Dunedin Fringe Festival
Donald McPherson live
Text and photos by Reid Gilchrist (Pt 2)9/28/02
Day Two. If you find yourself in Dunedin, I recommend Mazagran for a fucking great cup of coffee to start the day.
I'll never understand why musicians go by the names their parents gave 'em when they could invent one of their own. But, regardless, I dearly love Peter Wright for the many soundtracks he has provided for my many indolent afternoons. This is not to say that either the man or his music is lazy. In fact, his work is so obviously painstakingly crafted. Basically, he works hard so that we, the lucky consumers, can sit on our duffs and soak it up.
On this day, he slapped his six string onto his lap and with an array of devices at his disposal, coaxed out another fine accompaniment to any manner of horizontal living. Enveloping, effects-laden drones of dreamy intensity washed over everyone in attendance in hypnotic waves. My kinda day at the beach. Just beautiful and no sunburn from his stringburn. Though there is a variance in actual content, this material had a physiological effect not at all unlike recent great Charalambides shows I've had the luck to attend. Vibrations were literally and deeply felt.
Betwixt this set and his recent Distant Bombs CD, Mr. Wright appears to be scaling a new, higher peak in a career with no real valleys. A guitar Marlow taking a slow boat up his own personal sonic Congo. If this guy were on whatever label the beautiful people are gobbling up these days (you can't expect to actually keep up with that kinda stuff.), you'd probably be genuflecting at his altar right now. (Yes, I'm deliberately trying to employ as many different metaphors as possible in a single paragraph. The English language is a beautiful thing. Abuse it often.)
Next, Eso Steel astounded again. You know, at this very moment, there are undoubtedly at least several hundred pasty-faced nerds poised over their Powerbooks belching out perfectly spiffy computer doodlings. Like much modern technology, a laptop is an easy thing to just use but tis damn difficult to use well. In my mind, there is no such thing as an inherently valid technique, no matter how hip it is. Only valid outcomes.
Mr. Steel overshadows the bulk of his competition by virtue of a genuinely talented compositional ability. A full orchestra couldn't meld sound together in a more skillful manner. Frankly, I am doing this youngster a disservice by harping so much on his equipment myself. He deserves to be thought of as simply a great musician, regardless of instrument of choice. Worthy to keep company with such stalwarts as Wabi Sabi, Stars of the Lid, Nuno Canavarro, or the finest E.A.R.
For the first half of his set, Donald McPherson demonstrated the delightfully odd fractured mind Jandek/Fahey styled plinking, plunking, and plonking showcased on his estimable CD, Bramble. A style both jagged and mellifluent. So intimate and personal that one got the feeling that this wasn't Earth any longer. It was all Don's world, baby; we were just living in it.
For the second half, drums and cello were added, endowing Mr. McPherson's unique string-bending with a whole new kind of atmosphere. Closing my eyes, I received visions of Don time traveling back to an NYC loft in 1966 to sit in with Mo Tucker and John Cale. The results couldn't have been much different. This is a compliment.
Now, Empirical played next. I heard and loved every minute of it and I still don't know how to convey what it sounded like. My status as a nonmusician renders it difficult enough to encapsulate the technical aspects of people who don't invent their own instruments. For this show, Peter Porteous of Lapdog joined mainstay Marcel Bear and I presume that one of them was playing the fabled "shimshaw" ("a stretched band with pick ups," whatever that means) but since I've never seen one before, this is just a guess. The low lighting makes a description of the objects rather tough. Besides, I devoted my mental energy away from the stage towards the intonations hovering about the room. Regardless, these devices spawned a matchless amorphous, cascading resonance, akin to, well, I'm fresh out of loopy comparisons. In this case, the creation of a new sound source did create a new sound. It is precisely this sort of innovation that makes this scene worth avidly following.
Since all the previous Empirical releases I'm aware of appeared in lathe cut editions of nonexistent, I've only heard the tracks on Le Jazz Non and Fit For Kings 2 but, man, am I ever keen to hear some more.
After a brief coffee break, I skeddadled over to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (which is quite a nifty museum by the way) to catch Greg Malcolm. As the only performer I hadn't heard at all prior to my arrival, Mr. Malcolm was the biggest outright surprise of the weekend for me. And a very pleasant one at that.
