Thursday, September 28, 2023

Thinking About the Birthday Party and the "Mutiny In Heaven" Documentary

It occurred to me, in the days leading up to seeing Mutiny In Heaven, that the Birthday Party broke up 40 years ago. I'm not sure which came first, hearing that the band had broken up or the release of the Mutiny EP. But I associate both of them with the fall of 1993, when I was in 11th grade, which is easy for me to track because my son, who is basically 40 years younger than me, is now a junior in high school. 

Since it's been so long, and having heard so many wide-ranging Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album since then, and finally seeing the man himself live a few years ago, I had forgotten how much the Birthday Party's visceral sound was such a big part of my life during those high school years. I tend to look back and think about how the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü were the bands that inspired the music I played because they were active at that time. But those bands were around when I finally started making music seriously. The Birthday Party were gone by then and besides, there was no way I could come close to approximating that sound and feeling, especially when playing with high school kids who routinely thought I was nuts when I went off a little in the music. But few bands rivaled them in my book at that time.

Mutiny In Heaven starts off with a warning about flashing lights appearing in the film. They should have included a warning about thick Australian accents being part of it too. Of course I might be too used to running the subtitles on the screen when I'm watching movies at home, to ensure I don't miss anything. The sound on our home tv really varies with sudden drops and increases at times. 

The film screened at the Harris Theater downtown, so there was no chance of getting subtitles, but after awhile, I got used to the accents and leaned in harder to hear the parts that were playing overtime of performances. The only problem was the voiceovers weren't introduced at the start and Mick Harvey, Phill Calvert (the band's original drummer) and Nick Cave and, to some degree Rowland S. Howard were hard to distinguish in the early sequences. As the movie proceeded, Howard was often onscreen in interviews when speaking, so that made it a little easier. 

Director Ian White did an impressive job of digging up ancient footage of the band from their late teenage years when the group was known as the Boys Next Door.  It's kind of charming to see a very young Nick Cave looking closer to a fresh-faced new wave kid than to the demonic performer that he would become. (For a good example of the former, and one that doesn't appear in the film, click here.) 

When making a documentary like this, the director runs the risk of relying on a bunch of talking heads  to tell the story, with breaks for live footage, hopefully. Several documentaries (Beware Mr. Baker, Chasing Trane) use animated sequences to break things up. In the case of Mutiny In Heaven, several pen and ink animations creep up throughout the film, depicting Cave's introduction to Howard (I think it was Rowland), heroin use, and bassist Tracy Pew's car theft that landed him in jail briefly while the band was still together. These segments don't exactly camp it up but it came a little close.

The real payoff comes with all the live footage, even if it was often synced up with the studio recordings. (I've heard them enough to know the subtle mixes of a lot of them.) The use of the two didn't detract from the intended effect, however. It kind of plays up how manic - and dangerous - the group could be live. Granted, every band likes to describe themselves as dangerous when they get onstage, but watching the footage of the band - Howard stalking the stage as he made his guitar scream, Cave bopping up and down while singing frantically, Pew grinding his body, eventually laying down in one scene, still gyrating - goes a long way towards proving that a Birthday Party gig could actually be dangerous, for the band and audience.

Despite all of that, the band never comes off as assholes. I'm sure there were people around that time who can probably say otherwise, but unlike the Butthole Surfers, for instance, a band that definitely put their audience at risk and were rather abusive in general, the Birthday Party still seems rather charming. Maybe it's because they seemed a little smarter than most punks. Several times people remember Pew as the kind of guy who could be seen reading both porn magazines and Plato. After the band broke up, he eventually went to college to study literature and philosophy. He died in 1986 of a brain hemorrhage. 

It's not a spoiler to mention that the film doesn't attempt to wrap everything up nice and neat in the end, after the band breaks up. In fact, I felt like it left a few details out, such as the name of the drummer who replaced Mick Harvey on the final tour (Des Hefner) and whether or not Blixa Bargeld's appearance on the Mutiny EP served to fill in for a departed Rowland Howard (still not sure). Regardless, it ends without anyone feeling the need to give an overview of the mess the band left behind. Or how crushed we young yanks were when it was over. 

Mutiny always felt like an anti-climatic ending to me. Of course nothing could top the insanity of The Bad Seed, the EP that came out earlier that year. Right as that record came out, my 10th grade English teacher Mrs. Kogut had explained what catharsis was. I knew exactly what she was talking about because that's what I felt every time I cued up that record and "Sonny's Burning" came on. 

