On arriving at the Humble Pie last Friday, I swung through the club's big-ass doors to enter a large, dark room occupied by 50 or so smarter-than-your-average-bear listeners. The opening band was crooning out their last couple of torchy songs; I tried to locate their name, but failed, and can only refer to them as The Quiet Mystery Band.Then it got weird--in particular, for the startled Tommy Hilfiger set who poured jovially through the same warehouse doors and into the space separating seated audience members from Suran Song during the band's "jar of blood" number. The female singer-lyricist (who is Suran Song) pours red liquid down her back and sprays it from her mouth while screaming about sex, death, war and commerce in the homeland. The most intriguing part of the show was seeing the faces of clubgoers who'd come expecting jazz. They stood frozen in the doorway, clutching each other--probably much in the same way that they'd done while watching the evening news just hours earlier. It was both hilarious and moving: American culture meets American counterculture in a bar on a pleasant fall night during wartime, when everything we see and hear seems loaded with commentary and irony. This dichotomy was reflected in the themes addressed by Suran Song in Stag, a group that's been featured in photography exhibits and in performance art shows in New York and Los Angeles galleries throughout the '90s. The group combines American history's dirty secrets with punk anger and violent pop culture toy associations, hammering tomahawks into the recent patriotism that seems to saturate even our product aisles. The Jersey-based multimedia trio, currently on tour, will undoubtedly piss off people who are not in the mood for American culture critiques.
Suran Song, aided by collaborator and bassist William Weiss, (they employ a changing cast of guitarists and drummers), spins across the stage in front of projected photographs of the band in cowboy drag. She bellows out songs while doing a campy warrior dance--an oddly disaffected shtick that's helped considerably by a few good songs.
A gigantic white sheet was hung from floor to ceiling behind the stage, as separate slide projectors showed black and white photographs of Gandhi and Hitler, morphing them into one image against a blood-red background. The repeated image formed an upside-down "U" in three panels around the stage from which the band members emerged wearing child-like cowboy and Indian costumes. The guys wore holsters and plaid shirts, cowboy hats and hankies; Suran was decked out in a plain white gown and a toy Indian headdress. This children's war game was echoed in the changing slides of four-year-olds on a playground with a gun, their closed-caption dialogue displayed beneath them like foreign film subtitles: "I'll shoot you in the head!" followed by "Yeah! And I'll scream while I die!"
This disturbing imagery was rendered satirical by the trio's punk song stylings, the occasional kazoo moment, and the use of lyrical and performance themes. Some of the songs outright rocked and brought cheers of understanding from the audience, while other numbers just seemed repetitive and overwrought, possibly due to the ceaseless focus on props and body language. Nevertheless, Misfits-influenced songs like "Mother the War" and the anthemic punk bubblegum-march "Friends of Mine" hit pretty close to home. Shouted lyrics like "The world takes, the world makes," "Fornication makes me happy," and "We all have good intentions with strings attached" made a few listeners squirm, this one included. On the whole, the show was interesting and fairly well conceived, though at times Suran Song in Stag's performance veered dangerously close to rock show posturing, rather than the fine art performance they no doubt intended.
Frank Gratkowski and The Micro-East Collective
Go! Room 4, Carrboro Wednesday, Oct. 10
People who enjoy "avant-garde" music can be near maniacal in their adoration, and I think I'm beginning to understand the reasons. We're all listeners, to one degree or another, from the time we're born. Before we ever develop a particular taste, we're exposed to commercial music, pop ditties and soundtracks of every sort. By osmosis, we learn what to expect. This is why, early on, most listeners can intuitively know what's coming next in a piece of music just by hearing the first few bars. Within seconds we'll know where the next beat will come, where the chorus and break should peak. Because of this, we become lazy listeners, easily bored, but enamored of bands that can actually surprise us.The music practiced by the loose and rotating membership of the Micro-East Collective defies all preconceptions. By dispensing with the expected "rules" of genre and song-form, they baffle and re-attune listeners until we actually start hearing all over again. When you don't know what's coming next, you start paying attention. Experiencing this music as it's being performed eliminates any chance of predictability; each note vibrates and soars individually and you hang in suspense, awaiting the next. To most, it's a whole new form of joy--a rediscovery of the delight that attracts us to music in the first place.
Spread all over the stage and main floor of Room 4 at Go!, the 18-member band included practitioners of seemingly every Western instrument in the classical, jazz and rock spectrums. Strings, brass and percussion were represented in multiples, played individually and together in arrangements that alternately gained speed and tempered themselves with a precision that looked comfortable and easy, but probably required great effort on the part of the members.
Horn virtuoso Frank Gratkowski opened the show with a solo set on saxophone and clarinet before helming the group performance. In a good preview of the fun to come, he trampled up and down scales like a hysteric in the grips of a mood swing, changing time and humming through the reed before blasting another run. By the time he finished, his spit clogged the sax so thoroughly that it sounded like purposeful distortion.
With the ensemble in place, the musicians all began chiming in, one group or singular instrument at a time, until the room was filled with a willful cataclysm of noise, ringing around the girders like a flock of trapped birds. The "set" consisted mainly of one long piece, with each section running gracefully into the next. Sometimes it would start out with a couple of improvisers--say, a drummer and horn player, trading back and forth--while Gratkowski signaled the other members to stomp or whisper through. He would raise a hand and let it fall, passing counts on his fingers, waving his arms in a controlled desperation as all the players followed along with their contributions of wild trills and sighs. At other times a member in a particular part of the room would stand and take over the duties, often in concert with other sections, leading the people immediately surrounding them. One group would tease, dance, and eventually pounce on another. During one interlude, instrumentalists "passed" musical notes, one to the next; it resembled nothing so much as, God help us, the Wave. When they all got going at once, there was an overwhelming surge of sound that could provoke laughter, or rekindle interest, in even the most jaded of listeners.
These are divisive times. To witness a montage of such disparate folks coming together to produce something so unique and sparkling out of what could be, in less thoughtful or talented hands, inexcusable gibberish, is a triumph--the hope of unity re-ignited. While most of these musicians have other pursuits and "real" jobs, I really hope they keep making time for this one. The recordings they produce are excellent; watching it unfold live is transcendent.