Now, I live in Austin, Texas. "The live music capital of the world" as the local propaganda machinery never lets me forget. This is probably an accurate claim in fact and since we do possess some artists that are as flat out stunning as you'll ever hear, I can't carp. But of course, quantity and quality ain't necessarily the same thing at all. A personal pet peeve is being forced to endure the ramblings of some generic panhandling 'truly sensitive-n-sincere acoustic troubadour' strumming from the heart and inflicting his/her innermost feelings on anyone unfortunate enough to pass by every time I want a cup of coffee. I truly wish I were exaggerating about this. I've no doubt that every last one of them really means it! Man! But I find that I just can't mean it along with them.
As a result, tis a serious pleasure to encounter someone who actually expands the language of the acoustic guitar beyond the mere morose musings, such as Mr. Malcolm. Whilst he can pick plaintively with the best of them, Greg also employs a battery of backing tapes of unknown origin and evidences a fondness for sticking funny objects onto his strings to produce impeccably atypical and bizarre notes, (is it live or is it insects?) often combining these techniques to wonderful result within the same piece. The addition of Jenny Ward's higher key vocal float on a few numbers added to the unearthly effect. My kind o' sublime.
Anyone who's had their mind well blown by such masterpieces as Womblife, Houston, or Dark Noontide will experience a similar synaptic interruption with Mr. Malcolm's latest CD, Homesick for Nowhere. The often hysterically funny media collage surrealism of his previous What Is It Keith? stands as a different mammal but no less comely of one.
A mad dash back to the Arc for the start of the 3rd programme of Lines.
Clearly, the practice of employing geographical themes in band designations has produced largely dubious outcomes (e.g. Asia, Boston, Chicago, America, Kansas, Berlin, Danzig, Hanoi Rocks, etc.). Also personally, I regard naming anything after anything to do with the frozen wasteland otherwise known as Canada to be a questionable aesthetic move. This is just my prejudice. I firmly believe that America has been watching the wrong border for far too long. But that's another discussion. The music of Nova Scotia, however, has got enough swank to make me forgive any misgivings about their moniker. For those who thrive on other band comparisons, their m.o. could be described as the Animacathedral Lab Technicians Orchestra of Admittance. This is not, however, to imply that these folks smartly rip off obscure bands whilst most stupidly rip off well-known bands. No, if you dig the four outfits I just referred to, you'll be happy to shovel this dirt too. Sparse, ramshackle drug shuffle that fuses kooky "ethnic" influences and improv abstractions with aplomb.
Their sterling CD Tangiwai is a reference to an infamous NZ railroad disaster in 1953. Seems appropriate really as Nova Scotia truly is something of a wreck. It's simply infinitely more enjoyable to witness this one than the actual Tangiwai.
Next up was Bruce Russell's tape loop manipulation of a '40's NZ Army lieutenant singing an acappella rendition of a traditional Japanese folk song about a cherry tree. (No shit!) Since he elected to perform in a complete shroud of darkness only occasionally penetrated by the embers of his fine Cuban cigar, I couldn't even begin to guess at precisely what he was doing to Lt. Penny's long dead lips. I can only assure you that it played real, real nice. Some folks I've spoken to since my return have looked perturbed about such an assertion but I can assure you that it was not nearly as absurd as it sounds conceptually. In fact, I look forward to repeating the experience many times in the privacy and comfort of my own home when this thing sees its presumed commercial release. You should too.
Then Mr. Russell was joined by Aussie Marco Fusinato (of Solver fame) for a brilliant dual guitar improv that had many folks asking "Alastair who?" This is, in no way, intended as a slam against Mr. Galbraith's very, very formidable talents, either as a member of A Handful of Dust or as a solo artist.
No, I'm simply telling you that this was just that incredible. Like so many of the individual performances, in and of itself, it was worth the roughly 26 hours in airplanes and airports required to be here. A whirring, surging rush of complex guitar reverberations that engulfed every available pocket of air in the room, surrounding the listener with a warm narcotic buzz and then some. Like they were creating a total hermetic (no pun intended) environment out of their sounds, an environment that is markedly better than the one most of us live in regularly. Music not merely heard but absorbed through every pore. Bruce's time away from the Dead C. is not wasted.
Amazingly, Russell and Fusinato had never played in tandem before, even as a practice and they didn't even discuss anything beforehand. Whether the by-product of genuine telepathy or merely fortunate synchronicity, I have never heard improvisers achieve greater synergy. Few have even equaled it.