The band had been upping the ante with each release prior to that. When Cave screamed for 14 seconds straight in "Blast Off" (the B-side to "Release the Bats"), he knocked me against the wall. The live version of "King Ink" on Drunk On the Pope's Blood takes it further; he sounds like he's being crucified. (I loved it then but these days I might have preferred he calmed down a little.) After that lung-shredding scream in "Big Jesus Trash Can" where could he go? Everything about "Sonny's Burning" put me on edge, the relentless snare beats, the guitar (even if it sounded a tad like metal), and the way it nearly fell apart after each verse. I wanted to break shit each time it came on. That summer I worked in a record store and when I copy of The Bad Seed came in, you can bet I played it, in hopes of scaring the hell out of the squares who were in the shop at that time. 

That being said, Mutiny felt like a retread. "Jennifer's Veil" felt like a simpler "Wild World" with more primitive drumming. Swampland" felt half-baked and even though Howard's "Say A Spell" was a cool, slinky thing, it seemed to leave listeners hanging. Is that it? "Mutiny In Heaven" was great but it closed off the first side.

Turns out, running order can change everything. When both EPs were released together, the Mutiny sessions added two more tunes, the murky "Pleasure Avalanche" and the dirty "Six Strings that Drew Blood" (the latter I knew from a few live tapes), adding a little more bite to that was absent on the four-song record. The disc also flips the original sequence on its head, putting "Say A Spell" after "Jennifer's Veil." "Mutiny In Heaven" comes last, which makes a lot more sense. Instead of the casual swagger exit to stage left, Nick and the boys set the building on fire and walk out through the one open doorway, leaving it to collapse in their wake. 

When that song plays during the closing credits (don't call it a spoiler because you saw it coming) I almost got choked up. Not for sentimental reasons but for cathartic reasons.

Incidentally, I listened to "Sonny's Burning" on the way to the theater and it STILL makes me want to break shit.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Lee Connelly, who was the biggest Birthday Party fanatic in Pittsburgh back in the day. 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Thumbscrew Comes Back to Pittsburgh For Round 5

Thumbscrew came back to Alphabet City (the physical space connected to City of Asylum; I think I've been lax here and make them sound like one and the same, which isn't exactly accurate) on Monday, September 18. It marked the trio's fifth performance at the space and, like several others, it culminated a long visit that also included recording a new album at Small's, the recording studio down the road from Alphabet City.

The trio hit the stage and spoke not a word but went right into the set. I kept waiting for one of them to pick up the microphone and back announce a couple song titles so we'd know these new pieces. But no go. They were too far in the zone, I suppose. 

On their last visit or two, the group played a few things that I recall getting pretty free and unhinged. Michael Formanek even switched from upright bass to bass guitar. Not so tonight. There was plenty of energy on display but, perhaps due to the material being a bit new, they never got too wild.

The first couple pieces were interesting because Mary Halvorson's guitar and Formanek's bass both took turns being the focal point of the melodies. In the first piece, Formanek was in the lead, playing loudly, as the group went into a relaxed 6/8 meter. The bassist really tore into the second track. Just when it felt like the form of the piece was hard to see, drummer Tomas Fujiwara got it all in line. One of these days, I'll get to see Halvorson's left hand while she's playing, but tonight it was hidden behind the music stand, only seen occasionally. Her signature sound of warped/bent notes continues to expand with different nuances rather than becoming predictable. As focused as she looks during the set, she still delivers in a way that seems effortless (even if the opposite is true). 

Fujiwara switched from his drum kit to vibes for a couple pieces, walking across the stage to the spot where the instrument was set up. One of them felt like a Thumbscrew take on the blues, leaning on what sounded like minor thirds in the melody. (I could be wrong, as I'm going from notes that I took during the show.) Another vibes-based piece had a lot of drive to it, with some propulsive guitar lines. Another, later in the set, had a dreamy feeling and moved in a manner that could have been completely composed or just offered a moment to show exactly how mentally in tune the players are with one another.

The one time during the set that Formanek took the mike and talked to us, he introduced a version of Charles Mingus' "Orange Was the Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues." When the Baron did it originally, he relied on two and often three horns to voice the melody. Thumbscrew did an impressive job of delivering the kick of the song (with its multiple shifts to double-time and back) and the melody with just these three. It really put the trio into high gear for the last two tunes of the set, which climaxed with some furious power from Fujiwara. 

Whenever that new album comes out, maybe we can say we heard it first in Pittsburgh.

Monday, September 18, 2023

CD Review: Greenlief/Raskin 2 + 2 With Jen Baker & Liz Allbee


2 + 2
2 + 2 With Jen Baker & Liz Allbee

Rova Saxophone Quartet member Jon Raskin (alto, baritone saxophones) and Phillip Greenlief (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones) created 2 + 2 with the idea of combining their reeds with two other "like" instruments. In this recently released 2006 session, they enlisted Liz Allbee (trumpet) and Jen Baker (trombone) for a set of group improvisations mixed with some composed graphic scores. 
Without a rhythm section to keep the ground in sight, this quartet is free to take to the skies, paying heed only to the sounds emanating around them. 

