Friday, August 31, 2018

Remembering Pitch-A-Tent Records - Ten Foot Faces, Spot 1019, Wrestling Worms

This has been the year for me to reconnect with music from my past. At the start of the year, I fell into a Charlie Parker kick, which included getting my beloved Complete Savoy & Dial set stolen out of my car, along with a smashed window in sub-freezing weather. (I found another copy shortly thereafter, at a reasonable price.) Then I got the Parker Dean Benedetti Mosaic box out of the library. Then, with Mosaic on my mind, I set out to find copies of all of the Bud Shank albums that were reissued the box Mosaic devoted to the saxophonist.

At some point during all of that, I pulled out the compilation At Dianne's Place, which I received in 1988 when I was doing the zine Discourse. The compilation featured bands that had played in a club in Santa Cruz. Despite the fact that Dianne's Place existed for a mere six months in 1986, it hosted bands that you might have know (Camper Van Beethoven, Vomit Launch) and others that you should have known (keep reading). At the time it probably felt like a place where people were doing what they had to do to get their music out there. In retrospect - which I'll admit is filtered through a wistful set of glasses - it was probably pretty magical.

A few crazy connections floated to the surface as I listened to the record and waxed nostalgically. For one thing, it was exactly 30 years ago that I first heard it, a few months before I (finally) turned 21. Also, four bands on the album would eventually put out albums on CVB's Pitch-A-Tent label., all in 1988.  One was the Donner Party, which included future Quasi member Sam Coomes. (At the time I was wearing out their debut album, also self-titled, on Cryptovision, which helped me make it through a trying summer of heat, irresponsible roommates and mice.) I'd eventually pick up the second Donner Party album but I never got around to the other three bands - Ten Foot Faces, Spot 1019 and Wrestling Worms. 

For a few months this year I hit all the local record stores in hopes of finding them. I can recall seeing them around fairly frequently back in the day. Now, no luck. The two record stores I visited in Denver didn't have them either. At this point, they fall into the category of :not as easy to come by, but not really "rare" in the big dollar sense." For months I had been eyeing up copies on Discogs wondering which one and which seller would offer the best deal. I finally took the plunge and have this report on them.

Ten Foot Faces
Daze of Corndogs and Yo-Yos

Of all three groups, these guys probably should've gone somewhere. Maybe they did. Maybe they're still at it. Maybe there is another half dozen beret-wearing bloggers talking about how great this slab of melodic garage punk is too. "You're Blowin' My High" was also on At Dianne's Place, a song with one of the greatest transitions from the bridge to the final verse. But even before that, they open the album with Henry Mancini's "The Party" and "Run for Tin" in which singer Rod Barker can barely spew out the words about his set of wheels, but still does.

This album recalls an era when bands could be funny or clever without hitting you over the head with it. "Back to Bedrock" begins with a Hanna-Barbera sound effect, but the novelty ends there. It just becomes a great song. "I'm In Your Mind" moves beyond their edgy semi-snotty sound and plays up the band's ability to do an overdriven Byrds sound too. A song like this could fit in nicely on Little Steven's Underground Garage show. If any more evidence of their power was needed, they close the album with a cover of MC5's "Rocked Reducer No. 65 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)." Barker's illustrations throughout the lyric sheet and record label remind me of the zany quality in the work of Gideon Kendall, late of Fake Brain.

Spot 1019
This Word Owes Me a Buzz

The title of this album was a recurring phrase that some friends and I would use whenever we were feeling frustration with anything in the world. Ironic considering the fact that I didn't really know the album until about two weeks ago. Spot 1019, who had already released one album on Pitch-A-Tent prior to Buzz, was one of those bands that I had heard good things about but that I never got around to hearing. Moreso than Ten Foot Faces, they seemed poised for bigger things around that time. By 1990 they were on Frontier Records, an indie label that might have been a step or two about Pitch-A-Tent but that was the last I heard from them.

I decided to go out of order and buy this before getting the self-titled debut, in part because I wanted to hear the record that I had referenced all the time. The four-piece is definitely darker than Ten Foot Faces, a little more punk rock. Vocalist Joe Sloan is a little nasal and more of a belter, but he sounds pretty theatrical too. One has to wonder what kind of performance they unleashed on an audience at Dianne's.

