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Beyond Borders

By Paul Rapp

Juan-Carlos Formell and Son Radical
Club Helsinki,
Great Barrington, Mass., Sept. 18

To fully appreciate the guitarist Juan-Carlos Formell, you have to understand where he’s coming from. His grandfather was a conductor for the Havana Philharmonic. His father leads the leading Cuban dance band Los Van Van. About 10 years ago, sick of Castro’s surveillance and censorship, Formell skedaddled while touring Mexico with a Cuban band. After making his way north to the Texas border, he swam naked across the Rio Grande with his clothes on his head. He moved to New York City, and his debut album Songs From a Little Blue House, a recording that could not have been made in Cuba, was nominated for a Grammy in 2000, the same year his father, still soldiering on as one of Castro’s favorite bandleaders, also received his first Grammy nomination.

Formell makes music firmly rooted in the Cuban son traditions, but with his new group Son Radical, he throws the clichés and expected mannerisms out the window. His show Saturday night at Helsinki was one of venture, passion and surprise.

The main culprit and catalyst here was Formell’s use of the electric guitar. In the context of his melodic songs laced with traditional three-part harmonies and Latin rhythms, Formell took his ax on trips of fantasy, incorporating a lot of stuff that shouldn’t have fit, but did. Formell bent strings like Dick Dale, and wasn’t afraid to pour on the distortion and reverb, or the occasional Opry lick. Neither was he afraid to go off-rhythm and atonal. Every one of Formell’s solos, whether over something resembling a bolero, a son-filin (the venerable son-form that spawned the bossa nova), or a dance-floor-ready rave-up, was a wicked, head-turning masterpiece. There were simply no boundaries. Formell’s feelings about Castro were aptly conveyed in the freedom of his remarkable playing.

Then there was drummer Emilio Valdes, also an exile with a pedigree: His grandfather was pianist Bebe Valdes, his dad pianist Chucho Valdes. Valdes, like Habana Sax’s great Francesco Vayas, emulates an entire Latin rhythm section on the drum kit. In other words, Valdes’ four limbs tended to work independently, all while pushing inexorable grooves that were only suggested rather than played.

Bassist Jorge Bringas (ex-Omara Portuondo) wisely stayed grounded. Somebody had to do it.

Over the top was classical-jazz violinist Gregor Hubner, who played virtuosic, spiraling solos; the overall effect, at times, was positively Mahavishnu. But not too often, thankfully. For all of the histrionics, the songs were the thing, and the chaos would always resolve back into the simple and sweet song, before building, as often as not, to big improbable and (hysterically funny) rock-show endings.

Deeper Shade of Blue

Chris Whitley
Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Sept. 17

Skinny as hell and curved over his gleaming Dobro, Chris Whitley onstage looked like a question mark in a wifebeater—which, really, is pretty apt (the question-mark part—I’ve got no reason to believe he’s less than a loving husband).

The Texan-born guitarist and globetrotter put in stints in New Orleans, New York City and Belgium, among other places, before settling most recently in Berlin, and has been similarly tough to pin down artistically. Each of Whitley’s albums has had its own distinct personality, so much so that critics regularly point to this diversity as the reason he isn’t better known: His 1991 debut album, the Daniel Lanois-produced Living With the Law, successfully walked a line between slick singer-songwriter pop and Delta grit (the single even garnered Whitley some MTV airtime). But, in form that would prove lasting, Whitley followed this minor success (a full four years later) with an album of grim and grungy guitar sprawl sure to confound the white-blues crowd. Since then he’s released an album using noise as texture, an all-acoustic solo record of hushed despair, a cover album with the guys from Medeski, Martin & Wood . . . you get the point. His newest studio record, Hotel Vast Horizon, weds Whitley’s American roots music—bluesy structures and themes and jazz-informed syncopations—with a cool Germanic reserve. So, it was anybody’s guess as to which Whitley would take on the Iron Horse’s stage last Friday.

Whichever Whitley it was (and I’m still not entirely certain), he’s pretty damn raw. For all of his generic experimentation, Whitley is first and foremost a blues player. In a world that allows guys like Sonny Landreth or Robert Cray or recent Eric Clapton to be filed behind that card, this could be a misleading statement; but it’s clear that Whitley just feels really, really strongly about . . . something. Something heavy and only crudely articulate. Which is not to say that Whitley is inarticulate, though his intersong banter was hushed, mumbled and awkward to the point of seeming apologetic: It’s just that Whitley’s work is a primarily emotional and affective type. It’s in the feel of his tangled, slashing fingerpicked riffs and the expressive yawps and lulls of his free-ranging voice—falsetto to growl, flutter to croon, whisper to stutter to sneer, all within a single song, even a single verse. Live and unaccompanied, this range can veer to formlessness, and melodies can be blown out and unrecognizable—it took me several verses, for example, to recognize Whitley’s dark cover of the Doors’ “The Crystal Ship”—but the force of the feeling is never compromised.

And the man just bangs the hell out of his guitar. The clanging ring of a steel-bodied resonating guitar is a wondrous, gorgeous and violent noise in the hands of somebody who knows what he’s doing—or what he’s feeling—and Whitley’s that guy. Simultaneously anarchic, barreling, controlled and rhythmically exact, Whitley’s vamps and fills more than made up for the melodic looseness of the lead vocals.

—John Rodat

Ride ’em, Cowboy
Photo by:
John Whipple

Cowboy Junkies

The long-running Canadian group Cowboy Junkies brought their sleepy, slightly countrified North-Americana (hey, we tried) to the Egg last Saturday (Sept. 11). The Junkies are renowned for their strong live performances, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that singer Margo, guitarist Michael, and drummer Peter all share the surname Timmins (bassist Alan Anton rounds out the quartet). In fact, their first two albums—1986’s Whites Off Earth Now! And 1988’s The Trinity Session, which featured their famously somnolent cover of the VU’s “Sweet Jane”—were both recorded completely live, with only one microphone, even! They’re currently on tour in support of their latest album, One Soul Now.




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