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Peace be with you: Thurston Moore and Bill Nace.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Love Buzz

By Josh Potter

Northampton Wools, Pocahaunted, Robedoor, Century Plants

June 26, Upstate Artists Guild Gallery

It’s not hard to spot Thurston Moore on the street. A head taller than the tallest dude in the crowd, the legendary Sonic Youth frontman has presence. As he mingled with the crowd before his set on our little old Lark Street, there was an inescapable sense of something important about to take place. It was a sense, though, that no one spoke of. Stealing furtive glimpses of the anti-rock-god around pulls on a cigarette, we played it cool while our souls screamed for him to sign our cleavage.

How the Albany Sonic Arts Collective pulled this one off is still kind of a mystery, but the show made a certain kind of sense. After decades spent feeding-back guitars in bars and stadiums, tearing down the conventions of beauty and coolness, a small, sweaty gallery gig is, for Moore, a return to roots. His music has only grown more radical and abstract since his days as a grunge troubadour, and begs for the type of humility and deep listening that the Collective has exhibited through its monthly event series. Cloaking his celebrity in a four-band bill only made the performance that much more appropriate.

Opening the evening were Century Plants, a noise duo featuring ASAC organizer Eric Hardiman on guitar. Silhouetted by live video projections, the two cast a soft layer of fuzz from which an aggregate drone emerged. Next were Robedoor, a duo from Los Angeles, and one-half of the following band, Pocahaunted. Seated on the floor in front of an array of electronics, both bands recollected the unbridled creativity that occurred when, as a kid, you dumped out all your Legos and action figures, even your sister’s Barbies, and just started to build. The little girl seated in front of me certainly understood what was going on when she shook her mother’s keychain along to the dark, pagan drone. With dozens of sweaty bodies squeezed onto the UAG floor, a sense of who was creating and who was observing the spectacle disappeared by degrees. All we lacked was a fort built from couch cushions.

By the time Thurston Moore took the stage with guitarist Bill Nace as the Northampton Wools, a deep sense of attention had fomented between the gallery’s low ceiling and floor. In a wholly improvised manner, colors were exchanged between the two guitars in deep responsivity. With their guitars laid across their laps, the two plucked, rubbed, and scraped their instruments to elicit bright, metallic tones. Forgoing the heavy distortion, which characterizes most noise acts, both tones were relatively clean, and generally quite mature. In order to access their instrument’s full palette, it seemed at times as if Moore and Nace applied the technique of, say, a mason, baker, surgeon or gardener to their guitars. While one hammered his strings with a drumstick, the other plucked his strings above the nut to produce a gamelan-esque pinging. Nace took to bending his strings with his palm to create contact with the instrument’s pickups and so generate microtones that bore insectoid qualities.

As attention focused, a swarm mentality prevailed, and each guitarist began to command myriad voices. From a frenzy of brawling marionettes, the imp in Moore finally stepped forward. With guitar under arm, he began to cast reaching psych-lines, occasionally also strumming frantic rock chords on his lower strings. A sort of fugue-state ensued where it seemed like Moore was trying to do nothing less than coax the plant spirit and mineral alchemy from the properties of his machine. With the headstock braced against the top of his amp, he commanded a full range of feedback and phased the pitches in and out of synch with his whammy-bar. As the clatter subsided, both he and Nace resolved in a deep, gorgeous drone. Oceanic waves of sound traveled through the floor, up through the spine of each seated audience member, to crest somewhere in the apartment above the gallery’s ceiling.

Ecstatic Peace is the name of Moore’s record label, and might also be the best term to describe how it felt, pouring out of the gallery and into the cool post-show night. Thrilled, and thankful.

Kind of Blew

Freihofer’s Jazz Festival

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 28

The reunion of Return to Forever at the SPAC Jazz Fest was the only must-see show for me so far this year. In 1974 my college mates and I poured ourselves into the SUNY Ballroom after the usual 1974 pre- concert abulutions and RTF came out, grabbed us collectively by the throat, and didn’t let go for an hour and a half of the most bodacious display of ensemble virtuosity, in any musical genre, the world has ever seen. I’m still not right from that experience. And I’ve always wanted more.

Because the weather all week had been so uniformly skeevy, I checked the NOAA Albany radar reflectivity composite loop (highly recommended, btw) online that showed a skinny band of bad weather maybe a half-hour away from SPAC, with nothing behind it. As I live an hour and a half away, I figured, “perfect.”

I figured wrong. Driving up the Northway, we got hit around Clifton Park with the kind of serious rain that makes everybody slow down to 30, put on the four-ways, and wish they were home. This continued all the way to SPAC, and we sat in the VIP parking lot (I had the coveted Metroland parking pass, but there was no one out in the downpour to check it) for 20 minutes ’til the storm passed. Despite the storm passing, the air was heavy, fetid.

We got inside, and the usual jazz-fest happy vibe was seriously on, and even though folks were soaking wet, they were joyous and chillin’. Nothing was happening in the theater so we worked our way back to the Gazebo, where the Maurice Brown Effect had taken over. Maurice is a happy, dreadlock-wearing New Orleans trumpeter, leading a young, killer quintet, playing aggro-post-bop with a splash of Miles and N’Awlins strut. They were special. A song and a half in, raindrops started falling on our heads so we headed to the theater, where the “sax summit” was getting started.

