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Blues From Mars

Photo by B. Diemannoberger

JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER TRIO
at the Jazz Bakery, January 30

Up on stage are three ungrumpy old men, all in their seventh decade. They're a little bit wise guys, a whole lot wise men. At right is the eldest, Reggie Workman (b. 1937), who's playing an upright bass that looks like it was made from a disused rowboat. It's loaded with contact mikes and nerf material; a set of bows is lodged near the strings' foot like matador's swords in a bull's neck. During a solo piece in the second set, Workman will blow into a ribbed vacuum tube attached to the bass, creating a ram's horn to accompany his note work. Most of the time he doesn't watch his hands, instead gazes intently at the audience; in ensemble play he watches his fellow players' hands.

At center sits the drummer, Andrew Cyrille (b. 1939): modest, compact and robust, as much a compositionalist as a rhythm maker, a man whose illustrious career includes work with Cecil Taylor in the '60s. When he finishes an extended solo piece, he breathes onto the snare not from fatigue, but from something deeper. A restorative breath of life to a beaten skin, perhaps?

And seated at left is the youngster leading this trio: electric guitarist­vocalist James "Blood" Ulmer (b. 1942). Dressed in white, his braided hair in a topknot, wearing sunglasses and some leather-and-rattlesnake-skin boots, Ulmer is a dread bedouin with a guitar and a trickster-coyote spirit. "Just because I kissed you on the lips/It don't mean/We have to have sex," Ulmer sings gently, bending forward, the guitar's body against his hips, his knees almost knocking together. Like the oldest traditional bluesmen, Ulmer doesn't use a pick; his thumb plays the rhythm while fingers on the same hand pick the lead. But Ulmer's work is hardly trad: His electric guitar has an acoustic tone, and his spidery mathfingers play long riff-knots, abrupt flurries and twirls and bursts: thrilling Malian blues from Mars.

With Workman and Cyrille, Ulmer takes jazz and peels it back to show its blues. But they peel back the onion even further, showing a buzzy, bustling, endlessly interesting globe of interlocking and intercrossing sound at the music's core. That's an ageless lesson only learned elders can teach.

WAYNE KRAMER AND SPECIAL GUESTS
at the Baked Potato, January 29

After monthlong residencies at both Spaceland and the Mint, Wayne Kramer has found a club where his on-the-fly style of programming fits comfortably. The packed house at the Baked Potato was enthused to watch him maneuver wherever his whim took him, encouraging the players to stretch as far as possible. Opening with "Dead Movie Stars" from his '96 release Dangerous Madness, Kramer played it straight for the first few numbers, sticking with the arrangements more or less as they appeared on disc. Joining the versatile rhythm section of bassist Doug Lunn and drummer Eric Gardner, Kramer's band was rounded out by Zappa alumnus Mike Keneally, who played guitar with his left hand and keyboard with his right simultaneously on many numbers.

Joining midset was poet­writer­music scholar John Sinclair, whose lifelong affiliation with Kramer involves revolutionary activities musical, political and chemical. As the manager of the MC5, Sinclair not only marched Kramer to the top of the late-'60s Detroit rock pile, but also introduced them to Coltrane, free jazz and no shortage of psychedelic substances. It was these gateway influences that Sinclair brought to the stage as he recited from his book Fattening Frogs for Snakes. The material salutes Sinclair's blues and jazz heroes Charlie Patton, Muddy, Monk and Trane, with stories of mojos, voodoo and devilish negotiations at the crossroads. Kramer and Keneally gobbled it up, playing gritty blues riffs in counterpoint. They were joined in turn by Ralph "Buzzy" Jones on flute and Dr. Charles Moore on trumpet (who wailed on the final MC5 studio record High Time). Their broad smiles betrayed the fun they were having blasting the simple blues riffs along with Kramer's crew.

After a break, the second set went deep into freeform territory, with Keneally unleashing a fuzzed-out solo reminiscent of his former boss, and Sinclair grinning through tales of Allen Ginsberg turning a grumpy Thelonious Monk on to his initial dose of acid. High times, indeed! (SL Duff)

 

THEE MIDNITERS
at House of Blues, January 28

While East Los Angeles soul-rock veteranos Thee Midniters rarely converge on a bandstand, when they do, it is a serious matter — particularly if vocalist Little Willie G., who spends far more time spreading the gospel than he does jumping the big beat, is along for the ride. Ably abetted by an additional trio of original Midniters — bassist Jimmy Espinoza, trombonist Romeo Prado and sax man Larry Retalon — and rounded out with the simpatico likes of current Cannibal & the Headhunters drummer Robert Zapata and Tierra horn chieftain Bobby Loya (who began his career, as Willie G. pointed out, playing in the '60s combo the Blue Satins), this was no slapdash, cash-in lineup.

