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Bringing It/Swinging It

The Goatette [photo by Art Granoff]

The Beast kept thinking of the one hidden thread to run through all four shows of Cryptogramphone's 10th Anniversary bash at REDCAT last Fri. & Sat.: “the bass, man, the bassmen.” On display were four prime and indispensible examples of the rock-bed of creative music ensembles: Scott Walton’s propulsive pulses; Stomu Takeishi’s ear-bending experimentation; Joel Hamilton’s yowling runs; Devin Hoff’s woozy futurisms. Not to take away from the ensembles they played with, but these guys worked freakin’ hard, attacking their instruments as if they insulted their mothers. With such generous bandleaders, it could have been called "Revenge of the Sidemen."

The first night kicked off with an epic journey charted by Alex Cline’s Continuation Quintet, who has only performed live a spare handful (if even that) of times. The resulting set was watching seperate individuals slowly blending and joining their talents, creating a remarkable harmony that the audience could view almost as a "narrative" -- this is how it's done, this is how you connect with other humans. The first suite was the delayed one-two punch of "Nourishing Our Roots" and "Clearing Our Streams" from Alex's new CD Continuation. Much has been written about how "meditative" and "calming" and "Zen" Alex Cline’s music can be, and it does certainly have those qualities. But it also can be edgy and intense, smacking you in the face with its mood swings and unsettling you with muscians who are adept at making their instruments sound like anything other than what they are. Take the second song (and the lynchpin) of the evening, the Thomas Merton ode "On the Bones of the Homegoing Thunder": Maggie Parkins’ (subbing for the pre-booked Peggy Lee) high runs on the cello that sounded like chittering insects; Myra Melford's effortless switching between piano -- which she pilloried with furious note clusters, slamming her forearms onto the keyboard -- and harmonium, which droned like a living, breathing pulse; Jeff Gauthier's quivering hornet of an electric violin; and of course, the bandleader's [pictured above] frequent spelunks into rock-layers of soundism, particularly the eerie moans he coaxed out of his Tibetan singing bowls. "Thunder"'s bewitching coda involved all of the musicians (save for Gauthier) abandoning their instruments to alight on large metal Noah bells, manifesting ancient tones that made the theatre feel like a wall-less Buddhist temple. The ensemble crescendoed with a closing medley of "A Blue Robe in the Distance" (from Alex's first CD as a bandleader, 1987's The Lamp and The Star) and the newer "Steadfast," a song that builds and builds and then ends so abruptly it gave us an aural nosebleed. Someone near us was even moved to say "Wow!"

The second set saw the Be Bread ensemble, led by Ms. Melford [pictured above], who in Alex's words was "the semi-featured performer" of the night. Melford doesn't play L.A. often, which is a pity because she is one of the most galvanizing pianists we've ever seen. There were no "easy moments" of cheap transcendence here; Melford's music is challenging in the most rewarding sense of the word, a whirlygig of competing sounds from different parts of the globe. (It could be called "the soundtrack for Obama's New World.") What's more, NONE of the songs were from Be Bread's debut CD The Image of Your Body. And you know what? We liked that. It was bravest set of the two nights, beginning with "I See A Horizon," which featured Ben Goldberg's ornery clarinet and Cuong Vu's ghostly film-noir trumpet. Dancer Oguri (a last-minute surprise guest) came out to add some frozen-in-time visual flair to "On the Lip of Insanity" and "The Whole Tree Gone" (from Be Bread's new CD to be released this Fall). "Night" from Melford's recent duet album with Marty Ehrlich, was cemeted by a solo showcase from a barefoot Takeishi's fretless bass, onto which he spilled what looked like coins through his strings, creating such an alarming sound (like he was tearing them off his fingerboard) that Melford actually stood up and looked over her piano to see what he was up to.

The Singers [photo by Art Granoff]

The second night was marked by the announcement that all seats were SOLD OUT! which led to the following exchange by two gents sitting in front of us:

Gent #1: "'Sold out'?! Maybe we're not gonna like it!"
Gent #2: "Hey, it's only 20 bucks!"
[mutual laughter]

The Goatette: The Soundcheck [photo by Art Granoff]

Which, if you think about it, was an appropriate timbre for the evening: all this great music for so gol'darned cheap! Any doubts? Try the first ensemble of the night, the Jeff Gauthier Goatette, a powerhouse quintet of players who just happen to be longtime friends. Their mutual sensitivity and connectedness with each other kicked in almost immediately with the lyrical "Ephemera," dedicated to the sixth invisible-yet-always-present member, the late Eric Von Essen. (Two of the sets's songs "Biko's Blues" and "This Illusion" were Von Essen compositions, and bassist Hamilton gamely rose to the challenge.) Then came the harder-edged "Friends of the Animals" from House of Return, the tenderly whimiscal "Ahfufat" (dedicated to Alex Cline's daughter Naomi) and the incredibly aggressive take on guitarist Nels Cline's Joe Zawinul shout-out "Satellites and Sideburns," where David Witham’s sci-fi glurks on the Fender Rhodes/KAOSS pad and Cline’s pigsqealing guitar flameouts seem to be dueling for dominance. Gauthier, who can be a bit shy onstage, even quieted the audience so they could hear the strange feedback "coming out of my foot pedal."

The Singing Brakeman [photo by Art Granoff]

Next up was the Nels Cline Singers, who were celebrating eight years (to the night) of existence and whose fame for never involving singing in their sets was broken by a new untitled original, where Nels sang a nonsensical "ba-baaaaa-ba-baaa!" over and over again while covering said vocals in pitched guitar groans. This came after a mammoth opening version of "Caved-in Heart Blues," a foreboding funeral march anchored by Cline's Spaghetti-western lead melody. After a squall of white noize came the quiet, loungey environs of "Blues, Too" from 2004's The Giant Pin, where Nels switched to a delicate Joe Pass/Jim Hall vibe that was such a total 180 from the previous song that it nearly made us car sick. This was followed by "Attempted" from 2008's Draw Breath (where Devin Hoff really shined) and yet-another untitled new song where Cline and Amendola battered each other with their effects boxes and Nels hit his strings while changing the chord each time, creating a dizzying channel-surfing effect. Easily the highlight (for us, at least) was the new song that actually had a title, "King Queen," where David Witham and Alex Cline returned to join for what Nels referred to as a "dance party," a funkified maggot-brainy workout that was so much fun it begged the question: "Where are the Solid Gold dancers when you need them?" The tune demanded that the audience demand an encore, which they got, Nels-style: another new song with at least three tentative titles ("0 Miles / Vamp / Yer Fuse"), a serrated-edged semi-punk rocker that saw Nels spazzing out like an electrocuted marionette. The man was obviously having the time of his life, and his offhand remark that his late father was "born and raised in tenement housing right here on Bunker Hill" conjured up the image of the old man smiling down at the spectacle of his sons returning to the old 'hood to make such a holy racket.


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