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The Great Comedown

By Mike Hotter Gary Higgins and Red Hash

WAMC Performing Arts Center, Sept. 15

The Gary Higgins story could be something out of Pynchon’s Vineland or latter-day Philip K. Dick. Young idealistic hippie has a great run in a legendary New York City band named Random Concept, tires of the musical rat-race and urban blight, and retires to the steadier pace of his bucolic Connecticut hometown. Plays CSNY-laced folk in local bars on the weekends, gets involved in Nixon-sponsored dope-selling, which gets him ensnared by predatory turncoats. Facing a lot of hard time for living the life of a rogue rose, Higgins gets his compatriots together for what may be one last testament, and after 40 hours with a 4-track makes the American equivalent of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Thirty years later, Ben Chasny and Drag City come a-calling, and Higgins is redeemed, his lost album remastered and rereleased. The question is, who the fuck is this Gary Higgins character now? Is he wizened and bedraggled, barely able to strum a chord or croak a verse?

When Higgins came out to play, he looked healthier than most of the hipsters who sing his praises, kind of like someone your dad would go fishing with, stocky and bearded and wearing a baseball cap. He sat and started playing his Martin, and when he sang all the elaborate music-history pretensions of an alt-rock critic faded away, we just saw a gifted songwriter and musician playing with some talented old friends.

What made this a great concert was how the band enlivened and developed the ideas laid down on their eponymous LP. The singing and playing of cellist Maureen Wells was a plangent counterpart to Higgins’ stronger-than-ever meditative keen. Gary’s son Graham played placid but bluesy solos that were strengthened by the muscular guitaring of Higgins’ stalwart compatriot Jake Bell. The quirky keyboards of Terry Fenton brought in the steely wind of Cleveland’s Pere Ubu, and harkened back to the heady psychedelia of the Silver Apples (which isn’t as anachronistic as one might think, since the Apples’ Simeon played with Higgins and Bell in Random Concept). On “Down on the Farm,” Higgins (while playing fractured funk drums) sang a prison tune about “squeezing bull” (they told him it was a cow) with a Beefheartian twang that I’ve only heard Mitch Elrod approach in authenticity. We knew he could do pensive, we knew he could do sad—who knew the man could groove? On the shoulda-been-a-hit “I Can’t Sleep at Night,” Red Hash plied the deep blues trench that Brightblack Morninglight almost beat to death on their latest album.

Thirty years after what they might have thought was the end, Gary Higgins and Red Hash improved on their great, admittedly scarce recorded material, and left you wanting to hear where they might go next.

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