 

Their set list of classics, distinguished by unusually sophisticated brass-and-reed arrangements, was propelled by Willie G.'s polished, high-impact vocals — this guy belts it out with rousing poise and style, like a Chicano-cool Tom Jones, and while they were operating at what seemed top-degree strength from the "Land of a Thousand Dances" get-go, Willie was only teasing. Delivering barrio anthems "Sad Girl" and "Dreaming Casually" with smoldering balladeer skill and feasting on brilliant up-tempo numbers like "Love Special Delivery" and their Stones-burying version of Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," Willie G. had the crowd in a delirium that alternated between romance and rowdy celebration.

The band's perfectly executed accompaniment consistently matched Willie's vocal mastery, and by the time he called for "Whittier Boulevard," the ultimate cruising instro of all time, it was a crafty setup; the singer disappeared from the stage only to race back and launch into Bobby Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light." Indeed he turned it on, drawing on some mystical reserve of lung power, artistry and strength in a profound display of showmanship and soul. (Jonny Whiteside)

THE APES
at the Smell, January 31

The Apes come out of D.C., and they sound like they have ideas about warlords and wealth distribution. An impression immediately gone — everything's so close at hand that nothing can be discerned. The noise is blinding. If you could perhaps pull back some from the experience, an outline might be glimpsed. But there's nowhere to pull back to, the room's nothing but sound. Sonic clap and cigarette-burn girls leaning against walls that just can't get over being walls, holding the crowd in their hands. The drums sucker-punch, the keys like ice cracking. A sharp intake of breath and a blow to the head. No guitar, nothing clean.

None of these details really conveys much. The band played with heat. The singer all Union blue and scruff, screaming like the lights went suddenly out. The Apes are more than a few pins on the evening's map. These kids play like the very idea of a map would send them into a homicidal rage. If difficult to pin down, the sound is still consistent, driving, brooding, moving toward something. Perhaps that's the key — the movement, snarling processional. There's a procession of images beneath this, visible only in what they displace, mouths shoved open, doorway looking newly slit. This is the soundtrack for the darkly inverted, blood leaking out of helmet, abandoned subway, anything methodical, anything that seems to run on meat.

All this and danceable too. Like the Liars but not. Let's just say they rocked. Let's just say they sounded like a dog snarling at the end of its tether, furious, yes, but thrilled too by its ever-tightening noose. (Russel Swensen)

THE DIVINE COMEDY
at the Troubadour, January 28

"Songs of Love," the Divine Comedy's signature number, finds leader Neil Hannan peering down at the merely human lusts of "pale, pubescent beasts" to the tune of a lilting, Francophilic waltz, writing about the primal drives we mortals merely experience. This sort of arch fop-pop, combined with the untranslatable Englishness of many of Hannan's references, is usually a hard sell stateside, so the more-than-healthy (though more pale than pubescent) turnout for this show was a mild surprise. Maybe it shouldn't have been: Hannan's meta-songs may reside on the same rarefied plane as Momus' or Stephin Merritt's, but neither has his warmth as a performer, nor his gratitude for an audience's attention. "I have a cold tonight," he announced several songs in, "but I'm not going to let it affect me, because you deserve better." (It didn't sound as smarmy as it reads.)

Behind Hannan, alternating between digital keyboard and acoustic guitar, his band often sounded fuller than three pieces should: Simon Little switched seamlessly between electric and standup bass, while drummer Rob Farrer manned both kit and vibes on the John Barry­ style instrumental opener, plus congas and xylophone later on. Guitarist Ivor Tolbert turned the potentially overarranged mélange into actual rock & roll via driving but harmonically fitting solos. Tonight's set was long on material from an upcoming record, which finds Hannan moving further from his soi-disant persona, making credible songs out of waking up early ("Leaving Today") and midtour malaise ("Idaho"), and a touching one ("The Happy Goth") from what could have been a silly character sketch.

 

By the time "Songs of Love" came around, the singer had loosened up enough to admit, midsong, that he'd forgotten to play the piano solo. An obviously unplanned cover of Brecht-Weill's "Moon of Alabama" and a few strained high notes (courtesy of that cold) brought the point home: More Balzac than Dante, Hannan's comedy is human after all. (Franklin Bruno)

HALFORD, TESTAMENT, DEATH ANGEL, VIO-LENCE, EXHUMED
at House of Blues, February 2

Only the Power of Metal could make 800 cranky bastards stand shoulder to shoulder for five hours with barely enough room to raise their fists and yell. Exhumed: nonstop undifferentiated death-woof and double-kick. Vio-Lence: the original link between hardcore punk and speed metal, tight and dynamic. The reunited Death Angel: thrash wraiths with spidery dreads, bristling trebly edge and twin-guitar spark. Testament: bestial hulkers burping and hair-whipping amid smoke, echo and sensual densities.

