Nels Cline Singers
Largo at the Coronet
May 8, 2014
Nels Cline performs in a neatly tucked-in shirt, which is rare among rock gods. Now living in New York City, Cline grew up in Los Angeles, shredding his way through dingy clubs and gallery spaces for decades. Ten years ago, he joined the band Wilco, contributing a strange synthesis of Duane Allman and John McLaughlin to the band's expanding guitar brigade.
His work on songs like “Impossible Germany” is undeniable, but Cline continues to make his own music; he has three albums out this year under his own name including the Nels Cline Singers' Macroscope, which came out late last month. Last night the act performed at Largo.
To be clear, aside from a half dozen “oohs,” there is no singing from the Nels Cline Singers. Instead, the group is a trio of instrumentalists: Cline on guitar, Scott Amendola on drums and Trevor Dunn on bass. For their night at Largo, they were augmented by Cyro Baptista, a witty rhythm man with a bottomless treasure chest of percussion instruments.
The band opened their short first set quietly. The vigorous, string-snapping intensity would come later. Amendola kept the pace with unobtrusive brushwork while Dunn laid down a delicate support on his upright bass.
Cline can summon moans and frenetic outbursts from his six-string guitar and half-moon of pedals. Few musicians can reference Ornette Coleman and Thurston Moore within a single set and still keep the crowd's head bobbing, but Cline is the man for the job. In front of his trio, he serves as more than a guitarist; he is a conductor, using his baton to corral sounds that aren't inherently musical.
Rather than offer the audience witty patter, he twirled knobs while Dunn switched from upright to electric bass, generating intergalactic, oxygen-less fields before generating sounds that recalled the creaks of an abandoned factory. He segued seamlessly from a metallic and spacious aura to a terrifying and unfamiliar world of wrist cramps and whammy bars. His relentless attacks were cautiously distributed and hinted at a much stronger pulse than Cline's unblinking facade let on.
“Thurston County” devolved into unrepentant riff-rock over Baptista's hyperactive tambourine while elsewhere in the set the percussionist provided a propulsive attack solely on the triangle. The man had an assortment of tricks that held up despite their absurdity. He strangled squeaky toys and swung whirring tubes like a rally towel to generate a barrage of percussion that fit perfectly into the trio's tight interactions.
Bassist Trevor Dunn got a few thumping solo opportunities but mostly stayed entrenched in the groove alongside Amendola. The two interacted with a workman's resolve. They generated a platform for Cline's abstract dalliances with soulful cool. The crew abruptly closed as sweetly as they entered with “You Noticed,” skittering effortlessly into the ether less than an hour after starting.
It was a pleasure to have Cline back in Los Angeles, however brief it may have been. He's a tremendous bridge between the jazzers and the rockers, offering a command of improvisational exploration while never giving up on the three-chord riff and a loud amp.
Personal Bias: Weirdo jazz nerds of Los Angeles have begrudgingly shared him with the rest of the world and we're more than happy to say “told you so” as many times as necessary.
The Crowd: Tall, skinny, middle-aged men, as well as the great Danny DeVito.
Random Notebook Dump: Pity the poor bastard sitting behind The Melvins' Buzz Osborne. That silverback palm tree hair-do takes up a lot of real estate.