“As you can see,” deadpanned Michael Gira from a crowded Bowery Ballroom stage last Wednesday, “we have a major extravaganza planned for you.” Pause. “Full of hope, joy, and beauty.” This is a cue to snicker. But, really: his initial Swans excavations of a severe, ritualized pound gave way long ago to lengthy works that plumbed the whole beauty-in-agony thing (and vice versa). As with the work of Mark Eitzel, at its best sadness is rendered so gorgeously its net effect is uplifting, if not necessarily hopeful. (If Gira’s melodic and lyric-writing skills don’t match Eitzel’s, well, Eitzel’s work can’t touch the physicality and grandeur of Gira’s.)
Gira’s set headlined a benefit for his ex-wife and collaborator, Jarboe. Her trip to Israel late last year ended with her face getting mashed, thanks to an Israeli-Palestinian bar brawl she got caught in one night. (She made it home OK, but needs surgery so she can breathe through her nose again.) The show spotlighted Gira— who’s between two projects, last year’s Body Lovers/Haters and the upcoming Angels of Light— and nine accompanying musicians. Gira still goes for orchestral width, and ensemble crescendos more or less to die for. This time around, he did it with a largely acoustic palette— accordion, ukulele, multiple vibes players, occasional trombone, melodicas. At times the lineup— an extended version of the one he played with at Tonic last month— could have been more precise, which the suddenly talkative Gira acknowledged something like 453 times.
The odd old Swans song popped up, and the sonic massiveness survived the translation into acoustic spheres, but the real surprise wasn’t so much the reworked material as the emergence of Michael Gira, affable jokester. “Here’s another song about fucking my mother,” he said cheerily, going on to describe an old drunk with “a nose like a kitchen sponge” and relating a tale about the time she pissed in a supermarket aisle in front of him. And: “This is a song about anal sex. What other kind of sex is there?” Ba-DUM-pah! The ’90s wind down with some of the ’80s’ most notorious onstage badasses— Gira, Blixa Bargeld, and Henry Rollins— getting downright genial or going for yuks. And jaded audiences thought they’d seen it all. — Jon Fine
Never Been in a Riot
Frankly, we were just praying it was a put-on, a parody. There we stood in Worldwide Plaza, 1 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, at the smallest rally my friend Leslie, a radical activist nonpareil, had ever seen: a “sonic riot,” sponsored by the “Music Militia,” to protest the layoffs of bands and industry workers caused by the Universal-Polygram merger. The organizer had called the Voice and promised 200 people; reached by cell phone, he upped the prediction to 500, including, he hoped, Pete Seeger. Well, there were six, no louder than a blocked intersection: the leader on bullhorn, screaming things like “They don’t give a rat’s ass about music, or musicians, they only care if it sells,” a saxophonist, a drummer, two plastic olive buckets, and one clever fellow banging a gong attached to a jacket, shirt, and pants— take that, suits! All neatly displayed inside the rectangle of police barricades that Leslie told me leftists call a demo pen.
She’d heard about the Music Militia at two recent political meetings where fliers got passed out; there was also a Web site, www.antigrammy.org, filled with rants about the “slash-and-burn tactics” of major labels and plans for protests of the Grammy Awards February 24, to be held in L.A., New York’s UN Plaza, and with luck around the world. Based on this setup, presumably, the organizer had figured a large crowd was ensured. But New York’s a tough town: this same day also featured rallies for community gardens and street vendors; anyhow, it’s hard to get people out on a workday. Tactically, you have to know the size of your forces. A small group, Leslie suggested, might infiltrate a company press conference. One outfit conned the cops into thinking they were much larger, resulting in an extra-big demo pen, then held tea inside the coop while others passed leaflets out about the regulation of public space.
I still entertained hopes that the rally was a satire; the Web site did have links to the Church of the Subgenius. But when we returned after lunch, the demo pen was neatly stacked up and the leader was talking to a woman Leslie knew from the gardens fight. We said hello and the organizer asked if we remembered an earlier garden rally, where Pete Seeger attended. “I was the guy who made that happen!” — Eric Weisbard
The Wetlands Preserve swung three marathon nights last week with the Derek Trucks Band— Yonrico Scott, Bill McKay, Todd Smallie, and Sweet Derek— who soul-mined the light from the South’s shadowlands. Haunted by fallen ax-slinging specters and steamy juke joints, Derek made of this whole fabled world his stage, as if Ernie Barnes’s famed Sugar Shack were animated. Scott’s face flickered its never ending reels of an unfathomable horse opera, whether his brushes were whispering across the cymbals or he was calling down the ancestors on “Kickin’ Back.” Smallie became gargantuan whenever his bass thumped us into the promised land. And, for this organ junkie, McKay, soul-shouting on “Preacher Blues” and the rest of the repertoire, was channeling gospelized sound worthy of Ray Charles.