Spot 1019 could've been right at home on a bill with Death of Samantha. Sloan is just as literate as John Petkovic too. The album opens with the line, "My memory takes me back in time to the pillory of lovers lost." Later on the same side, Sloan (with help from bassist Jimb Lyons) sings, "I try to drop a hint/but all I drop is my drink/God give me strength." This same song, "Think and Grow Thin," also contains a satire on Jim Morrison's infamous "Dawn's Highway" story, which Sloan fires off at rapid-fire speed.

Despite their near-hardcore tempos on a few songs, a country music background can be felt in the melodies here, and in Greg Winter's galloping beats on a few songs. The album is a really great balance of elaborate tracks ("Bucket of Blood") and the more basic punk stuff ("Peace War," "Free Men Bear Arms"). The latter also presents a sarcastic take on the gun issue that probably wouldn't float these days.

Wrestling Worms
Wrestling Worms

The rather lo-fi Wrestling Worms track on At Dianne's Place ("Vegetable Tune") recalled Pittsburgh's Stick Against Stone to my ears, and those of anyone who remembered that local group and heard the Worms. Funky bassline, a bunch of horns all taking turns soloing quickly over a vamp, and a vocalist who had a flair for the theatrical delivery - we had that too!

Aside from the lack of disposable income, I never picked up the Wrestling Worms album because my friends at WPTS (where I would DJ about six months later) said they didn't really dig it. 30 years later, I figured time might make any lackluster moments a little easier to take. Maybe even enjoyable. Plus the 11X17 foldout/lyric sheet reveal the Wrestling Worms had grown ELEVEN members, six of them playing horns, with one of the drummers doubling on French horn. What could go wrong?

Truth be told, the album is growing on me. They are some great horn charts on the album, which involve trumpet, trombone, and saxophones ranging from soprano to tenor, with clarinets added occasionally. But percussionist Andrew Bigler does the majority of the lead vocals, in a thin voice that sounds like he's heard a lot of Frank Zappa. What he sings gets clever and surreal, but his delivery starts to sound the same after awhile.

The fact that 11 people could pull off in the studio is commendable and for that reason alone, Wrestling Worms is worth a good rediscovery.

Of course the big question now becomes - where are all these folks now? Who has continued to play music and who did it for awhile until it was time to move onto something else? These are the things I need to know. While I could very easily go onto Facebook and type in the names of a select few, it would be more exciting if we made a connection here. There you go, bands.

Finally, if anyone reading this has the sole album/cassette by Dianne's Place contributors Barnacle Choir, I'd sure love to get a copy.

Now I'm off to get a copy of the first Spot 1019. And you should pick up At Dianne's Place, but make sure it has the booklet.

Monday, August 13, 2018

CD Review: Rodrigo Amado - A History of Nothing/ The Thing - Again. Trost Records

Rodrigo Amado
A History of Nothing

Lisbon tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado continues to release a steady stream of albums, filled with strong free improvisation that incorporates the dynamics of compositions. Last year, he released The Attic, a strong trio session on Not Two with bassist Gonçalo Almeida and drummer Marco Franco. He's also featured inthe Lisbon Freedom Unit, which released Praise of Our Folly this year on Clean Feed. In addition to these he has released other albums of that were reviewed on this blog.

A History of Nothing features the saxophonist in the company of his longtime American friend  bassist Kent Kessler, as well as drummer Chris Corsano and saxophonist/trumpeter Joe McPhee. With a group like this, the rapport among the players is felt immediately. "Legacies" begins slowly and subdued, but the title track begins in a flurry of clucks and honks from McPhee's soprano saxophone and Amado's tenor. As the rhythm section moves rapidly beneath them, the two horns begin to move in ways that complement each other. Amado goes for long notes, overtones and growls while McPhee - whose tone nearly recalls that of John Coltrane - makes a longer statement.

For "Theory of Mind II (for Joe)," a CD-only track, Amado's melody initially trades his rugged tone for a smoky, straightforward delivery. That changes once Kessler finishes manhandling his instrument with a bow, making the mood a little wilder. McPhee lays out of this one, which gives the leader a chance to deliver some intense, raspy lines.

