Better Than: That band your dad is in.
Arthur Russell was a man of many friends and even more musical endeavors. In the late ’70s, the experimental composer and disco savant was something of an underground idol, collaborating with everyone from Phillip Glass to David Byrne to John Cage to Allen Ginsberg. And while his genre-bending was certainly respected, his adventures in musical exploration often left him dropping projects mid-production and reworking pieces so many times that they’d often go unfinished or thrown to the wayside. It’s frustrating to think about, the idea of bits of musical genius lying mostly untouched and unheard since Russell’s passing in 1992. That’s where Arthur’s Landing comes in.
At its core, the group is a tribute to Russell, with a cast that reads like a who’s who of the composer’s cohorts. Loose Joints’ Steven Hall and Joyce Bowden, Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks, beat machine and drummer Mustafa Ahmed, trombonist and composer Peter Zummo, and percussionist Bill Ruyle make up the band’s foundation; a rotating cast of characters find their way in and out of the mix from there. They’re not a cover band, though, and last night’s performance at Nublu couldn’t have made that more clear.
The show was the last of their January Monday-night residency at the small East Village dive, filled with Russell fans and cohorts (I was the youngest by ten years, if not more) there to celebrate the release of the group’s self-titled full-length debut. An 11-piece band (three guitars, two bass, trumpet, trombone, keyboards, dulcimer, drum kit, congos), with band members averaging around 55 years old, overflowed the stage and spilled onto the floor. Several audience members sat cross-legged and nursed their beers as the band started with what seemed to be a warm-up that eventually unfolded into an all-out composition of scattering drums, off-beat bass, and a heavy dose of trombone. This is not your average disco band.
Instead, the piece was a nod to one of many of Russell’s abandoned snippets from Singing Tractors, an experimental endeavor that also featured tonight’s guest keyboardist, Elodie Lauten. Originally a free-form means of implementing free jazz, pop, and even African tribal sounds (at the hands of the extraordinary Ahmed) into one cohesive composition, the project went on for years without ever seeing the light of day. “Arthur was fascinated by it and wanted to keep working on it, as finishing it would mean to let it go,” Lauten once recalled. “He keep remixing it for years on end without ever bringing it to final stage.” We hear several variations on the piece, two of which made it onto the album; the second, “Singing Tractors 323,” an initially spacey mix of synth-like keys, eventually forced us into an ambient trance-inducing sway with our neighboring couch-mates.
New adaptations of Russell classics featured heavily in the set, too. Love anthems “Your Motion Says” and “In the Light of the Miracle” made an appearance, as did a newer remix of “Lucky Cloud,” but a reworking of disco banger “Is It All Over My Face?” (into “Love Dancing”) best showed the band’s slide towards the downtempo. What was once an uninhibited 10 minutes of dance-floor congos, a peppy trumpet, and a chant-like chorus is now became a sexy, understated groove at the hands of guest vocalist Nomi Ruiz (late of Hercules and the Love Affair). The playful congos were replaced by a drum kit, while Ruiz and Bowden’s sultry vocals took on a stronger role. Despite the obvious mellow vibe, the now-crowded bar was a showcase of ’80s dance moves from patrons who remembered the hit from their Paradise Garage days. As long as they keep us dancing, we’ll be coming back for more.
Critical Bias: I’m a sappy sucker for Larry Levan’s “Is It All Over My Face?” remix.
Overheard: “They sound like Chicago.”
Random Notebook Dump: Lots of fellas with British accents.