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Advanced improv: Stanton Moore at the skins.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Cooking in the Improv Kitchen

By Bill Ketzer

Stanton Moore Trio

Red Square, May 18

The last time I was at 388 Broadway, the place was called Doc McCutcheon’s, a real unsavory market for meat long past its sell-by date. Now, fully renovated, the property boasts the inviting atmosphere of Red Square, which fills a niche perhaps not wholly represented in Albany’s downtown. It should have been no surprise when I saw omnipresent New Orleans drum visionary Stanton Moore on the club’s itinerary, yet due to the statistical unlikelihood of such an appearance, I thought I was hallucinating. But it was true, so I put on some pants and drove on over.

There was a DJ. And I thought, “Oh, no. This is how I suffer for punctuality.” But for some reason people love DJs. I took to the bar, because it was 10:30 PM and the band were nowhere in sight. Little did I know that Moore and company were actually hard at work in the club’s former kitchen, physically transcribing the music from his upcoming CD onto charts for longtime Crescent City veterans Cranston Clements and David Yorkanowski. They came out of the kitchen shuffling papers while Moore himself took a failed stab at the can before showtime (one stall only, lads). Now I was excited. Nothing is more fun to watch than a drummer who has to pee, let alone one of the more creative rhythm technicians in the country.

So it was to be a “seat of the old pants” session, and its syllabus immediately sprayed forth in all sorts of rash, decadent ways. Any rough edges were pounded smooth literally four minutes into the first piece, and from there the trio sailed into hot bliss, a boiling navigation of tempestuous, brazenly tailored musical textiles. More often than not, the work—an ever-expanding universe of salty, brackish bayou funk circling precariously ’round the lip of the contemporary jazz canon—was made only more munificent by Moore’s endless interpretations of 4/4. In fact, the whole night was in that meter but you’d never know it, what with the drummer’s penchant for whacking a polyrhythmic spin on grooves ad infinitum, sometimes even employing mambo and samba stylings for good measure. Every once and a while (and likely due more to the percussionist’s penchant for playing in the cracks of a downbeat than any unfamiliarity with the charts) the trio would botch the “one,” but it gave the listener a sense that the music was improvised on the spot, that you were watching a one-off, late-night fumble-tackle of old standards among Berklee drinking buds. And for all his dexterity and technical vision, Moore’s is really more of a trashy New Orleans heartbeat, delivering the payload with a kind of stinky, backwater abandon, his double-stroke rolls crushed deep into the dish of the snare, frightening his accents with a Bosphorus Trash Crash that sounded like a helicopter crashing into a frozen lake. Yorkanowski kept one eye on Moore’s right hand, the other on his B-3, and together with Clements’ assiduous fretwork, carried night into day.

Yes, Moore is an ambassador, and true to his role there is nothing he won’t try. Galactic, Garage a’ Trois, Corrosion of Conformity, ad hoc experiments, drum clinics, instructional books and videos, etc. I was hard on him for overplaying and pretty much destroying almost every riff on COC’s In the Arms of God by breaking into distracting polyrhythms, essentially rendering the CD unlistenable if you pay too much attention. But the reason I found that performance so distasteful was, interestingly, the exact same reason why his performance on Thursday was so enthralling. The work begged to evolve, breathe, to walk on 100 legs, and I appreciated the fact that, as the consummate working musician, Moore feels just as comfortable performing for 150 people as he is for 15,000 rabid Galactic daytrippers. He has plenty of work, and certainly demand could allow him to sit out van tours through the smoldering downtowns of a thousand small cities. But he’d rather take it to the streets, and that he did.

One Night in Snockville

Michael Hurley, Tara Jane O’Neil, Samara Lubelski

The Sanctuary for Independent Media, May 20

Upon taking the stage, Michael Hurley, dressed in deerstalker cap and a kerchief around his neck, placed a sign on the wall behind him, informing the music-loving chapelgoers that they were about to enter Snockville. The sign, hand-drawn by the headliner, also added the helpful qualifiers, “S.O.S.” and “Hellfuckyeah,” evidence that we were at one of the last great stops on the endangered but stalwart train of Old Weird American music.