McPhee returns on "Wild Flowers" first on pocket trumpet, which begins the piece with some smeared, breathy sounds. He and Amado alternate, with McPhee switching back to soprano before both horns come together to close with a short line. Throughout the album, Kessler and Corsano inventively work with the two horns, not just supporting them but becoming part of the conversation. They open the final "The Hidden Desert" with some noise from each instrument. Corsano uses his own type of extended technique, with what sounds like a bow. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that the anchor of the slow bass pulse makes it feel like a ballad, relatively speaking. A pleasant surprise, of course.

The Thing
(Trost/The Thing Records)

The same Austrian label that released A History of Nothing has also released, or co-released, the latest by the trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love. Calling themselves a "garage free jazz trio" at one point, they have collaborated with such divergent acts as Neneh Cherry and James Blood Ulmer, in addition to working well on their own.

Gustafsson is arguably the most visceral of European free jazz saxophonist this side of Peter Brotzmann. He has mastered reeds both big and small to create some heavy music in a series of far-flung collaborations. (I recall one writer slamming an album where Gustafsson played with Sonic Youth, essentially dismissing it as one-dimensional squonk).

Although Gustafsson left his bass saxophone at home on the day of this session, his tenor and soprano work just as well as a sonic canvas. More than half the album is taken up by the 21-minute "Sur Face," an epic that proves the Thing can do plenty more than strong squonk. Bassist Flaten bows a melody together with Gustafsson that leads to a strong solo from drummer Nilssen-Love. Then Flaten and Nilssen-Love lock into a loopy vamp, which provides the ideal background from some tenor overtones. Once it falls apart, amidst some angry rhino grunts, the trio creates some tranquility in the final moments.

Joe McPhee also makes a cameo on Again, bringing his raucous pocket trumpet to a reading of Frank Lowe's "Decision in Paradise." He even adds some vocal yells to make his point. The whole track owes as much to the Thing's, and McPhee's, spontaneity as it does to Lowe's template.

Flaten switches to bass guitar on "Vicky Di," running it through a distortion pedal, giving his solo a mangled, metallic sound. When his Thing-mates rejoin him, Gustafsson has switched to soprano sax adding more excitement to the music. Relatively brief by some album standards, Again presents plenty of ideas in that period of time.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Minibeast in Pittsburgh with Insect Factory & Skeletonized

Hopefully this won't simply come off looking like a love letter to Peter Prescott. But his appearance over the weekend with Minibeast served not only to entertain but to inspire as well.

Prescott is best known as the drummer of Mission of Burma, who were part of the Boston punk scene from about 1979 to 1982, disbanding only when guitarist Roger Miller developed tinnitus due to the loud volume of their performances. A few years after their story was told in Michael Azerrad's great book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Burma decided it was time to do the unthinkable and reunite. Time had done nothing to mellow their attack and the reunited lineup has released several albums, outliving their initial run.

When MoB first disbanded, Prescott launched Volcano Suns, which set a golden standard for songwriters who play drums. From behind his kit, he bellowed lyrics that were often pretty deep, usually pretty wry and often funny without being too obvious about it. With various lineup changes along the way, the Suns released six albums and toured frequently. One of those stops occurred on Easter Sunday 1990, where yours truly opened for them as part of a the Cure Experience, a parody of Robert Smith's band that many took as more of an homage. That night was also significant because Suns bassist Bob Weston borrowed the stations Easter Bunny outfit, which he wore backwards, He later stagedove during the set-closing "Testify" - and no one caught him. (He went to the hospital that night.)

Volcano Suns alone would be a tough act to follow. But with the Burma legacy (yes, I think at this point we can use that word) hanging over his head, it could give a musician a complex. Not Prescott. This is a guy who once sang, "How can I be senile when I feel so infantile," in his post-Suns band Kustomized, where he traded his drums for a guitar. He's not resting on his laurels. More like he stepped on his laurels on his way to band practice with a new project, which he is making sure maintains the same raucous feel as his other work, without attempting to replicate past glories.

Which brings up to this past Sunday night, August 5 when he came to Howlers with Minibeast. The name first popped on my radar as a solo recording project. "It's nothing like Volcano Suns," he told me in a Facebook comment once. True - it's a lot loopier, in terms of samples that appear in it and the wildness of the music. Two albums have been released under the name. They were no preparation for the evening. (The numerous live videos on youtube might help, though.)