As we didn’t put in for seats until Friday, we were way in the back corner of the theater, under the overhang, were the sound is notoriously dead. Our fault, not SPAC’s, but the sound was still dead. I was watching Joe Lovano, Dave Liebmann, and Ravi Coltrane “doing battle” in some kind of tribute to Michael Brecker and John Coltrane. It wasn’t happening. They took turns bleating, then they’d all bleat together. Then they’d take turns again. The rhythm section (Cecil McBee and Billy Hart) noodled in a decidedly non-grooving non-groove. No one seemed to be looking at each other, and sure as shit nobody was smiling. It sounded, more than anything else, like a duck gang-bang in a freightyard. I snuck down to where another writer/friend was sitting, way up close. I listened for a few minutes and said to him, “They sound less like they’re jacking off into their hats than they did back there. But they still basically sound like they’re jacking off into their hats.”

As a good pal and serious jazzbo recently told me, these guys and their self-absorbed ilk are going to be responsible for the death of jazz. And that’s a crime. I mean, just listen to Maurice Brown! Or Brian Patneaude!

Despondent and uncomfortable, we wandered back towards the Gazebo. The rain ramped up a notch, then another. In a food tent near the Gazebo we got some decent overpriced Mexican food, which tasted perfectly fine eaten standing up, with one of those styrofoam boxes and a plastic fork, in a very crowded tent, while the rain outside built and built and the air simply pressed down. It was hot. It was really no different than standing in stinky hot water. We were sweating into our shoes while standing still eating decent overpriced Mexican food.

Nearby, Jenny Scheinman (who I also really wanted to see) and her band were gathered on the Gazebo stage, looking around. A few folks with umbrellas sat on the benches in front of the stage, looking back. The rain bumped up some more, and one by one Scheinman and her band trudged off, instrument cases in hand, for places unknown.

The mood was turning sour. Over a $5 bottle of lemonade, under a different crowded tent, we weighed our options. The only sane alternative was heavy survival drinking, a solution to which many around us had clearly already turned. But we hadn’t brought our own hooch, and “premium beers” were $9, God knows what an honest drink would cost, and besides, it’s a long road back to Housatonic. We were soaking wet, hot, and after less than two hours, miserable. This was no freakin’ fun and there was absolutely no conceivable set of circumstances that was gonna make it fun. I thought about the long drive we made to get here; my journalistic responsibility to Metroland; my need to see Return to Forever one more time; mostly, I though of you, dear readers, who no doubt have been fervently wondering what I might think about the performances at this festival, so much so that you’ve had trouble sleeping, eating, and playing with others.

I looked at my wife and said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

In any relationship, there are moments of perfect tumescence, where one says or does the perfect thing, moments that live forever in the scrapbook of one’s mind. This was one of those.

As we hit the Northway, the rain again went batshit, we slowed to 20 and put the flashers on, and thought, while listening to Garrison Keillor live at Tanglewood on WAMC: (1) Those poor bastards back at SPAC are getting whooped again; and (2) why didn’t I put in for Garrison Keillor at Tanglewood?

As I write this, it’s 8:15 Saturday night, I’m sitting comfortably in front of a fan, an honest drink next to me (that cost me, like, nothing), and I’m missing Return to Forever. I’ll bet they’re fabulous.

—Paul Rapp

Folk Yeah

Old Songs Festival

Altamont Fairgrounds, June 28

The 28th annual Old Songs Festival, which took place last weekend at the foot of the Helderberg Mountains, offered the rich potpourri of acoustic blues, protest songs, Celtic, French Canadian, old-time Appalachian, and world music that the Voorheesville-based folk preservationist organization assembles time after time. Their strong suit this year, though, was Celtic music, being represented by, among others, fiddle champ Liz Carroll, and Irish bouzouki master Andy Irvine, of Planxty and Patrick Street fame.

On Saturday, the first event I took in was the blues workshop at Area 2, one of eight different areas running. I got there midway through a Delta slide tune played by Rev. Robert Jones that was either by or in the style of Son House. Jones’ vocal range is close to that of House’s, and his robust singing and accurate re-creation of House’s slashing guitar technique uncannily channeled the old bluesman. Scott Ainslie, another singer who seems to have a cast-iron voice-box, contributed an unusual version of the Mississippi classic “Another Man Done Gone” in the rarely used guitar tuning of open C minor.

The following set at nearby Area 3 featured the tunes of the Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan (1679-1738). Carolan, the last of the great Celtic harper-composers, was influenced by Italian baroque music, and in attempting to fuse it with the harping tradition, produced a body of now-celebrated melodies that are among the most distinctive in all folk music. This time, the panelists, who included hammer dulcimer players Bill Spence and Walt Michaels, fiddler John Kirk, and keyboardist Toby Stover, played Carolan’s beautiful compositions mostly en ensemble rather than by turns, as is typical at Old Songs.

“Civil War to Civil Rights,” a musical chronicle of the struggle for racial equality, was next back at Area 2. Sparky Rucker played banjo for Henry Clay Work’s 1865 tribute to Sherman’s March to the Sea, “Marching Through Georgia” (Northern musicians still don’t dare perform this song in the South). “Marion Anderson” sung by Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, movingly told the story of the black contralto, who, excluded from America’s great concert halls because of her race, gave a historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939.

Opening the evening concert at was Andy Irvine, whose sang a hilarious ditty of recent vintage that had to be a first in Celtic music: a gender-bender ballad. The lyrics told of a sailor who hires a prostitute who is actually a drag queen, and then turns to the trade himself. Later, Liz Carroll, an American who won all-Ireland fiddle contests at ages 17 and 18, played her jigs and reels with spellbinding skill as guitarist John Doyle provided seamless backup. Although she didn’t give the titles of most of the tunes, they were still wonderful—whatever they were. Wrapping up were the Canadian group Le Vent du Nord (The Wind of the North) with their vivacious traditional songs and fiddle hoedowns.

Old Songs stayed up to par this year with ease.

—Glenn Weiser


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