You Sank My Battleship!

Electronic music has one major challenge for people performing it in public: It doesn’t offer much to look at. The PowerBook is a hell of a powerful instrument, but if you play one on stage, it looks like you’re absorbed in a game of Battleship. At the New York Festival of Electronic Composers and Improvisers, which ran last Tuesday through Sunday at the Knitting Factory, stage presence was a big issue, and the way most participants got around it was centering their pieces on non-electronic instruments. Of the first night’s four acts, one was basically a guitar solo, one a violin solo, and one an accordion/guitar duet. The final performance Sunday night was a two-hour, four-turntable set by DJ Food, in their post-Coldcut incarnation of Patrick Carpenter and Strictly Kev; it sounded smashing, but DJs spinning jazz-funk and Beach Boys and Rakim is electronic music how? Is it that LPs have electrons in them?

Of the dance-guys-with-consoles acts, Pan Sonic dodged the performance problem best, by making their second-sense hooks tactile rather than visual. Their ultraminimal tones, thwaps, and crackles are simple enough to be turned up to volumes that shake your whole body without hurting your ears—”who needs a vibrator when you’ve got Pan Sonic?” sighed the woman next to me—and, at times, they were so loud that the sound almost didn’t matter any more. The simple bleepy-bloopy patterns of Liminal were accompanied by live drummer Ben Perowsky’s flourishes and techstep-inspired patterns. Datach’i scrambled up arrhythmic gabber and drum ‘n’ bass beats, and augmented them with a masked dancer who seemed to have boogied over from the “Praise You” video; it was a nice joke for the first half of the set, anyway.

Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra looked to be the festival’s most interesting groove/improv combination, but a sign on the door Thursday announced that Craig couldn’t make it (droves of baggy-panted kids muttered, “Ah, fuck, man,” and ambled away). That evening’s collaboration between Spacetime Continuum’s knob-tweaker Jonah Sharp and cellist Kash Killion ended up absorbing a few members of Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra, which is when it went from pleasant fluff to a dreadful glob of noodliness. Formless jamming is always a bad idea, even if you’ve got the Instruments of the Future.

Good improvisation is another story. After a slow start, the trio of Battleship master Jim O’Rourke, percussionist Charles K. Noyes, and electric harpist Zeena Parkins grew taut and dynamically wiry; O’Rourke is one of the few people it’s possible to imagine practicing PowerBook obsessively, the way people practice, say, saxophone. And Alvin Curran’s “Weft, Warped and Purl” was one of the festival’s highlights. His keyboard triggered samples of hundreds of Knitting Factory performances; the piece used high-tech gear in the service of an idea greater than “doesn’t this sound cool?” and also sounded really cool. I recognized, or thought I recognized, only a few fragments—Catherine Jauniaux’s voice, maybe? a bit of John Zorn’s “Cobra”?—but the piece’s tone, moment to moment, was unmistakably site-specific, and what could’ve been an unstructured congeries became a focused, powerful perspective on the Knit’s history.

At times, though, the festival was a little too invested in history—electronic music has a dangerous tendency to overrate its pioneers. (Bad sign: the videotape of Cluster’s limp, whooshy Knit set of a few years ago played at the beginning of each night.) It’s good to see Silver Apples’ Simeon restored to health, and hearing him do 32-year-old songs like “A Pox on You” was a nostalgic kick, but an extended full-band jam built on samples of a shopping cart was just kind of unfortunate. Morton Subotnick, whose Silver Apples of the Moon gave the band its name, announced that what he was about to play wasn’t really a performance piece and, well, it wasn’t, though he did sink a few battleships. Drone violinist Tony Conrad, on the other hand, lived up to his decades-long rep, prefacing his striking piece (an endlessly repeated violin figure on a bed of construction noises) with some unexpected electro-acoustic goofiness involving an electric razor.