An album like this can make the listener wonder what is greater, the whole or the sum of the parts. The question comes to mind because there are many moments through the 38-minute session where Allbee's trumpet doesn't sound prominent. It could be that she's waiting for the right moment to come in. Conversely, it could mean that she's blending really well with her bandmates, blurring the reed/brass line. In "Tableaux," the opening group improvisation, her muted playing is noticeable after a few minutes, in subtle contrast to the Baker's brawny exhortations and the contrasting saxophones (soprano and baritone). 

However, "Night Town," the nearly 20-minute centerpiece of the album (a score by Greenlief), is where Allbee makes her presence known. She begins unaccompanied and continues for nearly five minutes, with a tone and ideas that feel like a trumpet oratorio cut up into smaller pieces and delivered that way, with some  notes bent or rumpled for dynamics. As she fades naturally, her companions enter with a blend of blown air, pad flutters and percussive sounds that evoke brushes on a snare drum. As things build, the overtones ring out almost like gamelans.

So maybe the whole is greater in this case. Perhaps it's better not to pick things apart, trying to figure out which saxophonist is on alto or what horns about being used, for instance. Better to notice the way the quartet interacts. In "2 + 2" (the other scored piece, by Raskin) everyone moves their own way, but the sound is never cluttered. Also, at that moment when Allbee is noticeable in "Tableaux" everyone has landed together on a chord, or an approximation of one. That kind of confluence contributes to the excitement in improvisation, just as much as Greenlief's call to arms at the start of "Light Bending" elicits a variety of wails and moans from everyone.

The sound of 2 + 2 adds to the vitality of the performance. Recorded at the 21 Grand DIY space, the acoustics put the listener there, noticing the way the natural reverb affects the horns, doing things like adding more bite to the staccato notes from the saxophones.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Julian Lage Comes to Pittsburgh, Sept. 6

Labor Day Weekend has always been a time when I think back to where I was on that same day in years gone by. Sitting around the house all day as a kid, watching the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon (no idea why, except that maybe I bought into the hype); times when I felt a sense of renewal with a new school year and, later, usually a new apartment; a sense of regret in high school that, once again, summer came and went and I didn't have a band together yet, or one that could make it all the way through a song that had a change in it.

Among the good memories, there's the Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place every Labor Day weekend. JazzTimes sent me there to cover it a few times. The most exciting trip was the first time I was flown to the Motor City, in 2009, right when the magazine had come back to life after a few dark months where it looked like the lights weren't going to come on again. I had only traveled for an article once before, and never to an event like this, where strangers seemed excited to meet me - and all this freaking music was mine for the taking. I was leaving my wife and two-year old son for several days, and they were okay with it!

I believe it was the last day of the 2009 festival (which would have been Labor Day) that Gary Burton was playing at one of the bigger stages. (My original article was written on two or three computers back and is long gone, as is my article for the website, so I have no notes from which to refer.) The vibraphonist had Julian Lage playing guitar with him. Lage was clearly much younger than the rest of the band, only 21 at the time. But he was playing with technique and imagination well beyond his years. His ideas seemed really advanced. (Only later did I find out that he was a child prodigy who was the subject of a documentary [Jules at Eight] and played at the Grammys when he was 12.) Despite all that, he lacked any sense of a cocksure young jazz guy who might be stone-faced serious about what he did. To the contrary, when introduced to him, Lage had more of a "gosh, thanks" attitude that made him even more likeable. 

A lot of time has passed since that day, with a lot of music flowing out from Mr. Lage. Through legendary jazz guitarist Jim Hall, Lage met Nels Cline, the iconoclastic guitarist who has been a longstanding member of Wilco in addition to releasing numerous albums that draw on uninhibited improvisation, compositions that draw on jazz and rock and a strong sense of tradition. The combination of these two players might seem odd on paper, but on disc (Room), they brought out the best in each other. 

When Lage came here to Pittsburgh in 2016, we spoke in advance of the show about musicians have a strong, identifiable voice. "It reminds me of Nels, and also of someone like Roy Haynes who plays with everybody. People who tend to play well with a lot of people, they kind of always do the same thing, in a certain way," he said. "And that’s what’s reliable. If you play with five different bands and play five different ways, you really diffuse your sound. But if you more or less have a similar take on proportions – tension/release, ballads, drama, humor – if you stay true to those principles but adjust the touch of your instrument and also the decision of the people you're playing with. I think you can have your cake and eat it too. 

