The Hills are Alive with…
I went to see live music three nights – and one day – in a row this past weekend. I was thrilled that I did. Even more so, that I had stayed upstate rather than venture into the City for New York’s outdoor free festival season. When local music of quality comes to your neighborhood, it’s dependent on you to support it if you want to see it come back again.
That said, two of the nights out involved the 80-mile round trip across the river to Hudson. (“Local” is a loose term in the country.) On Friday, it was for British VJs the Eclectic Method, who are part of a format that started, some might say, with Coldcut in the late 1980s, continued with Emergency Broadcast Network in the 1990s, and, as far as fast-paced mash-ups are concerned, reached something of an apex with 2 Many DJs in the early 2000s. At Jason’s Upstairs Bar – the former Stray Bar renamed since I saw the Detroit Cobras there a couple of years back – two of the British-originating trio worked tirelessly from the stage, delivering a sensory overload audio-visual remix that was heavy on the hip-hop, but with underlayers and overtones that ranged from a baby-faced Michael Jackson to prime-era James Brown, from cut-up clips of Obama to those of Stephen Colbert, and from the Rolling Stones to AC/DC. Credit to the team’s Jonny Wilson and Ian Edgar, who burn their own DVDs from television and promo videos, and then cut them up with the precision of top-tier turntablists, for running their night in relatively transparent segments (a downtempo opening hour full of hip-hop, a hi-nrg pseudo-techno set, some rock music etc.) and for ensuring that their favored rap was of the kind guaranteed to get feet on the floor rather than guns in the air (although, some tracks, like M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” encourage both).
But points have to be taken away for turning up the sound system beyond its capabilities. I’m guilty of this myself, so I sympathize, but by the time they’d been playing for an hour the sound was ear-splittingly painful, sending what had started out as an entertained (if, in some locals’ cases, clearly bemused) crowd to the back of the room and eventually out of the bar entirely. Jason’s staff told me they’d had the entire system serviced at the start of that week, and given that the space features dance music more often than it does live sets, I believe them when they say they were equally freaked out by the sonic pain. Eclectic Method’s incredible mash-ups are gleefully over-the-top, but the sound doesn’t have to follow suit.
Saturday night’s entertainment was as much of an artistic about turn as was possible without sitting in meditative silence. Actually, that’s what people do much of the time at the Zen Mountain Monastery, which sits literally at the bottom of our road in Mount Tremper, but they also run retreats that are frequently led by visiting artists. Last weekend, the esteemed Meredith Monk returned to lead a workshop, and for those in the know, she performed on Saturday evening, to an seated audience of barely over 100 people, for a $5 donation. Intimate doesn’t describes it; given that Monk is the kind of established artist typically given to appearing at grand venues like BAM or the Lincoln Center – a concert in 2005 at Carnegie Hall celebrating her career’s 40th Anniversary featured the likes of Bjork, Terry Riley and John Zorn – this was the equivalent of being invited into her living room.
Monk sings in a guttural language largely of her own invention; the influence on Bjork is, indeed, all too apparent. But her voice does more than approximate music or sound as if an original instrument; she’s able to emit two sounds at once (e.g., a harmonic whistle on top of a sing-song, or clicking and singing at the same time), and to carry out apparent conversations both with herself (she calls these “duets for solo voice”) and, for about half of the set, interacting so closely with a partner that you couldn’t tell who was “singing” what (this she calls “two voices as one”). The pieces she performed on Saturday evening, which included “Porch,” “Gotham Lullaby” and “Hipstance” came from a wide range of her recent works, among them Impermanence, Songs of Ascension and the opera Atlas. The sounds themselves drew on those of Native Americans, Tibetan monks and half the animal kingdom beside. Had Monk not been performing so close to home, I might never have taken the time (or, in her usual environments, the money) out to see her; I can only say that I feel so greatly enriched for the fact that I did.
Sunday afternoon, with the Shandaken Artists Open Studio tour in full effect, we stopped off in Phoenicia to watch our friends from Life In A Blender perform on the front porch of the Mystery Spot, photographer/artist Laura Levine’s long-standing Phoenicia antiques store which recently moved to a prime location on the Main Drag. Levine was prominent on the new wave photography scene and her connections are enabling her to book some wonderful artists for this summer inaugural Music for Front Porches. Upcoming Sunday shows include Beat Rodeo’s Steve Almaas, Tommy Ramone’s new project Uncle Monk and, so we gather and greatly look forward to, Jonathan and Grasshopper from Mercury Rev. For Life In A Blender, the weather was warm, the crowds were out and the mood was suitably festive. You wouldn’t, at that moment, have wished to be anywhere else.
And come Sunday night, it was back in the car to Hudson, a return visit to Jason’s Upstairs and a chance for the PA to redeem itself as Mark Eitzel, established in his own name though perhaps better known for his earlier band American Music Club, performed from his vast catalogue, accompanied only by Marc Capelle. Eitzel is, perhaps, the personification of the struggling cult artist. When, towards the end of the set, he apologized for his subject matter – he can take the possibly reassuring sight of an ageing drag queen in a London karaoke bar and rewrite the performer as a mass murderer – he felt compelled to add, “I’m a failure.”
“You’re a successful failure,” someone quickly retorted from the front row.
“Dude, I can’t even pay my health insurance,” he responded in turn. “I’m dead.” Unfortunately, I doubt that he was joking. (And if there is ANY issue to rally around our new President on, it’s his push for universal health care. This is the life and death of our nation at stake, folks, not just the 50 million without health insurance.) But though Eitzel may be struggling these days to earn a living, his voice is in perfect shape, as proved by his choice of covers, including “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” “Me and Mr. Jones” (and that’s not a typo) and a Carole King song I couldn’t identify. Eitzel drew primarily from his vast catalogue of self-composed stories, among them “Nothing Changes” and “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” which was itself covered to such great effect several years back by the Divine Comedy. Eitzel’s lyrics frequently operates in the same area of dark story-telling as a Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen, but he sings in a much higher, almost classic(al) register, and perhaps even more so than Meredith Monk, where the setting was appropriately monastic, I enjoyed his show as the epitome of intimacy. If the audience was a little on the low side, well it was a Sunday night in a relatively small town still not known for booking artists of this caliber. Besides, those who attended and paid attention (unlike the bartender carrying on at the top of her voice; come on lady, show some respect to the artist who brought in your tipping customers!) hopefully reminded Eitzel that he remains greatly loved and admired. And yes, the PA stood up to the challenge perfectly. It was a beautiful evening out.