Phoenicia Rocks! (Mildly)
It’s not every day the people of Phoenicia, our local little country village, are treated to a gig by a former member of Swell Maps and the Television Personalities. So perhaps it was no surprise that locals came out in their, ooh, dozens to “Claude’s” – the rather run-down bar of a motel on the edge of the village – to see the spectacle of Jowe Head for themselves last Friday night, at which a THOROUGHLY good time was had by all.
Why Jowe Head? Why Phoenicia? Credit Thom Fraser, who with his wife Dana runs the Phoenicia Belle B&B, and are directors of the Arts Upstairs Gallery, both of which are on Main Street. As a fan of the Television Personalities, Thom initiated the relationship with Jowe, who is also a fine visual artist, inviting him to town to perform and show. Lo and behold if Mr. Head (do we call him Mr. Head?) didn’t take him up on it. Ask and ye shall receive, indeed.
On his way from England to the Catskills, Jowe stopped in on New York City to play a gig at the Cake Shop in Manhattan, and bring his musicians, New Zealander drummer Hamish Kilgour (the Clean), guitarist William Berger (Uncle Wiggly/Arthur Lee) and bassist Lisa Siegel. The extra musicians meant a brief last-minute scurry for a PA and a drum kit, but all equipment was finally supplied, and after a fine introductory set by a truncated version of JRBW – a conglomeration of local parents who play rootin’ tootin’ country honky tonky music for the sheer Friday night drinkin’ hell of it – Jowe Head took the floor and, in that mildly eccentric English manner that the Americans find so engaging, set off on a ninety-minute set of the most archetypally indie music ever to get a crowd of old hippies up and dancing.
It was, I assure you, an absolute treat. To my ears, Head’s minimal and repetitive riffing recalled nothing so much as the Fall the Fall the Fall, that impression only punctured by a couple of Swell Maps’ anthems – “Vertical Slum” and “Read About Seymour” – and a handful of bizarre covers, which ran the gamut from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to Can’s “Mother Sky.” As one of maybe two people in the room who had seen Swell Maps in their heyday (typical of life’s cool coincidences, one of Head’s old London flat-mates now lives in Woodstock), I did not consider Friday night’s show revelatory, but once it found its sharpened groove, it more than sliced away at our resistance. There was a moment when Berger began a song on guitar, and I remembered what I loved so much about what I call the “DIY” period of early English post-punk madness: the manner in which bands could embark on chord patterns that were inherently wrong, but were performed with such enthusiastic confidence that they were immediately rendered right.
The sight of so many old folk dancing like they were possessed might have suggested, to the uninitiated, that local people are starved for live music and will dance to anything – even if they don’t understand it. But that would be the wrong conclusion. Bar bands play around these parts every night. The crowd at Claude’s, on the other hand, was populated with people from all walks of the arts, many of whom had once lived in New York City, most of whom have wielded a musical instrument as a dangerous weapon of some sort, and all of whom have surely danced to crazier music than this in their lives. They appeared to love Jowe Head’s groove not because they had no alternative, but for the very fact that it was so off-kilter. “They reminded me of the Fugs,” exclaimed one woman afterwards, who was clearly old enough to have seen the Lower East Side’s slimiest back in the daze. That they reminded me of the Fall forced me to address my own olding age. I didn’t ask the couple who were up from Brooklyn for a spring weekend, and who recognized me from our Step On nights of yore, what Jowe reminded them of: perhaps it would have been Pavement, or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or some new Brooklyn band I haven’t heard of and of whom, should I blink for more than a few seconds, probably never will do.
Saturday night found Jowe Head holding court at the Arts Upstairs, where two side rooms had been given over to his rather hallucinatory, vibrant paintings. The monthly art gallery openings are the nearest we have to a calendar-ordained party in Phoenicia: a pot-luck, BYOB event at which we admire the art, talk to the artists, and keep our fingers crossed some tourists will stop in and buy several pieces so that we all have reason to return again next month. Chatting to Jowe near the end of the party, he seemed most impressed with our neighborhood – even if he did Mount Tremper Mount Temper – and the generosity of spirit to which he’d been a party. I could not, for the life of me, remember where I saw Swell Maps (or the later versions of the Television Personalities, which Jowe then joined), but we shared a few memories of late 70s indie England as Jowe supped on a Heineken and I sipped something called “Italian Wine.” It had been a fine couple of evenings – and what with Earth Day in the Parish Hall and on the Village Green on Sunday afternoon, the kind of weekend that makes you happy to have moved to the country. And who knows, after Jowe Head’s successful visit, maybe some among the rest of us will put out word to our similarly aged and non-career oriented musician friends. Come visit Phriendly Phoenicia – where we can’t guarantee you fame and fortune, but we sure as hell will promise you a room full of fun.