The performance by the man known as Jandek—among other names, including Sterling Smith and the Representative from Corwood—was as much a collectible as it was a concert. That’s not to lend credence to Kurt Cobain’s contention that though “[Jandek’s] not pretentious, only pretentious people like his music,” nor to claim that there were no true fans of experimental and/or improvised music at the Flywheel on Saturday. But, it’s a safe bet that as many audience members were intrigued by his reputation as by the music he has put out over the last three decades.
For a musician of his prolific output—more than 60 albums, and counting—Jandek remains enigmatic: He has granted only two interviews in his career, both circumspect and largely lacking in any personal detail; his first known public performance was staged in Scotland in 2004, by which time he had already released more than 30 albums on his own Corwood label. Even now, after a half-dozen years of public performance, little is known about him. It’s more or less acknowledged that he is, probably, a Houston-area resident named Sterling Smith, but beyond that . . .
Serious music fans might, justifiably, point out that Jandek’s biographical facts are trivial and that five dozen (!!) records should be more than enough to feed upon. But the music itself inspires this kind of snooping. It’s difficult to sum up the work of such a productive artist, but much of Jandek’s recorded work is a type of folk music straddling both the naive directness of outsider art and the deliberate experimentation of the avant garde. He draws upon American musical idioms, especially rural blues and old-school country, for color, but his approach to structure is idiosyncratic to the point of opacity. (In an early bit of enthusiastic but misinformed press, a critic praised his embrace of the untuned guitar; Jandek responded that he was always playing perfectly within the tunings he’d made up.)
In recent gigs, Jandek has been backed by local or regional musicians recruited specifically for that show, so the flavors of the evening have varied from electric frenzy to acoustic ghostliness, depending on the lineup and, one assumes, to Jandek’s direction. On Saturday, the band included pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and drum kit, and explored a sprawling and mercurial kind of western swing. Jandek himself played—or rather, pawed and petted—a fretless electric bass and sang. On several numbers he shared or turned over the mic to a female vocalist.
Jandek’s own voice is a kind of muted, tuneless croak. He intoned more than sang homely lyrics that could easily have been drawn from more structured country-western tunes: heartbreak and loneliness, and any number of other “blue” moods, dominated; sad cowboys went to dancehalls and trucks were taken to town. But these were glimpses rather than full narratives. Emotion was evoked but rarely resolved; with the near-constant flurry of the pedal steel, the skitter of the fiddle and the steady drizzle of plinking banjo, the songs—many of them in the six- to eight-minute range—became almost Middle Eastern-sounding, trancelike.
But it was fevered, more dervish than dreamstate. And, frankly, it became exhausting. The two-hour set provided little to grasp on to. There were moments in which something like a groove emerged—almost subliminally—and provided a brief reverie, and the female vocalist did an excellent job finding sweet spots in the swirl to strew her lines like garland. But, by show’s end, I was personally worn out.
And judging from the by-then half-empty room, so were the other collectors. I’m hopeful (though not necessarily optimistic) that Jandek—Sterling, the Rep—will return to the region again; it’d be exciting to accumulate a more complete set of the man’s live work.