Given the Russell rep for ruckus, some would likely be surprised by the relative palatability of the set. Mind you, I'm not suggesting that you'll be hearing the dulcet strains of Bruce music piped into your local elevator anytime soon. But, based on such recent works as Sex/Machine, Maximalist Mantra Music, the aforementioned Mare's Milk Mixed With Blood and this performance, banging out a bludgeoning cacophony is seemingly no longer the man's raison d'etre. ("Hush" notwithstanding.) At least it seems that way to me.
Wacky extremists that collect serial killer memorabilia and regard scarification as a leisure activity might yowl all the way home but I have zero problem with this. To my ear, his attacks may be more subdued comparatively but are no less potent. And personally, I'm eagerly awaiting the forthcoming single featuring his versions of "Smooth Operator" b/w "The Sweetest Taboo." Everybody says it's the bomb.
The CM Ensemble finished the evening with their last show ever, appropriately playing a video of their first show ever in the background. (I forgot to mention that all the acts had nicely abstract films as a backdrop, which did enhance the experience.) The Ensemble are often referenced as some sort o' "free jazz" thingamajig. But the results stand so far away from standard conceptions of the genre that you can feel comfortable listening to them even if you own neither a turtleneck nor a beret. It's far more Cheshire cat than hepcat.
More importantly, as far as I'm concerned, Nick Hodgeson completely atoned for his Stones jones two nights past by leading his troupe through a wonderfully wailing multiple violin/kazoo screechfest reminiscent of a madcap, nonacademic Tony Conrad or something. Sounds both hectic and eclectic. Provided that he stays on the true path and doesn't become seduced by the power of the Dark Side, Mr. Hodgeson's upcoming move to America could turn out to be a grand occasion for my country!
It is also worth noting that Peter Wright proved himself as capable with a fiddle as with a guitar or a computer. A Renaissance man, Leonardo style.
The second half of the set reportedly utilized an entirely different assemblage of instrumentation but a lady friend distracted me with her feminine wiles. So, I did miss it. Those less easily diverted proclaimed it as top notch.
Day Three. Spent the morning basking in the glorious Southern Hemisphere springtime. (The seasons are reversed there, ya know.)
Since most Lines attendees did something weird like eating dinner instead of catching his act the night before, Greg Malcolm did more or less the same set with the only new addition being a brief blurt of Diamanda-styled free vocalese from Ms. Ward. Aside from the fact that this stuff is so damn compelling that complaining about seeing it twice is the act of a crazy person, the Arc's smaller size provided a greater intimacy to the material than allowed by the cavernous acoustics of the Public Art Gallery.
Sleep pulled out all the stops and performed their epic rock opera about Kali-worshiping Albanian fishmongers peeling their toenails off with their teeth whilst carving "Nugent Rules!" into the flesh of a Perdue chicken with a really, really sharp banana. (Oops! Sorry. For a moment there, I thought I was writing for an entirely different publication.)
For a more linear description, they eschewed the relatively quiet horror movie soundtrack spookiness of their last album Ghostwriting (possibly the best CD of 2001) and harkened back to the blissful clamor of their earlier material. For some reason, I kept thinking of an extended hallucinogenic noise version of This Heat at their most tweaked, unraveling the fabric of the space/time continuum. But I do have a lively imagination, so you might hear it differently. You do have to think outside the box with this kinda thing.
Watching Peter Stapleton perform multiple times stands as a personal highlight of my visit. Definitely one of the most intense and expressive drummers I've ever seen. His stand up mallet method allows for a thoroughly distinctive style with a wide dynamic range, moving fluidly from a deep thunderous booming to a gentle cymbal wash in a flicker.
Yeah, Sleep. You know, someday, I think that scholars will be poring over even the most minute moments of inspiration had by this Purakaunui/Port Chalmers improv voodoo crew the way some academics study the Beat Generation these days. Not that these folks have indulged in nearly as rambunctious of a lifestyle, what with the heroin, homosexuality, shooting your wife, etc. (Although I really don't know. You'll have to ask them yourself.)
Again, Kim's departure meant that this performance marks the end of this particular phase of Sleep. Again, I'll miss her but also anxiously anticipate their next move.
