What the Heck Is That?
Festivals worldwide tout their events as supereclectic and representative of the best new music. Yet you often end up feeling cheated by these groovy monstrosities after your trek through the garbage-strewn bog to the stage a mile away — not just because of the exorbitant prices for admission or a mere bottle of water, but due to the sneaking suspicion that you’ve been suckered by yet another marketing scheme. For what’s touted as diverse and cutting edge is more often a rigidly defined set of popular styles — punk rock, electronic/dance, indie rock, hip-hop, etc. — that you’ve read about in Spin, Blender or NME. All well and sort of good, except you don’t get surprised, which, when day is done, is what music and art are really best used for.
So when the arts/politics mag Arthur started doing festivals three years ago, and seemingly topped itself with the still-raved-about ArthurFest at Barnsdall Park during Labor Day weekend in 2005, surprise must’ve been the key word thateditor Jay Babcock and his partners at Spaceland Productions had in mind.
ArthurFest featured a lineup theoretically attached to the music undergrounds of freak-folk, psychedelic rock, doom-to-the-50th metal, roots-type hip-hop and your more progressive indie rock; performers included Yoko Ono, Devendra Banhart, Sonic Youth, Comets on Fire, Wolfmother, the Black Keys, Merzbow, Lavender Diamond, Cat Power and Spoon, and there were crafts, food, clothing booths and screenings of obscure, arty documentaries. None of it connected in an obvious sense, which alone was enough to produce major thrills in even the casual observer.
The magazine did it again last year at several venues in Silver Lake, to great critical response and healthy attendance. This week, the team’s Arthur Nights will be held within the righteously rococo splendor of the newly renovated Downtown Palace Theatre.
The mind gets fairly boggled savoring the potential magic; each act will play a complete set, and all the artists will be encouraged to collaborate with the others. Meanwhile, the list of performers shows an even deeper awareness of how rubbing certain kinds of art up against others holds potential for rare transcendence.
Arthur Nights offers all your radical T-shirts, indie/DIY vinyl and books, etc., too, and perhaps most important, there’ll be free ice cream. Please grok the complete list of excellent performers in the Rock & Pop listings; here are a few highlights.
Devendra Banhart: The extraordinarily versatile singer-composer and spider-fingered acoustic guitarist who’s become the beacon and shepherd of what some have called the “freak-folk” movement.
Tav Falco & the Unapproachable Panther Burns: Supremely rare set of fierce ritual by this ungodly cool and greasily pompadoured veteran roots-rockabilly demon, now based in Austria for some strange reason. Quoth Tav: “The whole essence of the Panther Burns is to stir up the dark waters of the unconscious mind.”
The Fiery Furnaces: F.F. are multi-instrumentalist/composer Matthew Friedberger and his li’l sister Eleanor, who sings and plays guitar and sometimes drums. They’ll vie for title of smartest, most imaginative, most literate, most progressively musical and most fun band on Planet Earth.
Comets on Fire: F.F. get a run for their dosh from Comets’ awe-inspiring heights of psychedelic, harshly grand ectoplasm rock. Among their guitar gods is Ben Chasney, who doubles as a member of the quietly devastating Six Organs of Admittance, also on the bill.
Sun Ra Arkestra: Unbelievably, there’s a full, mind-melting set of celestial avant-bop courtesy of the rightfully legendary, utterly rocking Arkestra, led by longtime (since 1958!) musical director Marshall Allen.
Boris: Inordinately heavy, doomy, drony sludge from Tokyo. Sometimes they’ll play a single chord for five or six minutes, and at first you think you’re going to die, then you realize we’re all doomed anyway and you’re way, way down for the ride. They’ve had the good taste to collaborate with Keiji Haino, Merzbow and SunnO))).
Ruthann Friedman: She wrote “Windy,” that zestfully minty-fresh song from the ’60s by the Association. She’s also hippie-scenester royalty who happens to be a creator of uniquely harmonized jazz-folk-pop that’s been praised to the skies by the likes of Devendra Banhart and Van Dyke Parks.
White Magic: The New York trio return after a five-year break with an excellent new disc of spooky, moody piano-based folk-rock stridently proclaimed by charismatic singer Mira Billotte.
It’s exciting to welcome the legendary Scottish acoustic guitarist Bert Jansch to Arthur Nights for his first local appearance in eight years. A co-founder of the famous ’60s folk-jazz group Pentangle, Jansch has been acknowledged by the likes of Jimmy Page, Neil Young and Johnny Mars for his hard-picking, deeply voiced and inventive playing; his naturally rustic, nasal vocal style perfectly matches the mostly traditional songs of the British Isles in which he’s staked his highest claims.
Jansch recently released a very fine new disc of self-penned and trad folk tunes, The Black Swan, with guests including Devendra Banhart and singer Beth Orton. He talked with me on the phone from his home in London.
L.A. WEEKLY:It must be heartening to be receiving all this praise from the younger generation of musicians, such as Devendra Banhart. Were you a fan of his too?
BERT JANSCH: He was completely new to me. We were looking for someone to finish the album, interested in another sort of outlook. We went to see him play at the Astoria in London, and it was a great night. And I really wanted him to be on the album.
I was always impressed with the quality of the traditional material you dug up while you were in Pentangle. How did you and John Renbourn find these songs?
At the time we both seemed to be into similar things, what we were reading and stuff. I was brought up with traditional songs from 15 onward, from the first pub-club I went to. My interest in the guitar really took off then, and I was taking lessons at that club. And I liked it all, you know, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee — who actually came and did a gig at that club. I was about 16 and a half. Which was amazing, you know.
Can you tell me about “The Old Triangle”?
That one directly comes from the clubs in Scotland. There was an Irish singer named Dominic Behan, who I knew when I was quite young, and he used to sing it. And his brother, Brendan Behan, the actor, it was part of a play that he was doing. I know that Brendan wrote the words, but the tune I think is a traditional Irish. The play is about capital punishment in Ireland, and the song takes place in the Royal Canal in Dublin — the prison is on the banks of the canal. And the triangle itself is a bell, which rings for sleep time and exercise.
I like this line in it, “The female prison has got 70 women, and it’s there they would rather dwell.”
[Laughs] Well, that could only happen in an Irish prison.
Did your strong-handed picking style derive from blues players?
Well, no, it’s a combination of things. The player that really interested me more than any other would be Davy Graham, in the early days, certainly. And it’s just a cross between all sorts of players — Doc Watson, even, Clive Palmer of the Incredible String Band.
In Pentangle, were you listening to modern jazz players too?
I was particularly up for Charlie Mingus. And Coltrane, and that there. But Pentangle also had Danny Thompson and Terry Cox, who were a jazz rhythm section, and they used to play at jazz clubs, or with Ronnie Scott. I mean, it was heavily jazz based, Pentangle.
Were you studying the improvisational aspects of jazz?
I very rarely played the same thing twice. But it’s only if I play a blues will I actually extemporize.
You’re easily as distinctive in your singing.
That’s acquired — there’s nothing really natural about it. When I started, I bought the guitar first, ’cause I was a bit shy in those days, and it wasn’t until I started drinking and stuff like that and played a couple of tunes — then I’d sing.?
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