But: Why lawd why is Rob Halford barging these Bay Area relics around with him, when his older English métier is a metal so foreign? After establishing a certain inhuman kinship via the shriek-and-pummel Judas Priest classic "Painkiller," the former Priest vocalist and his four horsemen (cunningly dubbed "Halford") embarked on a sustained demonstration of what distinguishes them from the throngs of latter-day ironworkers: songs and a singer. Now, these are old-fashioned accouterments, remnants of a sunnier era when even factory drones liked to warble along to merry melodies of hatred and alienation. Strange thing, though: They still do. When Halford (who had squeaked into the country following now-standard visa wars) wound up his hour with the Priest party anthem "Living After Midnight," he simply handed the whole song over to the audience, who weren't too tired to sing (not just yell) every damned note, as their leatherbound daddy crossed his arms and beamed a lovely, paternal smile.

He had reason to be happy, since he'd been in rafter-splitting voice, his band (featuring Roy Z on guitar, and new bassist Jason Ward) had shredded, and both the Priest standards and the excellent selections from the two Halford studio albums — even the ones from the new and unfamiliar Crucible — had stabbed with remarkable strength through the devastated house sound system, which had largely expired two hours earlier. It was touching. (Greg Burk)

ELLIOTT SMITH at the Henry Fonda Theater, February 1

There was a moment in Elliott Smith's performance at the Henry Fonda Theater last Saturday when the world nearly evaporated. A thousand people watched in horror as the underground legend slowly derailed from his seventh song of the evening (the gorgeous "Alameda," from 1997's Either/Or), while a black hole of silence sucked the oxygen right out of the room. Elliott managed to hover in this chaos just long enough for the skipped heartbeat to rip through the clogged arteries of the audience, and then kicked back into the song, laughing on the lyric, "You see your first mistake . . . was thinking that you could relate."

The vibe in the room seemed genetically enhanced thereafter, as a group of restless strangers banded together into a one-off support group for a shy but beautiful creature whose five consecutive full-length albums have already established him as one of the greatest songwriters of the last decade. The quiet during the songs turned to reverence as Elliott meandered through 21 songs, indulging numerous audience requests. He even psyched out Beatles fans hoping for an encore of the previous night's "Long, Long, Long" by instead covering Oasis' "Supersonic" with a playful grin.

And though he seemed to enjoy Saturday's show, the titles of new compositions such as "Fond Farewell to a Friend" and "Strung Out Again," carried the obvious scars of all-too-recent suffering. Like a man recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Elliott seems to have a newfound wisdom, which he has ominously distilled into some of his most personal lyrics to date. His advice on "Little House on Memory Lane" hit like a heavy hand on the shoulder: "If it's your decision to be open about yourself . . . be careful." Fucking heavy. (Liam Gowing)

NORTON WISDOM AND BAND at Patricia Correia Gallery, February 1

"I want to dedicate this work to the seven astronauts who died," said Norton Wisdom before embarking on his music-driven painting expedition Saturday night at Patricia Correia Gallery. "And also to all the Iraqi children who died of leukemia today." ("Depleted uranium," I heard someone say. "They're dying because of all the depleted uranium in the bombs we dropped in the first war.") Then he asked violinist Lili Haydn for a dirge, climbed the ladder stationed before his backlit plexiglass canvas, and began making broad purple strokes. An Asian man with long hair began dancing madly in the corner. The music gained momentum, Haydn twisting lines around Willie Wadman's muted trumpet. Wisdom began removing spots of paint from the wide ribbons of purple. Tom Maxwell on drums (a cymbal, actually) and Phil Chen on bass pushed the beat ahead; faces emerged from the paint — ghosts, half-crescent profiles like women in the moon, the faces of children's spirits. Nels Cline and Eric Garcia's guitars accelerated the tempo — by this time anyone could dance to it — and at the very moment that it seemed worthwhile to count the images emerging like phantoms from Wisdom's paint, he wiped it all out into a neutral wash of blue. More paint; a verticle slash; a large X that became the arms of Atlas holding aloft a black globe, then Atlas became Liberty, and then, with a mere tilt of the head, the Madonna ("Genius!"). Saturn came out, and stars, and Haydn and Wadman and Garcia spun frenetic melodies in near-sync — and then someone with a video camera planted herself boldly in front of me, not to be denied. And I thought: If part of the point of Wisdom's painting to music is its ephemeral nature, why does the recording of it take precedence over the sightlines of a live observer? (Judith Lewis)


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