Fancy a Shagg?

Thirty years after their father inverted the generation gap and forced them to become a rock and roll band—of sorts—the Shaggs made their New York City debut at the Bowery Ballroom last weekend, joining the celebration of another 30th anniversary: their longtime champions NRBQ. With mother Annie in attendance, Dorothy and Betty Wiggins, joined by Q drummer Tommy Ardolino (filling in for the convalescent Helen), played just four songs in what, even so, felt like a comprehensive overview: “Philosophy of the World,” the title track of their debut album, rescued from oblivion in 1980 and then given a major label imprimatur this year; “Painful Memories” and “My Cutie,” from the later recording Shaggs Own Thing ; and their legendary “My Pal Foot Foot.”

Dorothy still wears her hair long, like in those precious band photos; apologetic for their clumsiness but more than game, she seemed as comfortable in front of the audience as, I dunno, Mary Margaret O’Hara, chatting in a voluble New England accent better embodied in the Shaggs’ droned harmonies than any rock save Jonathan Richman. Betty, who’s cut her hair back severely, looked more nervous, but when she sang her Fastbacks-esque girl-group lament “Painful Memories,” mouth anesthetized in that Richard Hell way, she stole the show. The Shaggs were actually the least silly performers in a two-day fest that also included the gibbering Holy Modal Rounders, costumed Sun Ra Arkestra, and far shaggier NRBQ. Their out-of-tune guitars are now in tune (Sonic Youth tune), their mixture of repression and cutesiness no different than Shonen Knife. The set may have been folk art, equal parts goofy and eerie, but it brought home why the Shaggs’ Rorschach blottings were eventually read as visions, rough sketches for the future of underground rock. —Eric Weisbard

Making the Cut

Producer Hal Willner—like the late Harry Smith, whose imponderably influential Anthology of American Folk Music was honored at Arts at St. Ann’s November 11—is himself a most canny curator, collector, and taste maven. As demonstrated by his Monk and Mingus projects, Willner possesses both a formidable Rolodex as well as a knack for matching musicians to material. But while any decent jazzbo should be able to cover Monk, it takes a certain wild-hair bravado to tackle highly idiosyncratic popular music by long-lost artists of the ’20s and ’30s like Cubby Parker, Uncle Eck Dunford, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford—music already at least once removed from its dubious source. So the question hanging in the air during the patience-testing four-hour marathon was: Which of these performances might have qualified for Smith’s 1952 anthology?

Former Virgin Prune Gavin Friday, who tore up “When That Great Ship Went Down” alongside Mary Margaret O’Hara, would have been a contender. Likewise Peter Stampfel, who, accompanied by Gary Lucas, broke format with an original song characterizing Smith as a “genius, shaman, pain-in-the-ass.” Nick Cave transcended his shtick for a roof-raising version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator,” while Van Dyke Parks was seemingly everywhere on piano and accordion. Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Geoff Muldaur, and Bob Neuwirth all took sober folky stabs at these songs of betrayal and murder. Trombonist Roswell Rudd and Sonic Youth transformed their improvisation around one of Smith’s abstract films into conceptual art. And David Johansen and the Harry Smiths came off so fake as to be right in the pocket. But in the end, no one sounded more like a Harry Smith collectee than Smith himself—as seen on film at the very beginning, roach clutched in stained fingers, extemporizing a surreal chantey to the tune of “Dixie.” —Richard Gehr

Geek Codes

It seemed like an army of NYU art students had been supplanted into the Bowery Ballroom for Warp’s tenth anniversary last Friday, a sign of the label’s shift from weirdy-beardy dance music to indie electronic pop. Home to beat anarchists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Squarepusher, Warp chose to spotlight its new, more mellow (and nerdy) roster instead, with Plone, Broadcast, and Plaid.