I must guess that some maniacal Kiwi Baptist preacher severely hammered the maxim that "Idle hands are the Devil's playthings" into Campbell Kneale's noggin at an early age. No one, not even God Is My Co-Pilot at their peak, has maintained a more ridiculously prolific release schedule with something new foisted upon the unsuspecting masses seemingly every week.
In a lot of other, lesser hands, this would be pretty annoying but Mr. Kneale renders going broke to keep up with his voluminous output a very attractive proposition by being a musical Ritalin kid. He just can't sit still, moving through ethereal drones, neo-Krautrock, free jazz bashing, noise assaults, Eno homage, pseudo DJ fuckery, minimalist trance inducers and a whole lot more over the course of his discography. Even more amazing, it's all generally real danged snazzy.
Furthermore, at this point, I've had the good fortune to see Birchville Cat Motel in action on three occasions. Every time, he's used completely different equipment to completely different effect with the common denominator being how great it has come out.
Luggage restrictions on Air New Zealand flights meant that we got Birchville Gadget Freak as opposed to Birchville Guitar God or Birchville Turntable Abuser. Since so much of this newfangled technology frightens and confuses me, I can't elucidate the process much more than knob twiddling. But it did keep up the flavor of alien mystery that characterizes his oeuvre whilst naturally being quite incomparable to any earlier entries. The fact that I frankly have no idea what material provided the source for these gorgeous pulsations and frenzied frequencies is cool in my book.
A note to the tyro (God, I love a good thesaurus!): the mountain of available Birchville product might understandably seem a tad daunting. But We Count These Prayers... and Siberian Earth Curve are both relatively simple to find and either would serve as an ideal way to acquire your addiction. Also, Mr. Kneale conquered Japan about a year ago and may be in a blitzkrieg across Europe as I type. Methinks that America can't be far behind for such an upwardly mobile laddie.
Lovely Midget. Though Rachel Shearer is on the diminutive side of the height ledger, I don't know that I'd go so far as to call her a "midget" or anything but both her music and her voice are very clearly lovely. I was extremely excited to see her perform, seeing as her self-titled CD has received a huge amount of play about the homestead. Subtle, nuanced, gently shifting sheets of crystalline coolness and abstract yet melodic sound.
I'd call it "ambient" except for the negative New Age hippie scumbag connotations attached to the term. Plus, some of that stuff commands less focus than the average pot of boiling water. Whilst Lovely Midget does function very well as a thoughtful backdrop to a myriad of activities, this is music that amply rewards louder volume and closer attention.
First performing solo, she ran thru some stellar synth-driven new material that sustained many of the positive attributes of her previous work but added new dimensions in the forms of a vaguely rougher sheen and a more active pace. For the second half, Guy Treadgold joined Ms. Shearer on minimalist percussion for exercises that could best be referred to as "stasis songcraft." These were tunes with actual vocals and lyrics but the accompaniment possessed such an enchantingly unusual sense of movement that it really didn't resemble anyone else I can recall. Though it would probably appeal to the more open-minded fans of the more adventurous Kranky material. An elixir both sweet and strange, exactly my kinda cocktail.
In spite of a general prejudice against the form these days, it reminded me just how magical a song can still be when someone bothers to do something intriguing with it.
Twas so sincerely, well, lovely that I honestly gave thought to crying. Unashamedly. In public even. I didn't of course because of the whole, you know, man thing.
The end of the festival was a genuinely sad occasion. I have honestly never attended a better one. Granted, I've only gone to 2 others but, still, I stand by the absolute nature of my distinction.
Every one of the artists involved seems to define their work by a single overriding criterion: The pursuit of their own individual muse.
A jaunt around the grandeur of Central Otago (my breath was last seen in this vicinity) and now back in Dunedin for the Arclife showcase. (Arclife is the in-house record label for this fine establishment FYI.)
First, Suka played a blink-and-you'll-miss-it set that I caught not one single note of. Halted early by the frantic screaming and crying of the guitar player's young daughter. A good babysitter is apparently really hard to find in this town. As further evidence, I also heard that Bible Black coordinated their performance around baby Crook's naptime. Anyhow, Suka have been described to me by someone even older and slower than my geriatric ass as "young people playing fast." Make of this what you will.
