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Fruits of Her Labor

By Mike Hotter

Lucinda Williams

The Egg, March 27

‘What’s happened to country music nowadays?” Lucinda Williams asked her amped-up Tuesday-night audience last week. “I think it’s because these new singers are all from the suburbs now. You know, the whole outlaw movement, guys like Waylon Jennings—they actually were born and raised in the country!”

It wasn’t lost on some that Williams might as well have been referring to the pretenders who lay panting at the foot of her rhinestone-studded throne (hello there, Sheryl Crow). What has always separated Williams from the pack (besides her nomadic, Southern bohemian upbringing) is her poet’s soul and her love for the blues, both of which were showcased on the evening’s best songs.

Looking fit and sexy in a tight T-shirt and jeans, Williams killed as soon as she opened her mouth, her impassioned vocals contradicting the ramshackle, laissez faire attitude she sometimes displays between songs. On the new song “Rescue,” as guitarist Doug Pettibone, bassist David Sutton and drummer Don Heffington laid down a groove so sultry it practically generated steam, Williams embodied the wizened warrior of the heart who has seen it all, warning her sistren that you can never fully rely on a man, be he a wastrel, a lover or a saint. After note-perfect versions of “Ventura” and “Fruits of My Labor” (two highlights of 2003’s underrated World Without Tears), Williams decided to deviate from her set list to give the yowlers in attendance some alt-country love, delivering a sprightly “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and a deeply felt “Drunken Angel” (which she dedicated to Blaze Foley, the Texan singer-songwriter who was gunned down while helping a friend in need).

From time to time, the stage manager (whom Williams called Flappy) would wander onto the stage to help the singer find the right page in a gigantic sheaf of lyrics. While this raised eyebrows all around and was disappointing to some (“can’t she memorize her own words?”), Williams noted that many bigger names use hidden teleprompters to help keep them on track lyrically. “Would you rather have me up here trying to remember and messing up?” she asked. She and her band’s expert delivery of the songs made this pretty much a non-issue for this listener.

Speaking of expert, special mention must be made of guitarist Pettibone. Whether plucking out crystalline pedal-steel lines, spicing things up with Kenny Burrell-like comping, or getting positively Hendrixian on “Righteously,” the man is a force of nature who helps immensely in Williams’ oft-stated mission of bringing together the music she loves, be it country, folk, rock or soul.

The crowd appeared to be made up of about one-quarter rowdy Sweet Old World-ers and one-half reverent Car Wheel-ers; the others seemed to be Egg subscribers who probably didn’t expect Pettibone to play so damn loud, especially on a school night. No one seemed to be in the mood for openers the Heartless Bastards, a ballsy power trio who bring to mind the three-chord rock thunder of underground heroes like the MC5 and early Pentagram. They could have pared down their set a bit, but you have to give them props for taking their lumps with dignity and panache. All in all, everyone came in a bit ornery and left mostly well-pleased.

Absolutely Brilliant

Dafnis Prieto’s Absolute Quintet

Club Helsinki, great barrington, mass., March 31

Some shows leave you holding your head because of the sheer volume of stuff that was just packed into it. Not loudness so much as information, often delivered in a manner that defies the limits of human capability and comprehension. It’s just all way too much.

This was one of those. The Absolute Quintet, led by young Cuban drummer-composer Dafnis Prieto, stretched the boundaries of what Latin jazz can be. Prieto is quickly becoming a jazz superstar, running two bands of his own, playing in the Michael Camillo Trio and the Cassandra Wilson Group, and scoring music for dance and chamber ensembles.

The music was heavily orchestrated, and the other four musicians sat behind music stands. Much of the material was dense, composed, ensemble stuff; not that this affected the groove thing at all. Riding on incredibly complex drumbeats, the group swung like crazy, and despite the busy-ness, everyone had plenty of stretching room. Many of the songs built and built, layer upon layer of intense beat, with abrupt endings that literally left one stunned and dazed.

