Saturday, August 31, 2019

Three Shows and a Tribute

The end of another month has come and I'm feeling deficient in blog posts. It seems like when I'm at work or in the car driving somewhere, I have plenty of inspiration for what I could write about. Thoughts on old albums. New things that I like. Shows I've been to. Even just a paragraph or two will do it. Then when I'm home, there's always something to keep me from doing it - another household project, a flurry of emails. Or more likely - the desire to sleep.

Since it's the last day of August, I figured I'd look back at some shows I checked out this month and beyond. Before I do that, though. I have to pay some homage.

My dear friend Ed Boytim passed away earlier this month. Ed was the drummer in the Minimalist Love Gods, a duo with guitarist Rob Rayshich. Prior to that, he also played in the great prog-punk (I think that's an apt description) band Special Ed and their predecessor Window Pain. We also played together in the Purple Lady Arts Ensemble, a music and dance project that he and his wife Sara put together for an arts festival in Homestead. It was essentially Bone of Contention and the MLGs plus a few other folks. Ed probably played in several other projects in between as well. 

Ed's musical knowledge was vast. If there was a prog rock band from the '70s that you were wondering about, he could give you an authoritative assessment of them. I was sort of a charter member of the Love Gods off and on, mostly playing keyboards with the band. My keyboard chops couldn't keep up with the ideas I had in my head, but I can recall times when the three of us attempted to do a Soft Machine imitation in the basement. Or the time we did a digest version of side one of Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure

But most significantly, Ed voiced an idea that I took and ran with. When Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band passed away, Ed casually suggested doing a tribute show. He was always full of good ideas, but didn't always have the time to see them through. On other hand, I would run with an idea before someone could say, "Mike, I was only half-serious." I recruited five friends who played reeds and could read music. Then I set about transcribing Bonzo Dog Band songs by ear and writing out parts for the horn players. (I still have them too.) Rob and Ed didn't read music but they knew the songs so well that it didn't matter. 

That was a big experience for me because it was really the first time I created a project and directed it, with people who trusted my lead. (I asked the horn players if they'd stand there wearing lampshades during the first song, since they didn't play. They said sure.) It took us two shows to get the whole performance done, but that's another story. I feel like I owe the growth I made at that time to Ed. There are also a lot of albums that automatically make me think of him, which was kind of heartbreaking in the days after he suddenly passed. I hope wherever he is, he has a good stack of albums and books to read while he's listening. 

If you ever see a copy of the Devolver CD seen above, grab it. Trust me. It's a wonderful set of songs, as is their cassette debut Deconstruct the Id.

The first show to mention actually took place at the end of July. Drummer Kid Millions (possibly best known for his work in the band Oneida) and saxophonist Jim Sauter (of Borbetomagus) played a raucous set at Collision, a performance space way in the nether regions between Point Breeze and Wilkinsburg. My bandmate Erik Cirelli was playing that night with Skeletonized and luckily he met me out front of the place, because if he hadn't I would probably have driven past it. It literally has some sort of canopy over the doorway with no indication of it being a performance space. Inside it's a hollowed-out warehouse of a building and thank God the heat of the previous few weeks had broken. Otherwise it would have been unbearable. 

I was never much of a fan of Borbetomagus. A Downbeat article about them piqued my interest in the '80s, but everything I heard just felt like balls-to-the-wall extreme screeching that didn't go beyond that. But it had been long enough, and I liked Kid Millions' projects, so I felt it was time to check out what Mr. Sauter was up to. Let me tell you, he hasn't started playing ballads. Along with his tenor sax, he had an array of effects pedals that he used to manipulate his horn. The sound was just as rowdy as he's always been. What wasn't lost to the echoes of the building sounded like a lot of fun. Kid Millions rolled out some powerful free drumming and smiled joyfully almost the whole time. Their solid set - which lasted somewhere around 20-30 minutes though I didn't check my watch - was a blast. It made me recall what either Sauter or his sax partner Don Dietrich said in that Downbeat article regarding the sounds they produced: "It's a scream of joy." 

