Betwixt and Downtown


Asked if he named Aerosmith after Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, Steven Tyler shot back, “That was just a book they made you read in school.” But if Pat Benatar, Iron Maiden, and Kate Bush could work variations on Pynchon, Coleridge, and Emily Brontë, I can take seriously Liminal Lounge’s appropriation of anthropologist Victor Turner’s liminality concept.

Turner describes liminal entities as “neither here nor there…betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” Not a bad starting point for the blissfully indeterminate, tongue-in-cheek culture of lounge, with its Muzak worship and overpriced martinis. The Liminal Lounge collective is a shifting construct itself; first formed as Asshole-Savant, by synth programmer Danny Blume and mixmaster DJ Olive, the lineup alters to fit whoever’s around downtown for a gig. The al bum Nosferatu transforms Murnau’s film into a loud, neogoth MTV short, while Pre-Set has a good beat you couldn’t possibly dance to.

So it felt appropriate at Tonic last Friday when, after the duo of dub maestro Blume and drummer Ben Perowsky first set up, the Dr. Who
like synth effects started without really starting—the unfazed crowd continued chatting, gradually tapping an arrhythmic toe or two. By the time guitarist and December Tonic curator Vernon Reid hit the stage for a cameo, the rage against the machine was on in full. Perowsky undercut Blume’s willful monotony with fast rim shots and loose fill-ins, Reid went from sparse ambient intervals to Hendrix-without-a-breath tonal assaults, and they, not the programmed drum and synth, somehow started leading the prefab groove.

Still, Turner’s maxim on liminality that “every day is the same day writ large and repeated” was certainly borne out over the set, in which the same groove, bass line, or chord were endlessly puzzled over, not in the spirit of modal jazz improvisation but more mechanically, to induce either madness, hypnosis, or both—a mood between dub and jazz, euphony and cacophony, background music and noise you couldn’t ignore. But when I asked founding member Blume for some ruminations on the liminal he was baffled. “We just thought it was a cool name.” —David Yaffe

Positive Programming

Sweet Honey in the Rock opened their silver anniversary concert with the Bernice Johnson Reagon composition “Anybody Here?”—a question they already knew the answer to. In this age of narrow demographics, it was a minor miracle to see black feminist a cappella folk singers attract as many whites as blacks, as many men as women, as many collegiate types as aging baby boomers. Sweet Honey don’t entertain so much as preside over a civil rights–movement tent revival. Relentlessly positive and pro grammatic activism isn’t the same as sanctimonious dogma; Sweet Honey, like Zap Mama or Take 6, want to educate and uplift, and just this year Reagon contributed to a Pete Seeger retrospective, compiled and composed music for the PBS series Africans in America, and appeared on the soundtrack to Maya Angelou’s feature film Down in the Delta.

On Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, all the proper signs and signifiers were in place: colorfully androgynous ethnic clothing, gray-haired interpretive dancer, two-song appearance by ’60s folk legend Odetta, lyrics rendered in stylishly rhythmic sign language by Shirley Childress Johnson. Many songs came from their new Rykodisc release Twenty-five, which emphasizes doo-wop harmonies and jubilee arrangements within a gamut of pan-African musical styles. Although they demand their dignity, Sweet Honey are not static onstage. They strut, they mug, they make their voices a tsunami of sound. Their hurdy-gurdy version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” prompted Aisha Kahlil to scat the out-chorus. A sober reading of the Thomas A. Dorsey gospel hymn “If You See My Savior” was full of soft, subtle blues inflections. Ysaye Barnwell’s resonant baritone anchored “Battered Earth” to a clocklike tempo while a skirl of soprano polyphony conveyed the frantic urgency of its ecological concerns. Sweet Honey shows are half exorcism, half ceremonial blessing. And everyone who’s sung with Sweet Honey over the years knows that exorcisms only work if you truly believe. —Carol Cooper

The Sloppier Verities

Ralph Stanley is a cow-milking champion in Kentucky, a deputy sheriff in Ohio, and in one small Virginia town he’s been awarded his own damned day—July 9 to be exact. Of course the urban barndancers that packed Tramps last Thursday didn’t care much about those qualifications. It was the bluegrass legend’s church-hewn harmonies and hot-to-trot breakdowns that made them swoon. As soon as fiddle player James Price lit into a crisp version of “Cacklin’ Hen,” 21st Street felt like like it could’ve had an Appalachian zip code. “You played that so good ah thought ah saw a coupla eggs drop outta there,” said his boss for the umpteenth time.

Last summer at Lincoln Center Ricky Skaggs said he ranked Ralph and his late brother Carter higher than the Beatles, and over the last several years, especially with the demise of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, Stanley’s star has been on the rise. To the chagrin of colleague Jimmy Martin, the 72-year-old is viewed as the idiom’s greatest living exemplar. Such props are what generate star turns like Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel), a 36-song duet disc that includes a string of Stanley zealots stretching from Dwight Yoakam to Bob Dylan. Not a one outshines the host. When album guest Jim Lauderdale hit the Tramps stage to romp through “If I Lose,” he brought a youthful charge with him. But his comparatively modern voice was jarring until Stanley’s harmony provided some naturally ancient verity.

His withered tenor is singular, and it perpetually juices the Clinch Mountain Boys’s sound. As the band went a capella for a pair of gospel tunes, the leader’s piercing rasp distanced them from the pristine vocals of many young bluegrass ensembles. Nothing wrong with blemishes. Nothing wrong with humor, either: the evening’s program had enough hillbilly shtick to be deemed a mini Opry. But Stanley had the best line. Drumming up business, he mentioned a few places where Clinch Mountain Country has earned kudos, “like Amazawn dawt cawm.” Guess highways of trouble and seas of regret are now online, too.

—Jim Macnie