The Dune Chronicles
Like many of the country’s frayed roots troubadours, Howe Gelb is a walking reconciliation project between the loner tendencies at the heart of his music and the community spirit it seemingly inspires. He’s like the weird uncle your parents told you to stay away from at family gatherings—he had a wicked gleam in his eye, but was always ready to spin some myth you’d relay to friends directly afterward. The weird uncle inevitably had a handful of like-minded friends also too smart for their own good, and more than willing to add to the enlightened degeneracy unfolding around them.
At Joe’s Pub last Friday, Uncle Howe’s Giant Sand, a Tucson-based musical confederation he forms with bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, hosted a hootenanny; they were joined by a storytelling brood from the dark end of songwriter street. Long dormant Evan Dando covered Victoria Williams, Johnny Thunders, and Lemonheads among his own new songs, and made an eloquent case that he really might be the indie Gram Parsons of his own imagination. Vic Chesnutt and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner wrapped their tenors around navel-gazing questions of sexual relations at once creepy and funny. And Will Oldham briefly joined that pair for a take on Willie and dearly departed Waylon’s “Good-Hearted Woman, Good-Timing Man,” the sort of morally doomed honky-tonk blues once regarded as male-bonding material.
Gelb meanwhile kept a warm, hostly demeanor. When the expanded, seven-strong Sand was not bashing out Kris Kristofferson and X songs, he’d be randomly picking at the strings of the baby grand or screwing around with a CD player and a sampler. (Among the sources for his improvised musique concrète vignettes was a ’50s radio ad for a Hank Sr.-authored guide to writing commercial country tunes.) These were pure mix-tape maneuvers, Uncle Howe fashioning his own collage of the American song- and sound-book. Such tinkering spotlighted a rare understanding of the culture’s great dilemma: how to strike a balance between modernist innovation and folk soul. A decade ago Gelb’s muse took a left turn at Albuquerque, wound up in Arizona, and found that it was only a state of mind. Now alongside a brotherhood of cultural mechanics, Gelb’s trying to see how Johnny Cash and John Cage might fit together. Everyone should have such an uncle. —Piotr Orlov
If house music is a feeling, then Harry “Choo Choo” Romero gave the few lonely hearts at Centro-Fly on Valentine’s night an emotional rescue. But first he had to break down all defenses: The speakers struck beat-and-bass blows at the audience before slipping them into funky unconsciousness. It was dirty punk-rock dance music made for New York.
The party celebrated the release of Choo Choo’s dark, drug-addled, head-banging Subliminal Sessions 2 mix—the candy dreams of “Tangerine,” the anarchic “Ghetto Tears,” and the hardcore techno of Umek. Then there were the classics to remedy all the head-fucking: Grace Jones’s “Love on Top of Love,” Raze’s “Break for Love,” and Aly-us’s “Follow Me.” Black men pressed each other tightly; a sole Japanese hipster stood in awe. This white girl’s legs turned to jelly.
Romero may not be a DJ name, but his songs are another matter. 2001 was the year of Choo Choo, House Producer from New Jersey (the state that grooms dance gods). His simple, melodic “Tania” was a runaway underground New York dance hit that graced many a turntable, including superstar DJ Danny Tenaglia’s; his “Night at the Black” was all over Ibiza this summer, its sultry, Santana-esque sounds tailor-fit for coke-thin Euro divas. The new mix CD, which features sparkling releases from the Subliminal label, as well as Romero’s own Bambossa Records, holds the promise of more fabulousness to come. And more Romero on the decks, too.
Choo Choo’s set would have torn the roof off a sweaty pit like Vinyl, where the dancers, not the drinkers, rule. Which was good for the Zoolander look-alikes who stuck around Centro-Fly’s main floor past 2 a.m., but bad for the hangers-on swarming Subliminal honcho and man-about-town Erick Morillo (whose promised DJ set never materialized) in the adjacent Tapioca Room. They got treated to “DJ to the Stars” Mark Ronson, whose ADD-like mixing of hip-hop classics and the odd ’80s rock hit was just as vapid and predictable as the moniker presupposed. Romero’s gritty crunch, however, cut through such celebrity-fucking bullshit. —Carla Spartos
Gong With the Wind
Before guys from Spain wandered over during the 16th century spoiling for empire, gong music used to pervade the Philippines. Today, the form is practiced mainly in Muslim Mindanao. Given the age-old tensions with Christian Manila, the kulintang (a row of about eight plate-sized gongs) symbolizes a way of life that has resisted, at least in spirit if not in fact, the West’s incursions—most specifically pop. Part of a Southeast Asian gong tradition (whose best known form is gamelan, or Indonesian court music), kulintang at its most seductive builds layers of sound simultaneously, suggesting some affinity with Sufi music, and inducing in its listeners two contradictory feelings: an urge to move and the desire to be still, entranced.
