acts had largely failed to dispel the post-election pall that hovered over the crowd gathered to celebrate The Flesh Is Weak, Chance’s first American studio album with the band since 1979’s Buy the Contortions. Collective shock and depression made it harder than usual for people to engage, so when Chance’s quintet opened with the jagged guitar riffs and angry saxophone bleats of “Designed to Kill” (first recorded in 1978), it functioned like a wake-up call. Or a time machine.
Suddenly, memories of Thatcher and Reagan and Rock Against Racism came flooding back to remind me that progressive music has fought the rise of fascism before. Then I heard the band segue into the new album’s version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” prompting Chance to ad-lib on the chorus: “And it might not be such a bad idea if I never see your red face and blond, blond hair again.”
Growing up outside Milwaukee in the Sixties, Chance favored the piano — until his penchant for playing like a cross between Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor was discouraged by the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in the early Seventies. “I picked up the sax during my first year at the conservatory because nobody there could play with me on piano. They couldn’t relate to me as part of the rhythm section,” Chance recalled. At nineteen, this formally trained Midwesterner was drawn to James Brown and P-Funk, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. There was simply nothing conventional about the way he wanted his music to sound.
Somewhat inevitably, James fled Wisconsin at 23 for downtown New York, where he thrilled to the thriving loft-jazz, art-rock, and proto-punk scenes. Rents were so cheap that recently arrived young creatives — spanning every gender, ethnic background, and entrepreneurial interest — didn’t need full-time jobs and were thus free to concentrate on building their subculture and their craft. Such were the conditions that spawned the incestuous bands that created buzz at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and such were the conditions that inspired the unexpectedly progressive sound of the Contortions, which Brian Eno documented on his No New York compilation in 1978.
“When I started the Contortions, I had no thoughts about it having any commercial potential at all,” Chance said. “I just wanted to create something that would appeal to the audiences at CBGB and Max’s while still having all the music I liked in it and being very uncompromising.”
That attitude is the purest thing about the Contortions, a band that otherwise leaves no human value or musical style unamalgamated. Chance hammers dissonance into harmony, horror into joy, just for the fun of it, the galvanizing shock of the new. He pokes fun at racial stereotypes and casual heroin use, in “Almost Black”; warbles a list of concentration camps in “Melt Yourself Down”; and alludes, during a cover of “That’s Life,” to assisted suicide, unafraid that conservatives or politically correct liberal fascists will shut him down. Onstage, Chance underscores all this exhilarating irreverence by way of his own exuberant dancing.
Onstage, the Contortions presented a tight, united front as they played in celebration of the new album, released digitally by the Brooklyn-based True Groove label. Long famous for being picky about his bandmates, Chance admits to unfettered affection for his current combo, each of whom have worked with him at various times in the past. Tenor saxophonist Robert Aaron started with Chance in ’81, drummer Richard Dworkin joined around ’85, and guitarist and True Groove label owner Tomás Doncker has been on board even longer.
Dubbing Chance the “Dean of the Downtown Scene,” Doncker obviously respects the man’s historical importance to the no wave and American new wave scenes, and looks to use his label to remind the 21st century of Chance’s pioneering innovations. “We’re taking Chance and everything else you saw tonight to Austin for South by Southwest,” Doncker confided after the show. It’s a shrewd move, calculated to facilitate more experimental recordings from Chance and his labelmates in the near future.
More importantly, the aggressive punk persona “James Chance” (created decades ago by James and his long-deceased manager/muse/partner, Anya Phillips) has grown over the years in its power to convince and persuade. On Thursday night he alternately crooned, screamed, and snarled his way through the dramatic cover material — “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “I (Who Have Nothing)” — making these existential anthems utterly his own. Ever the savvy entertainer, Chance understood that this audience might yearn to relive their favorite moments from different stages in his career, and so included signature tunes from his years with Lydia Lunch, James White and the Blacks, and his French band, Les Contortions. I wasn’t the only one to notice a softer, more reflective tone during these numbers, something surprisingly tender. But don’t get it twisted: James Chance hasn’t mellowed. He’s merely matured, and gotten better.