Oracle and Roll
Hearing the b’gockingly reanimated Who (“Actually,” Pete Townshend clarified, “we call ourselves THE FUCKING ‘OO!”) shred Madison Square Garden last Wednesday was like revisiting the Delphic oracle via Ray Harryhausen. The very fragility and low-tech nature of middle-aged geezers rocking out—at a level of energy and invention only slightly below Live at Leeds (true)—lent the human touch to 2.25 hours of maximum r&b that made openers UnAmerican and the Wallflowers sound dated in comparison. Generations collided nonetheless. Taking a VH-1 moment during this stripped-down hits-fest, cynical sentimentalist Townshend introduced “Relayer” as part of the stillborn Lifehouse rock-op he resuscitated earlier this year in England. He claims the song anticipated the Internet, whose pornographic applications he decried, sneering, “I thought it was going to be spiritual.”
The Who, however, had your spiritual right here. Drummer Zak Starkey channeled Keith Moon’s energy and technique as Townshend and John Entwistle dissected “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” and “The Real Me.” Where Townshend’s classic style consists largely of taking a blues lick and smearing it across several measures, he’s added an entire Eddie Van’s worth of tricks to his toolbox, too, spewing megabytes of information in each machine-gun-like solo while posing like the suavest mofo ever to grace the cover of Mojo. Roger Daltrey, playing a Paul Newman-esque straight man to Townshend’s mad scientist, looked great and kept out of the way. With Townshend at a creative crossroads, the material problem was solved by consulting the entrails of the old stuff with casually manic glee. As for the newbies in the house: “In the words of Stephen Sondheim,” quoth Pete, “I hope you see what you expected to see.” Does more count? —Richard Gehr
Art Space Cowboys
You’d have thought that down in Tribeca Mammon would have slain Art and dined on the corpse; it’s decades since the neighborhood was the epicenter of what Laurie Anderson tagged “Difficult Music.” So the new Engine 27, on Franklin Street, is a throwback, but it’s more ambitious than the semi-refurbished lofts of yore, and it’s probably New York’s only permanent space dedicated to electronic (and related) music. Founder Jack Weisberg, a Bronx-born, self-taught sound engineer, was disgusted with some of the “junk” that goes into sound systems, and he set out to build a gallery where every aspect of sound could be controlled minutely, so composers could “expand their ideas of what is possible.”
Octaphonic, for example, is no biggie for Engine 27, as Friday’s concert demonstrated. Earl Brown’s “Octet,” for eight loudspeakers, each carrying a different track, was made from the refuse of John Cage’s 1953 “Williams Mix,” an epochal piece of musique concrète. Brown controlled the density of sound events more deliberately than Cage, and “Octet” is the more interesting piece. For “Williams [re]Mix[ed],” Larry Austin, a historian and composer of electronic music, developed “a protocol for a new realization” of “Williams Mix” that reduces St. John’s two years of Zen-achieved labor to “one minute” of CPU time. He didn’t explain how infinite variations of a chance-determined piece will advance the cause of Cage’s music, or music generally.
The first year of programming at Engine 27 was handed to the Albany-based Electronic Music Foundation. Showcasing electronic and electroacoustic music as the last bastion of experimentalist formalism is some pretty high art, and its timing couldn’t be better. Big sellers this year were Caipirinha’s Early Modulations and Ellipsis Arts’ Ohm, both compilations of electronic-music classics—which means there are electronic-music classics. And classics need institutions. Difficult Music meets scrappy DIY art space: a heartwarming tale of Old Tribeca. —David Krasnow
Backtrack Like an Egyptian
Back in the ’80s, when virtually everybody in Irving Plaza’s audience this past October 2 was being tormented by hormones, the Bangles were busy sending us two simultaneous and contradictory messages. The wiser, quieter one was “We’re an egalitarian collective, we’re solid songwriters who know a solider Paisley Underground tune when we hear it, and we want very badly to be the Byrds in 1965”; it was generally drowned out by “We’re pinups with great hair, Susanna Hoffs is our adorable lead singer, and we don’t write our own songs.”
The joy of their show—the last of their reunion minitour—was that Message #1 finally won. They seemed happier to see a sold-out crowd than to see each other, but 14 years after my first Bangles show, I can tell you that their newly enforced Susanna-is-not-the-star-dammit policy is a sound one. For one thing, they get to flex their garage-rock muscle more, although the verse of “I’m Waiting for the Man” grafted onto “Manic Monday” was, as Vicki Peterson noted, kind of a non sequitur. For another, we get more of their luminescent harmonies. Could they have picked a better opener than “Hazy Shade of Winter” (vocal arrangement: four-part ensemble with no leads; first line: “Time, time, time, see what’s become of me”)?
In other news, their fatal pop moment “Eternal Flame” is actually sort of sweet now that they’ve dispensed with the Big Power Ballad Drums; Michael Steele is no longer changing the pronouns in the “September Gurls” line about “when she makes love to me”; and the songs they previewed from their forthcoming album sound a lot like the songs they revived from their first. They’re retracing their steps, not to where they left off, but to where they went wrong. —Douglas Wolk