My work schedule has precluded me from seeing a lot of shows over the past several months. That's likely going to change pretty soon, but last weekend, I actually worked the opening shift and had both evenings free. I was on the fence all day about going out on Saturday but when I finally got off my duff, I made it to the Thunderbird right as the Working Breed were kicking off the set for their CD release show. (Check out my article here for more info about the band.) As I was walking down the steps of the huge and newly revamped music venue, I thought I recognized the opening of the album and I was right. Maybe my timing wasn't totally spot on (there was supposed to be some opening ceremony to the set, and I missed Cello Fury), but I'm sure glad I got there when I did.

Erika Laing plays an array of instruments during one set, in addition to fronting the Working Breed. Her trombone and trumpets chops are on-the-money, but she's really carving out her own niche by incorporating the singing saw into their art rock sound (see photo above). She plays it with a bow (with her left hand rather than right) and gets some amazing vibrato and tone from it.

But that's not all...

It only appears briefly in one song, but she also plays the sheng, a Chinese polyphonic instrument. This was the one element of her artillery I didn't get to cover in the article, but apparently the instrument has reeds in it that are dipped in mercury. In China, there is a story about old men who play the sheng who kind of loose their minds as they get older, having inhaled mercury over the years. The more expensive shengs aren't like that, but the one Erika plays (which a friend brought back for her) is on the lower end. So a blow here there is.... okay, I guess.

Their whole set was pretty theatrical and high-spirited. They had an obelisk onstage that was built specifically for the show, as well as a huge "W" and "B." " We didn't steal these from Warner Brothers. They were built for us," Erika said. I had a premonition the final song from the album would bring some other visual explosion and I was right. Confetti bombs went off in the balcony at the climax of "Orange Fluff," raining down during the final chords. 

For their encore, they played Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son." I don't like that song at all but this was no ironic, jokey take on it. The Working Breed did a tight version of it. And that song ain't simple, musically or vocally. So I was impressed.

In that same issue of Pittsburgh Current with the Working Breed in it, I also previewed the appearance by Thumbscrew, who came to City of Asylum this past Wednesday. They've come to Pittsburgh several times, so an article on them was long overdue, especially since their Pittsburgh visits have been pretty productive, yielding three CDs so far, recorded at Mr. Smalls. 

The trio - guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tomas Fujiwara - had actually been in town for a week and a half by the time of the show. They were working through a set of new material and some pieces by Anthony Braxton, in anticipation of a performance at the composer's 75th birthday next year. 

Maybe it was the fact that they were stoked to play brand new pieces but the whole set revealed that their writing and their musical interaction are really growing and maturing. Things moved between more straight ahead, jazzy tunes and slower mood pieces that erupted into a wonderful chaos. 

Formanek put down the upright bass few a few tunes and played bass guitar, with a pedal board that rivaled that of Mary Halvorson's. In the bassist's "Scam Likely," he started off sounding like Moog while Halvorson's effects gave her the sound of an '80s Casio synth (that's a good thing). Through the whole set, Fujiwara was stealth. One minute he was maintaining a steady tempo, the next he was switching from sticks to mallets without a break in his playing. And then he was lifting the bandstand, wailing away as Halvorson looped a wild noise and added below-the-bridge plunks. I almost screamed in enthusiasm, but thankfully I didn't. 


John Young said...

A fine tribute to Ed and great show reviews, Mike. The Working Breed album was produced by a former 7th grade student of mine, and their singer used to be in the band Slingshot Genius with my friend Scott Canavan. Small musical world here in the 'Burgh...

shanleymusic said...

John - I know those are all total Pittsburgh things, but DANG the way it brings it full circle is wild. Erika had told about Slingshot Genius but I only recalled them (vaguely) in name.