It was an unusual layout: Prieto on drums, Jason Linder (a prolific writer-bandleader in his own right) on keys, Yosvany Terry on sax, Christian Howes on violin and Dana Leong on cello and trombone. Linder dazzled as he took the lion’s share of the solos, occasionally recalling his mentor Chick Corea on synthesizer and piano. Leong, who made award-winning air-guitar faces while playing the cello, also had a number of striking solos, some played through a wah-wah pedal.

If you’re not a drummer, you can skip this paragraph. (Dudes, dudes, dudes, this guy Prieto’s a monster. During one of several never-boring solos, he had six things going on at once—the four limbs were acting independently, hitting drums, cymbals, claves, electric things, and he was blowing a whistle in time. All the while, he held his left stick half-way down, and did one thing with the business end of the stick on his snare, and something else on the hat with the butt end of the stick. I’m not kidding. It was freakin’ sick.)

On top of the absolute rigorousness of the music, there was plenty of silliness to go around. Like when the band spoke-sang (perfectly) a complex groove that Prieto was laying down, or Prieto’s goofy broken-English between-song banter. The joking allowed the listener’s brain to decompress just a little before the next go-round.

—Paul Rapp

Gimme Indie Rock

Sebadoh

Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., March 29

Unlike their aging indie-rock contemporaries the Pixies, whose youth fan base somehow exploded in the past decade (while the Pixies were broken up and inactive, no less), Sebadoh’s fans aren’t getting any younger. At least judging by Sebadoh’s recent “reunion” show in Northampton—the band’s hometown and a place teeming with college students who didn’t appear in large numbers, although plenty of 30-something indie-rock fans were in the house.

In some ways, Sebadoh are a truer reflection of late-’80s and early ’90s indie rock than the Pixies, and this may explain in part their failure to be “inherited” by young music fans in the same way that the Pixies were passed down to successive generations. Experimentation and home-recording were holy virtues of the cassette culture back then. As a result, musical incoherence and low-fi production values have rendered many early ’90s indie rock albums less-than-easy listening to today’s ears. Sebadoh’s schizophrenic early four-track albums were no exception; for every heart rending Lou Barlow-penned acoustic love song was a slightly twisted Eric Gaffney track punctuated by his unpredictable hardcore screaming.

Lou Barlow has always been far better known as a songwriter than Gaffney, both for his late-’80s stint in Dinosaur Jr. and for his songwriting in side projects such as Sentridoh and Folk Implosion. But early Sebadoh were largely considered to be Gaffney’s band, at least in Gaffney’s mind. (In fact, in the liner notes to the reissue of the band’s seminal Sebadoh III, Gaffney thanks Barlow and Jason Lowenstein, the trio’s third songwriter, for “being in my band.”)

This may shed light on why Barlow seemed to bring a self-sabotaging attitude to the Northampton show, which was billed as a Sebadoh reunion (and documented by a film crew) because it represented the first time Barlow and Gaffney have played together since Gaffney left the band in 1994. The show had its rough edges, and most of the fuck-ups were due to a scattered Barlow, who even inexplicably forgot the words to his own songs. Watching Barlow forget the words to his neurotic love anthem “Brand New Love” is sort of like watching Stephen Malkmus of Pavement forget the words to “Summer Babe.” It means indie rock as my generation knew it is truly dead.

Basically, Barlow didn’t really seem to give a shit as the band played songs primarily from the Gaffney years of Sebadoh III and prior. Gaffney himself was charged, ripping through songs like “Violet Execution” and “Scars, Four Eyes” (my friend was pissed he didn’t do any of his little screaming parts from the albums, though). Throughout, Barlow looked more amused than anything, smirking as the voluble Gaffney dominated the onstage patter with batty comments and bits of history from the band’s early days. A bored-looking J. Mascis (Barlow’s once-estranged Dinosaur Jr. bandmate) wandered from one side of the floor to the other. And then a man ran from backstage and took a flying leap into the crowd. The crowd parted and the stage diver landed with a tremendous crash. “Is he OK?” asked a worried Barlow. “I felt that up here.”

“It’s not 1994 anymore,” my friend said as security carried the crumpled man from the floor.

—Kirsten Ferguson


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