In person, Prescott (who is on the right above, in the shadows) played guitar, though he spent as much time on keyboards, producing overdriven organ chords and sampling his voice and other random noises. Joining him were bassist Eric Baylies and drummer Keith Seidel who can hit a groove and keep it strong for infinity. The hypnotic repetition, coupled with Prescott's wild trimmings, recalls the finer moments of Can, although these guys seem like they have a better grasp on where the music is going. Afterwards, I mentioned to Prescott that the group never had a look of "should we keep going," or "what happens now." They just kept surging. He replied that if anyone felt that way, it was him.

Lately I've been feeling inhibitions about the whole idea of playing music. My band has come undone due to valid, other commitments by the players. Which leaves me wondering if it's still worth doing at an age when most people go to be long before the headliner comes on. Musically I do have something else in the works, but I still doubt myself sometimes.

Seeing Peter Prescott - who almost 10 years to the day older than me - up there, ripping it up, screaming like it's 1989 and pretty much displaying the same joie de vivre from that time, it gives me hope. There's plenty of reasons to keep doing it, especially if that feeling in your gut makes you feel like playing music is instinctual. (Sorry if I poured it on thick, Peter, but we Irish are like that.)

Insect Factory, the solo guitar project of Jeff Barsky, is on tour with Minibeast and played a gentle prelude to the trio. It felt like for the first 30 to 60 seconds, Barsky wasn't even getting much of anything audible from his instrument. As he continued, though, he developed a rich sound with a bank of pedals that created loops upon loops that built in dynamics and melody until it filled the room. Just as gradually as the sound built, it also retracted. Much like the focus of Minibeast, Barsky played with ideas in mind. This wasn't random pedal play.

The Pittsburgh alto sax/drums duo of Skeletonized opened the evening. Their duets featured some improvisation but they delivered it in the context of tunes. Drums were accentuated by triggers that added loud keyboard bass-style foundation to the music. It sometimes covered up the alto but as a whole these guys were a great start to the night. Solid stuff.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Pittsburgh Current and Me

I don't like being away from the blog for a couple weeks. My goal is always to increase the regularity of posts, which can hopefully keep motivate readers to come back on a regular basis. But over the past couple weeks, other things have been taking up time. In particular, I've become a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, a brand-spankin' new alternative media publication in town. And I'm dead chuffed to be a part of it.

Pittsburgh Current was started by Charlie Deitch, the one-time editor of Pittsburgh City Paper and Bethany Ruhe, the paper's former Marketing Director. Charlie and I go back to the days of InPittsburgh where I was Assistant Arts Editor and he was a news writer who wasn't afraid to tackle hot button stories. And he was a really good writer too.

Short version of the story is, he got fired from CP under murky circumstances. Ruhe left not long after it. The long version of that story can be found here. But within about two months, they started a fundraising campaign to launch a new paper, and lo and behold they do'd it. Enter Pittsburgh Current.

For now, the paper is coming out monthly but it will be weekly before the end of the year. New stories are showing up on their website regularly. In fact I've had a number of stories of my own on there and I almost started to lose track of them.

Here's a rundown: A feature on the Pittsburgh duo the Lopez, who just released a 7" single and have an album on the way later this year.

A story of the report released by the Pittsburgh Music Ecosystem Project, an issue which has stirred up a lot of debate in the local scene.

An interview with Nik Westman, who fronted Nik & Central Plains in town before moving to New York. He was scheduled to play last Friday, but his flight was cancelled and he didn't make it.

And just posted today....a story about a network of local jazz organizers who are organizing around town and presenting an event called Jazz Days of Summer. This one has national implications because this jazz task force was launched in part by the Jazz Forward Coalition. This one is supposed to be in the next print issue which should hit the street this week. Locals should look for that.

A number of other local writers are involved with Pittsburgh Current including theater critic Ted Hoover. From what I've heard, Dan Savage's Savage Love column is also going to start getting printed in it as well. And I'm really happy that Margaret Welsh, who used to be my music editor at CP is editing the music section too. (Meg Fair, who succeeded her, is also involved).

With a number of editors I've have, I always envision him or her being in the mold of the classic hard-boiled editor, who yells across the office to me, addressing me by my last name, crumpling up copy and throwing it in the waste basket if it doesn't make the cut and using lingo like "scoop" when talking about stories. None of my editors have ever been like that, but if anyone would ever come close, it's Charlie. Maybe someday we'll be working in an office together where I can get that type of respect from the Chief.

In the meantime, pick up the paper and read it. A new issue is out this week.