"When the context changes, it’ll shine a different light on you. But if you also change, then the spotlight doesn’t really know where to look." 

Following 2022's View With A Room (his second album as a leader on Blue Note Records),  Lage released the EP The Layers earlier this year. In addition to his regular rhythm section of Jorge Roeder (bass) and Dave "Bad Plus" King (drums) (who I caught at the Village Vanguard with Lage in 2020), the six tracks include veteran guitarist Bill Frisell as a frontline partner. The tracks are by turns tranquil ("This World"), dreamy and ambient with these two very distinct guitars echoing off one another ("Missing Voices") and sweet with unexpected chromatic changes adding an edge to the theme (the title track).

This week's show in town will be a solo performance but rest assured that Lage excels just as well by himself as he does in the company of his peers.

Julian Lage comes to Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Andy Warhol Museum's Sound Series. Songwriter Elijah Wolf opens the show. Wednesday, September 6. 8 pm. Click here for more details. 

Final Four For Mingus - A Live Report

Dr. AJ Johnson has hosted four programs at City of Asylum in recent months, all devoted to the music of Charles Mingus. I missed the first three so I made sure not to the miss the final one. 
"The Final Four For Mingus" took place on Thursday, August 31.  

The instrumentation was put together to ensure that the group would be able to create the feel for a Mingus score, with a cast of familiar faces and a few surprises. Dr. Johnson lead the group and played trombone and tuba. The saxophone section featured Opek/Thoth Trio leader Ben Opie (on tenor exclusively tonight) and Rick Matt (baritone sax, flute) along with relative newcomer Ini Oguntola, who almost stood out with his alto solos that both acknowledged the Mingus work and blew with passion. Tommy Lehman, who came on a recommendation from Sean Jones, held the trumpet seat, getting a good jagged tone that Mingus liked, especially when his mute was in use. The rhythm section consisted of Mark Michelli (piano), Jeff Grubbs (bass) and James Johnson III (drums).  

Material for the evening emphasized Mingus' love for Duke Ellington, directly or indirectly. The group opened with "Love Chant," a relatively deep cut from Pithecanthroput Erectus, which gave everyone a chance to stretch out. Johnson is a good host who offered some good information about the pieces, which also included "Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)," a rhythm section showcase that originated on Money Jungle, the legendary meeting of Ellington, Mingus and Max Roach. 

The evening also included a few video excerpts with words from Mingus about Duke and from Ellington members talking about how a scuffle with trombonist Juan Tizol ended Mingus' brief tenure in Duke's band. I think both clips came from the film Triumph of the Underdog, though there were also clips from the black and white 1968 film Mingus about his eviction from his New York loft. The context for including the latter scene was that low point in high life was followed by a high point of the bassist getting asked to play in a jazz festival to honor his hero. 

"Us It Two" was another surprise in the set, as it was not a standard part of the Mingus canon. In fact it's relatively hard to find, appearing only on Charles Mingus and Friends In Concert. This one featured Johnson on tuba, proving, in the tradition of players like Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart, that that big old instrument can swing with the best. 

It seemed like only a matter of time before the group would play "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," which Mingus recorded for both of his '70s albums Changes, one with vocals and one without. And it was great to hear it again. The lush ballad is a testament to the power of the bassist's later albums, which shouldn't be overlooked. Matt also got a chance to stretch out on the Changes track "For Harry Carney," the homage to Ellington's career-long baritone player.

"Open Letter to Duke" seemed like an obvious choice too, especially with Ben Opie involved, since it comes from the classic album Mingus Ah Um, one of his favorites. What is not obvious is how much the soloists on that album (tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, alto saxophonist John Handy in the unedited version) are so crucial to that tune. In other words, it can be a challenge to pull it off. But Opie and Oguntola sounded amazing in the solo sections and the lush, slower sections. Johnson also captured the spirit of Dannie Richmond's idiosyncratic drum style, which can be hard to get right. 

Then there was "Tonight At Noon." This rapid fire melody had everyone sweating bullets and seemed like it was close to pulling the rhythm section apart from the horns. But it didn't. It was on fire the whole time. While everyone in the rhythm section stayed tough, mention should be made of Michelli's visceral approach to the piano. I've seen him do free improvisation, hulking over his instrument. He brought the same intensity to the 88s that night. The standing ovation the group received at the end of the set was well deserved, for song choice and execution.

After the set, when Opie rattled off the names of some tunes that were played in the previous shows ("Hora Decubitus," "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and a few that he said he had never played before), it filled me with a twinge of regret for missing those nights. Mark your calendars and make plans with you hear about shows! Don't miss them!