Plone provided the evening’s most unusual sounds: kiddie melodies wrapped in barely-there beatsand few vocals. Unlike labelmates Boards of Canada, who convey similarly childlike fairytales, Plone chose not to contrast the light airiness of the music with a seedy underbelly. Calling Plone dance music would be incorrect; the most you could do was sway in motion. Everything about Broadcast was vague: the music was vaguely psychedelic, in a ’60s lounge way; singer Trish Keenan had a vaguely intriguing stage presence and a vaguely interesting voice—smooth, clean, but detached. Broadcast were a little bit Stereolab and a little bit Mazzy Star but ultimately not enough of anything.

Plaid offered relief from the previous two bands’ soft melodies. Beats emerged decisively: clear and crisp, carving out huge, hook-laden grooves of future funk. Filtering hip-hop through a distinctly British vantage point,the trio toyed with the bpm’s and staked firm musical ground with its infectious breakbeats, though sometimes you’d hear the Warp of olde. Aphex Twin was present in spirit—especially when Plaid delved into unorthodox beat structures and erratic time signatures. The crowd responded by dancing (the first time all evening); the geeks might yet inherit the earth. —Tricia Romano

Truth or Dare

The lights were low at the new Upper West Side spot Makor’s as beyond-spoken-word artist Carl Hancock Rux took center stage. Hearing percussionist Jason Finkleman’s minimalist peal coupled with Rux’s gospel whisper (instead of his usual voluptuous baritone), the audience suddenly realized that although they’d come for a concert, Rux—playing the part of storefront preacher—was summoning them to worship. His retro soundscape is a gumbo of funk, hip-hop, electronica, and Hendrixy guitar licks (played by Morgan Michael Craft). And Rux himself is a Sunday-morning preacher conjuring Saturday night’s fever, a Pentecostal dadaist who works songs to spasm and collapse.

Eyes shut and negotiating with the Holy Ghost all evening, Rux whirled and dipped his head like little Stevie Wonderful. Although he’s a poet, Rux comes from the tradition of African American crooners like Al and Aretha, who sandblast the line between sexual and religious ecstasy. Coltrane played sheets of sound. Carl and his background singers—Helga Davis, Stephanie Mckay, and Marcelle Lashley—construct walls of wailing. With their tight Ladysmith Black Mambazo/Joni Mitchell harmonies, these sirens massaged “Asphalt Yard” ‘s rant; and their syncopated, chain-gang harmonizing pushed Carl beyond reason during “Wasted Seed.” Rux closed the set with the delta blues of “I Recall.” His arms snaked around his face, as if the song’s emotional honesty were too much to bear. Drummer Chicken’s bass pedal thumped like the heartbeat of a runaway slave. Keats declared that truth is beauty, but there were moments in Rux’s performance that broke through and touched bone, a reminder that truth can be ugly too. —David Mills

Reclaiming Rock

“Which one of them is singing?” a befuddled redhead wondered out loud as Death in Vegas opened their Irving Plaza set last Wednesday with the ravishing”Dirge” (from the new Contino Sessions ). While the voice was decidedly feminine, the nine people on stage all pretty much looked like men. As it turned out, singer Dot Allison wasn’t there at all—and neither was Iggy Pop, heard later on “Aisha.” But canned vocal tracks were perhaps the most radical element in this trad rock show. Electronics were kept to a negligible minimum while drums, organ, and guitars played by actual humans were at the forefront. A bassist and two guitarists took center stage while the band’s songwriters and producers, Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes, lurked behind turntables and samplers in the back, next to a two-man horn section on loan from Primal Scream. Behind the band, projected black-and-white images flickered on a screen. But once again old-fashioned methods prevailed: Turned out the choppy effects were accomplished not by some highfalutin editing software, but by the guy in the tech booth frantically moving his hands in front of the light beams.

While Death in Vegas are usually lumped with dancefloor mavens, their live show proved closer to, say, Yo La Tengo than the Chemical Brothers. Harking back to a Velvet Underground?like gothic psychedelia, they relied on repetition to build to a climax that, almost sadistically, never happened—the momentum went . . . nowhere, really. Maybe they should have opted for one more rock trope after all—cheap, cathartic, gloriously satisfying release. —Elisabeth Vincentelli