And the most durable performers of the week turned out to be 30-year vets Suicide. They’re not electronic pioneers, as such; they’re leather-draped, leathery rock ‘n’ rollers who feed on conflict, and happen to have made electronic instruments central to their sound early on because that was what was most likely to piss people off. On Friday night, they were ferocious old tigers protecting their territory: Martin Rev whacking at a keyboard with his right hand, voguing with his left, and keeping his spine motionless and his wraparound shades aimed straight ahead; Alan Vega bellowing, snarling, and attempting to bait a delighted audience (somebody kept requesting “MORE GREAT SONGS!”). The only way they could annoy the crowd was refusing to come back for an encore, which finally got them the boos they were after. —Douglas Wolk


Easy to Find

The subject of Teri Thornton’s six-night run at the Village Vanguard last week was, justifiably, Teri Thornton. What other choice was there for a jazz singer and pianist who, after three albums in the early ’60s, hasn’t recorded in 36 years? The shows, like her new CD, I’ll Be Easy to Find (Verve), track where she’s been since her 1962 hit “Somewhere in the Night,” the theme song of the television series Naked City. Though Thornton won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 1998, she seems to have been dealt every possible professional and personal blow over the course of her career: corrupt management, a sea change in musical tastes, and in 1997, a cancer diagnosis.

She was too ill to play the Vanguard last fall when her CD was released; even last week, as she was escorted on and off stage, she looked frail, though quite the glamour-puss in a spangled black beret and a pantsuit with fake leopard cuffs and collar. There was a casual, good-natured rapport between Thornton and her sextet as she made tempo and key changes, leading them in the obvious crowd-pleasers, her own driving blues compositions. On “Salty Mama,” a song she performed for the Monk Competition, her long hands, improbably larger than the rest of her petite frame, punctuated her story of a woman whose lover “caught a midnight train to catch a red-eye flight.” The rowdier the number, the stronger she became.

But Thornton’s best on ballads. She chose eclectically—during her run she sang standards like “Night and Day” and rarely heard numbers, among them an achy Tadd Dameron beauty, “If You Could See Me Now.” Whether performing old chestnuts or her own pieces, her regal vibrato told something of her story to an entranced audience. During her song “Knee Deep in the Blues,” she turned to saxophonist Jerome Richardson and commanded: “I want you to talk about my past for me.” After his throbbing, melancholy solo, Thornton dryly remarked, “I didn’t know he knew me that well.” —Angela Starita


Still Warm and Fuzzy

The audience at Nassau Coliseum Sunday night heard only one song from ZZ Top’s new XXX, which gives a nod to the recent rap-rock crossover while maintaining the band’s Texas blues-driven style. Maybe it was singer Johnny Van Zant of openers Lynyrd Skynyrd proclaiming that “There’s not gonna be any of that rap shit tonight!” Or the crowd’s ensuing roar of agreement that rock ‘n’ roll will never die. Either way, it was a disappointment not hearing the CD’s opening track, “Poke Chop Sandwich”—which Kid Rock plans to sample on forthcoming material—and frontman Billy Gibbons’s hoarse blues whisper rev into the “If you break down, if you break down” chorus of “Crucifixx-A-Flatt” over hip-hop beats.

Instead, the trio delved into the traditional barroom blues of “Fearless Boogie” and gave a soulful rendition of 1973’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” before launching into their stockpile of hits, including “Gimme All Your Lovin’ ” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill, their beards and synchronized movements still intact after 30 years, stepped to the left, stepped to the right, swayed those guitars, and sauntered backwards in place—via onstage treadmills—to Frank Beard’s beat. The sex appeal was there, too: A gaunt Gibbons, who wore gold lamé and an “African sombrero,” got his mojo running when he flipped his guitar over and played it on his crotch during “Cheap Sunglasses”—giving new meaning to the words “warm and fuzzy.” And the white-fur-lined guitars and badass riffs of “Legs” got everyone nostalgic for cheap women and classic MTV.

But gone were the numerous, high-fiving Skynyrd fans from the opening set who didn’t give a damn that half the band died more than 20 years ago in a plane crash—they were too riled up by the onstage power of four guitars, an all-classics medley, a solo that jammed into “Dixie,” and the coup de grâce, a 12-minute “Free Bird” encore (the quintessential arena-rock moment) in front of a giant Confederate flag. This time, the scaled-down sound of ZZ Top, with its funky, low-key cool, was no match for a cover band who nailed every recorded nuance of “Sweet Home Alabama.” —Carla Spartos

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