Missed most of Heka for reasons that I forget. An apparent screw up on my part as the one tune I did hear constituted a continuation of the brand of distorted hooky rock that made NZ much beloved by rabid audiophiles in the 80's and should easily please anyone underwhelmed by the majority of recent Flying Nun output.
The Hiss Explosion played undoubtedly the best goddam "indie-rock" I've heard in 5-6 years. Even recalling the early work of the Grifters, which I regard as something of a standard in the form.
Admittedly, there are certain serious questions about just how much I want to deal with said form in the new millennium. This was however, pretty darn winning. Like the aforementioned Memphisites, these people appear to know that reckless energy and a rough, um, hissy sensibility go just as far in the creation of great pop as any sissy melody. If the songs didn't go anywhere I haven't been before, it was still an enjoyable place to visit. At least for the duration of their set. Hell, I might even buy one of their records. Seriously, I liked it a lot.
I've never paid as much attention to David Kilgour's solo work as to the Clean. And, for that matter, never bothered with the new Clean as much as the old Clean. Generally, I prefer juvenility to maturity. Scum to hygiene. That's my bias. But, today, his stuff was so undeniably pleasant that perhaps this has been a tactical error. The man can indisputably write a very catchy song.
Only one problem. There were some dancers and they were really fucking with my Chi! I've literally had recurrent nightmares about being confined in a Clockwork Orange chair forced to watch people dance just like this. These individuals did everything in their considerable power to confirm every commonly held contention about the Caucasian inability to boogie on down. The cold terror reached such an apex that I was compelled to leave the room until my nausea and shivers had subsided. (Though this may sound like mere smack withdrawal, trust me, it was the dancers.)
Ending the day (and the Fringe Festival) was the release party for Bible Black's self-titled debut CD. The recordings are mostly comprised of Brian Crook by his lonesome. For this show though, he assembled a full lineup featuring wife Maryrose on keyboards and guitar, Peter Stapleton on percussion, and some bass player I didn't recognize.
Though Bible Black does retain a smidgen of the country fried aura of the Renderers, the aesthetic here is more like downer pop. I kept thinking of a less polished, contempo Kiwi version of Roy Orbison on barbiturates. When I say, "country fried," I don't mean that the members of either band slather themselves in lard, cake themselves in breading, and smother themselves in gravy. Although I really don't know and don't wanna know. What people do in the privacy of their homes is none of my concern. No, I'm referring to a combination of old timey "tear in yer beer" hillbilly mournfulness and the sound of frying amplifiers so common to Port Chalmers. Sorry for any misunderstanding.
Granted, this idea is assuredly informed by the dream I had the night before about both Roy and barbiturates. Also, admittedly, there is an appreciable difference in tonsil configuration betwixt Monsieurs Crook and Orbison. But the palpable atmosphere of eye-watering sweet tragedy feels compellingly similar. I overhead someone else say Nick Drake and I can sorta see that too. But we're just talking ballpark here with any such comparative assessment.
My only, very minor gripe is that as much as I dig Brian's pipes, it is essentially impossible to see Maryrose Crook anywhere, be it a stage or the local produce market, and not want to hear her utterly angelic voice more than we did. Put it this way, if she weren't already spoken for, I would probably ask the former Ms. Wilkinson for her hand purely on the agreement that she sing me into slumber every evening. Rosa is one seriously lucky baby in the lullaby department. I just hope these folks can tour. The CD is a nifty thing indeed and available to all. Live however, there was a magic that should be more widely experienced.
God, I could say that about so many of these people.
So yeah, it was a swell time. And consulting your travel agent would not be the silliest notion you've ever entertained (especially when you consider those parachute pants you wore religiously at 13) and a trip probably won't cost as much as you might think.
Most importantly, even with everyone mentioned in this article, it still reflects the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Seht, RST, Ghost Club, Parmentier, Pumice, Armpit, CJA, Sunship, Empty Mirror, Doe, the 1/3 Octave Band, MarineVille, La Gloria, Paul Guilford, the Aesthetics, Rosy Parlane, Witcyst, Nigel Bunn, White Saucer, Chris Knox, Tanaka Nixon Meeting, Pit Viper, Dean Roberts, Peter Jeffries, RSW Lundon, the Tall Dwarfs, Morepork and no doubt others that I'm forgetting right now are New Zealanders all, active concerns as far as I know and doing some things that you should be giving a listen. You'll be quite the happy camper if you do.
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