Unlike the seamlessness of its previous appearances, last Saturday’s concert by the Mindanao Kulintang Ensemble at FIT was uneven. The first half revolved around a musical narrative, Baharana, or “Eclipse,” based on the folk belief that darkness comes about when a dragon devours the moon. Because doomsday is thought to follow, villagers unleash waves of music to chase off the monster. The usually accomplished musicians, led by guro Usopay Cadar, seemed intermittently listless. By marking all the right time signatures, they were just marking time—good enough for us to be still, though not entranced. They might have felt hampered by the storytelling format, which required bouts of narration, thus interrupting the music’s continuity.
In contrast, the second half, Pakaradia-an, or “Celebration,” was indeed just that. Beginning with the stately Kasayao sa Singkil (with musician Liz Reyes performing a courtly dance), the ensemble demonstrated its virtuosity, its six members taking turns playing the dabakan (a large single-headed drum) and the various gongs, from kulintang to the gandingan—referred to as “talking gongs,” for answering the melody laid down by the kulintang. The ensuing dialogues were quick, quirky, and even witty, with one number, Kasolampid, poking fun at elaborate courtship rituals swains undertake to impress their lasses. It was thrilling to see the gongs fly. Like thoroughbreds, they are at their magnificent best when at full gallop. Such flights moved me, rendering me a Yeatsian perne in a gyre. —Luis H. Francia
Dave Van Ronk, 1936-2002
Some say he was the gravelly-voiced, guitar-picking John the Baptist to Bob Dylan’s gravelly-voiced, guitar-picking Jesus. I say he was the Ramones of the early-’60s folk revival. Primitive and sophisticated, forward-thinking and backward-looking, he broke open a door that no one could ever completely shut again. Call it the white blues, call it postmodern, call it skill and intuition, call it a mixture of Louis Armstrong, the Reverend Gary Davis, and folkie bohemia. Whatever it was, it changed things.
MacDougal Street was the aesthetic center of the universe back then, and the album Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger (on Prestige) was a message of cultural importance from that center. Thirty years later, when I bought the CD reissue, I was shocked to find I remembered every note, even though I’d never even owned the original vinyl version. You just heard it back then. It was everywhere. And I recalled us 1963 college freshmen analyzing the album cover for significance in someone’s dorm room and a friend saying she’d spent her Christmas vacation forcing herself to learn to listen to it, even though—or maybe because—it was so rough, so blunt, and so hard. She knew she had to understand it if she was going to understand everything that was going to come next.
For the record, Dave Van Ronk, who died earlier this month of colon cancer, was only a folksinger by default. A trad jazz vocalist who saw that revival dry up in the mid ’50s, he brought his swinging sensibilities to the finger-picking guitar-blues scene around Washington Square Park. As he tells it in the CD reissue notes of his earliest Folkways recordings, “There was no G.I. Bill for veterans of the Moldy Fig Wars. [But] . . . the sight and sound of happily howling Stalinists offended my assiduously nurtured self-image as a hipster, not to mention my political sensibilities . . . In due course I came to realize that there were some very good musicians operating on the fringes of the radical Rotarian sing-along.”
By the time I caught him at the Gaslight in 1963, he was already bemoaning the passing of the good old days in the Village, but it wasn’t out of bitterness. At the height of his powers, he was too hip to take any cultural moment too seriously. In the ’90s, at his frequent appearances at the Bottom Line, he was just as funny and still a pleasure, even though there wasn’t much left of that gravelly voice. Unlike some old ’60s folkies, his music never promoted the idea that paradise was just down the road. So toward the end of his career he never sang, as some do now, as if he’d been betrayed by history. Like other postwar existentialists, he knew that life was a joke, but not a stupid joke. Someone that smart who worked that hard at his craft so he could sound that rough and direct yet swinging must have thought it was worth passing on the news that the joke was a good one. —Tom Smucker