Jandek (with John Darnielle, Anne Gomez and Brian Jones)
Gerrard Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill
Sunday, Feb. 21
Jandek spent the first 26 years of his career removed from the very human perils of live performance. During those decades, the prolific Houston songwriter/ improviser/ label head did just two interviews, made no public appearances, never revealed his true identity, and communicated with his zealous cult following only through a voluminous recorded output, mysterious album art and elliptical handwritten notes. In 2004, however, Jandek broke this embargo, playing a surprise set backed by Brit experimentalists Richard Youngs and Alex Nielson at a festival in Glasgow. Over the next four years, he joined musicians like Tom Carter, Susan Alcorn and Loren Connors for 40 concerts across the world, fronting minimally rehearsed pick-up bands organized by the show’s respective promoter. Sunday night, he appeared for the 42nd time ever, playing Gerrard Hall in Chapel Hill.
Impossibly thin and dressed from shiny shoes to plain hat in all black, Jandek stalked into the half-full auditorium, trailing his temporary band: keyboardist John Darnielle, bassist Anne Gomez and drummer Brian Jones. He removed his coat, stacked it on a road case, flipped some pages in his notebook, and rested it on a nearby music stand. Without glancing at the room or the band, he reached for his black guitar. Of course, he couldn’t get the goddamn thing on.
Watching Jandek fumble with his guitar strap—like any other musician on any other stage on any other night of the year—was a most personal moment, as clear and as potent a sign of this myth’s impermanence and frailty as even the most dour Jandek lyric. Many Jandek fans bemoan his decision to perform live, saying it shattered his mystique and mystery. Watching him struggle to put his guitar on, then, obliterated the myth, ending the distance-induced perfection with which many see his career—precious, like a jealous dream.
But the recalcitrant guitar strap felt appropriate, verifying the unwieldy desperation of so much of Jandek’s past. His songs have long articulated minutiae, from doing laundry and reading the paper to being startled by the ringing phone … and wanting to die. Sunday night, we heard these sorts of solipsistic lyrics from that voice—stark and singular, rising above the clatter like a recycled last breath—and we understood that it was from a real person, standing in front of us: “I tried giving up my sex life. … I tried serious thought/ I tried mathematics/ I tried philosophy,” he howled during the first of the night’s six pieces.
During the third number, which felt very much like a companion to the first, he often returned to the refrain, “I think I’m unstable.” If this were still Jandek the hermitic myth, that line would read more like self-analysis meant for public debate. But, in person and interacting with a live outfit and audience, it felt like the precipice over which the band would tumble and then climb, clattering down just to collect itself and vice versa.
Most of the night’s program followed those extreme dynamics, moments of still or drift instantaneously battered by rhythmic upheaval or bursts of crescendo. At least from the cheap seats, Jandek looked like an intuitive bandleader aware of the night’s structure and sound, directing the unit, which he’d rehearsed for about three hours earlier in the afternoon, with gestures—a turn in this direction, a gaze in that direction.
The rhythm section of Anne Gomez and Brian Jones felt confident and aggressive, their tumult and tension mutual and graceful. Similar to two other Jandek collaborators, Pete Nolan and Chris Corsano, Jones approaches the kit with the propulsive instincts of a rock drummer and the textural and dynamic thought of a jazz drummer. Think of Keith Moon practicing Sunny Murray transcriptions in an art gallery, and you get the idea. Gomez—who switched from saxophone to bass and, during one song, bellowed ferociously behind Jandek’s voice and guitar—played with maniacal speed and precision, and her use of harmonics and slapped strings offered an interesting complement to Jones. He augmented his kit with scraped cymbals, a xylophone and a gong. Sitting a few feet to the trio’s right, John Darnielle—less prone to playing music this “out” than the rest of the band—grew into the night, his switch from piano to organ offering a tonic stability against the outfit’s persistent quake. His keyboard appeared to be off during the beginning of the set, flustering him for a time. By night’s end, though, he seemed connected, submersed within and shifting with the rest of the band.
The crowd’s reaction illustrated the evening’s divergence, discomfort and delight perfectly: Some listeners were exasperated by the tedium and reverberating volume, holding their heads in their hands or—in some cases—walking out. Others delighted, clapping on the heels of some particularly clangorous or triumphant moment. Both reactions, it seemed, clung too heavily to one preconception of Jandek or another. Sunday night’s set was neither patently brilliant nor completely wasted. Some moments felt inspired, and others felt like filler.
After all, the leader of the band is a human, simply improvising with an aggressive jazz drummer, a strong bass player and an indie rock guitarist who hadn’t played keyboards publicly in three decades. What did you expect? Perfection?