With improvisatory, jazzy blues grace, the quartet locked into “Ain’t That Lovin’ You.” Many witnesses were in the house to see the teenage slide-guitar phenom in the flesh; perhaps the most vital guitar icon since Hendrix and his Uncle Butch’s friend Skydog gone to glory, Derek soared. While some fault him for not displaying expressionistic flamboyance in the ring, his calm demeanor masks depths of passion that his nimble fingers never cease to convey.
And Frogwings? Jimmy Herring and Oteil and Kofi Burbridge all memorably sat in with the DTB prior to thundering like the Mystery Train through their own sets. The Wings MVP all nights was Allman Brothers percussionist Marc Quiones, whose sanctified polyrhythms made of the entire project an Afro-Latin jazz to rival Santana’s classic Woodstock lineup. Even mightier than John Popper’s voice was his mouth harp, dueling with Kofi’s organ for hummingbird lucidity. Oteil, he of the hard bop bubbly scat, he was jes’ rockin’ his bottom soul in the bosom of de Holy Ghost. Warren Haynes dropped in like a benign mushroom cloud. Reticent genius Herring flicked devotional leads and rapid runs of raga-like notes into the crowd. And this circle of brethren was anchored by grandmaster drummer Butch Trucks— he embodied why this was the peak of the Wetlands 10th anniversary season. — Kandia Crazy Horse
It’s a rare instrumentalist who can get away with substituting wit for chops, but Phillip Johnston’s pen has been mightier than his reeds for years now, and few complaints have been lodged. Wily in the areas of tone and mood, the fortysomething composer is a melodymeister with a gift for creating soundtracks that offer truly parallel narratives to their films’ visuals. But Johnston’s jazzy Transparent Quartet, which has spent the last several Monday nights at the C Note conflating elements of chamber and cool, is a vehicle for soloists as much as it is a canvas for incidental music— chops count. That’s the main reason the gig I attended was niftier in spirit than it was in execution.
Like Carla Bley and Willem Breuker, Johnston simultaneously toasts and teases the idioms on his palette. There’s a certain kind of novelty bolstered by erudition, and at the C Note, where they continue through February, the Transparents bubbled their way into a well-
designed space that pondered what would have happened had John Lewis hailed from California and Steve Lacy worshiped Bach instead of Monk. Mark Josefsberg’s vibes and Joe Ruddick’s bari worked with the leader’s alto and soprano to give this percussion-free zone the kind of placid zigzag that juices cool school ditties like Jimmy Giuffre’s “Pickin’ ‘Em Up and Layin’ ‘Em Down.” But while their arrangements were keen, true eloquence eluded them— none of the musicians are very distinct improvisers, and their interplay was fuzzy around the edges. Repetition occasionally yielded alignment. Sections of “I’m Squeamish” offered a florid minimalism that was positively Reichadelic.
Drummerless ensembles rely on counterpoint for tension and groove for stability, and the sizzle of bassist Dave Hofstra’s up-tempo walking bolstered the band’s sporadic wobbles. Such swing also guides them through the jumpingest passages of The Needless Kiss (Koch). Like parts of Monday’s set, the record’s suave élan indicates the foursome might just be the thinking person’s answer to that big cocktail music mess. Buoyed by Johnston’s resourcefulness, their tiki ain’t tacky. — Jim Macnie
On the dance floor a generally young crowd in casual-Friday attire grooves to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.” It’s the February 5 open barandhors d’oeuvres inauguration of a new Lexington Avenue club, XIT, where things are so convivial a stranger might never guess the revelers are dancing on a grave.
Until January 16, XIT was Denim & Diamonds, the only place in the city where country fans could go to execute the Tush Push or the Black Velvet. “I don’t know when I’m going to do my next two-step,” Sally Fay lamented about the abrupt closing. Fay has done that two-step almost every Thursday night for the last three years and in her dismay represents the feelings of 150 to 200 “regulators” (what the regulars were called). One of them, Irwin Cohen, says, “It’s a very unhappy time.” Cohen met Ilene Schere, the woman with whom he’s now lived for five years, amid the country doodads. (A mirrored saddle used to hang over the parquet and a horse pranced outside). Another regulator, Cat Kubic, describes the final few nights as people collecting phone numbers and asking, “Where are you going to hang?”
Wendy Shively, general manager for the old and new clubs, explains that the decision to make the changeover was difficult and had been in play since sometime shortly after country station WYNY disappeared from local airwaves three years ago. It was about then, she reports, that the club’s owners, operating under the name Lexington Avenue Hospitality, noticed a falloff in interest. Denim & Diamonds, which had been open seven nights a week, shifted to a five-night policy and then to three.
Cookie Marrero, one of the habitués who turned out for the XIT kickoff, said she planned to return. She also acknowledged there’d been a “death” but that she had no sympathy for the country enthusiasts who hadn’t reached into their wallets to support D&D. “Country dancers aren’t drinkers,” she said. Not a bad title for a song that wouldn’t, however, get played at XIT, now a spot to hear “dance music from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.” — David Finkle