Hurley, or as he seems to prefer, Doc Snock, is a rare character who seems to have sprung fully formed from the original vinyl sides of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. He’s been making records since the mid-’60s, was a featured player on the acknowledged classic Have Moicy!, and in recent years has become somewhat of a father figure for the burgeoning psych-folk movement. Accompanied by two such disciples (Daniel Littleton and Jean Cook of the downstate indie band Ida), Hurley gave a rambling but memorable performance that encapsulated all the idiosyncrasies and charms that make him an underground legend.

The first song, “Portland Water,” was a trademark Hurley blend of the earthbound and the spiritual, lamenting a dreary spell of rainy Oregon days while observing, “Well, you see those Indians looking down in the water?/They say that the river, that’s the Spirit’s daughter.” The old-timey “End of the Road” followed, a wry and bittersweet reflection on the end of both a love affair and a life.

Littleton (on guitar, vocals and harmonium) and Cook (on viola and vocals) did an admirable job of keeping up with the codger as he skipped beats, subverted measures and turned chord progressions around at the whim of his muse. While somewhat shambolic in form, Hurley has an innate musical grace and a soothing soulfulness that make you wish you could spend some time with him around a campfire. Whether he was slightly bending notes in sparse guitar runs that made him seem like a folkier Willie Nelson (especially on “National Weed Growers Association”), or sawing away at a fiddle in the crook of his arm, you always knew you were in the hands of a master. While the 64-year-old’s voice no longer has the supple keen of his youth, his hard-won gravel made it all the easier to mimic the wolves, hoot owls and crows that inhabit his songs. Those who stayed while the clock approached midnight were rewarded with an entrancing version of the crowd-requested “O My Stars,” and the haunting “Wildegeeses,” a masterful song that made me consider selling some of my Will Oldham records.

Of the two openers, Tara Jane O’Neil played an incandescent set, bringing to mind a more complex version of Cat Power’s earlier work, albeit without an aversion to practice. O’Neil is a spectral, slowcore guitar hero who also happens to have an amazing voice. Her former Sonora Pine cohort Samara Lubelski didn’t fare as well. Lubelski was hard-pressed to re-create the beguiling sounds that fill her strong recordings.

—Mike Hotter

It’s Personal

Loudon Wainwright III

The Egg, May 21

During Loudon Wainwright’s 75-minute performance at the Egg last Sunday, I was reminded of another artist who appeared on the same stage over the past decades—the late Spalding Gray. While one is a songwriter and the other a monologist, they both fearlessly use/used their own lives for the primary substance of their creations. Further linking them is the peculiar footnote that accompanied Gray’s sad suicide a couple years ago. Prior to quietly jumping off the Staten Island ferry into icy winter waters, his last excursion with his young sons was to see the movie Big Fish, in which Wainwright was an actor.

A recording artist for three dozen years, and a songwriter for a few more years than that, Wainwright’s body of work falls into two main categories. One is the overtly humorous or topical song. The other, upon which the depth of his reputation truly rests, are his autobiographical inquiries. Sunday’s show was a rather low-energy affair, with Wainwright not particularly engaged, and the audience responding in kind. That’s not to say that the show was unfulfilling. He’s a pro, and each song found him stepping into the narrative with impassioned commitment. He drew heavily from last year’s Here Come the Choppers!, one of the strongest albums of his career.

Perhaps because the set favored his more personal songs, I found myself puzzled and even annoyed by the laughter that greeted lines in what were often serious songs. Wainwright’s use of humor is not that of a comedian, rather, it makes him a believable and fully rounded character in the proceedings. The small, funny details he peppers through what are journeys through otherwise daunting emotional circumstances simply make the songs more real to us, and in so doing make them more universal. “White Winos” is a beautiful and loving paean to his mother, who died in 1997 and whose passing informed much of Last Man on Earth. The chuckles emitting from a portly fellow a few seats away from me every time the line “Mother liked her wine, she’d have a glass or three” made me wonder why he couldn’t let the sweetly melancholy flavor of the song simply wash over him without needing to break the spell.

By most measures Loudon Wainwright has lived a less-than-sterling personal life, in and out of marriages with the outward appearances of a cad, absent from the lives of his children as they grew up—the whole shebang. The songs that examine this behavior retain their power because he is not offering them as apologies. In addition, from the time of his 1970 debut, he has not shied away from acknowledging his privileged background. A rarity among singer-songwriters of every stripe, he describes a childhood filled with country clubs and travels. He passes no judgment on the economics he was born into; it’s simply his life.

—David Greenberger


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