Review and Rant: Nels Cline and Thurson Moore, Rockwood Music Hall 1/13/2012

OK, we’ve gotta discuss an ongoing epidemic at shows.  No, not the loud talker, not the drunk girl yelling at her friends, not even the guy texting.  We’re talking about photographers.  I understand you would like to capture the moment.  At times, I would too.  But here’s the difference.  I take out my phone, snap a few quick pictures, then I put it away.  I.  Put.  It.  Away.

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I Took Two Pictures. This Is One.

Friday night, as part of the New York Guitar Festival, Nels Cline and Thurston Moore played as a duo at Rockwood Music Hall.  They called it “Pillow Wand”  maybe because it feels like being hit with a magical pillow.  These possibly the two most widely known Avante Garde leaning guitar players, who have crossed over into the mainstream world.  Cline as a part of Wilco, and Moore founding Sonic Youth.  Needless to say, lots of people were in that tiny room.

This was my first time at Stage Two of Rockwood Music Hall, a lovely addition.  It seems to be reserved for more well known acts, were as on Stage One, there’s always the chance that dude with a weird Jew Fro will go on right before your friend’s band and play the entire Plastic Ono Band album front to back.  Its a cozy space, the sound was great, and despite it being packed, it was not that hard to obtain a beverage.

Oh right, it was packed.  It was definitely over fire department capacity.  People would walk down the entrance stairs, see that there was nowhere to go, and literally just set up camp on the stairs.  That can’t be safe.

Now, before we get to the problem of people preserving their memories on compact flash cards, lets talk about the music.  They played a continuous set of sound….not really just noise, but not melodic compositions.  It was basically a fucking giant explosion.  Tons of effects pedals, lots of volume, several Jazzmasters.  They played like they meant it.  I would compare it to some type of experimental painting.  You see some weird shit thrown on a canvas and you think “I could totally do that.”  Well maybe in the case of some phony artist who just wants the image, you could.  But look at one of those giant Jackson Pollock canvases, and there is no way you could.  That’s what these guys were like.

Every sound seemed like they meant it.  There was no phoning it in.  It’s a wonder their guitars didn’t just fall in pieces to the floor.  They put these instruments through incredible abuse.  Cline plays the strings with a little kitchen whisk, Moore sticking a drumstick under the strings on the neck and thrashes back and forth.  They hit the tremelo so hard, it would be no surprise if the bridges just popped off. Yet somehow, they did not.  But that was the good part, lets get to the other thing.

There seems to be a rule with professional photographers.  They respect those around them.  And when they don’t, its brief.  A guy asks you if he can switch spots for a minute to get some shots, then moves along.  Its a mild inconvenience, but you live through it.  When I was about 11, we went to see Slash at the now defunct NY Club Tramps.  His manager came out beforehand and told all of the photographers, “YOU GET ONE SONG!  THEN YOU’RE OUT OF HERE!”  lo and behold, he came back out after that song, yelling “THAT’S IT!  GET ‘EM OUT!”  fucking professionals.

Somewhere between 1994 and now, things have changed.  I don’t dispute that the iPhone camera is awesome.  I love it.  I use it all the time.  It makes life better.  You can remember any moment, because you always have it with you.  And the pics look pretty good!  But think for a fucking minute.  How many pictures do you need?  Can’t you actually live in the moment and enjoy the amazing things happening in front of you?  You really need to look in a 3″ LCD monitor to experience what’s in front of you?  Fuck you.

The light from all the iPhones and cameras rivaled the stage lighting, which was minimal.  Its 2 dudes with guitars.  The lighting doesn’t change.  They aren’t even switching guitars.  How different is it going to be?  That’s not even the issue, I guess if you want to get all artistic, that’s fine.  But don’t do it in a tiny club.  The amount of dudes with fucking giant DSLR’s with huge telephoto lenses on them was just ridiculous.

We got pushed in front of several times, and the photographers just planted themselves.  Also, those cameras are kind of loud if its not a big rock and roll moment.  If the music gets quiet…..CLICK CLICK CLICK….really?  I’ve heard a bootleg of Neil Young at the Bottom Line, where he asks a photographer not to shoot during the songs, because people can hear it.  Jeff Tweedy would call out anyone with a camera and tell them to get rid of it on Wilco’s last tour.  Just last month at Carnegie Hall, Ryan Adams stopped the show and went on a hilarious rant….to paraphrase  “oh my god, you HAVE to have gotten that shot by now.  You need to keep taking them?  What is your camera from like 1975 and you need to change flashbulbs or something?  Want ME to take it for you?? Just put it away”  They have a point.

At one point, the asshole with the Hubble Telescope in front of me changed cards…because you need to fill up more than one giant flash card during a 45 minute set.  Then he was fucking reviewing and deleting photos!  Are you fucking kidding me? This place is the size of a shoebox and you’re standing in front of everyone just doing that?  And those people with the iPhones who just leave them held up the whole time!  Are your poorly lit out of focus shots going to be that great?!

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OK, I need to calm down.  I’ve decided next time this happens, I’m going to get right in front of every lens I see, and just give the F.O.B Peace Sign.  Or yell “CLICK CLICK CLICK!” or just point my phone directly in front of their camera, turn the flash on, and just go for it.  We need to do something about this, kids.  Who’s with me?

Marc Maron at the Comedy Cellar, and the General Greatness Of Podcasts

What a strange weekend.  Sometimes it seems the earth woke up spinning the wrong way, a little bit too early, after eating 2 bags of Doritos for dinner and feels really dehydrated.  There were signs saying “don’t leave the house!” and there were others saying “Get your ass out there!”

We began with a plan.  The band I play with was supposed to travel to North Carolina, but it fell through for reasons beyond control.  Such things happen.  Recording was supposed to take place saturday afternoon, but a sudden blizzard descended upon the northeast, and made travel impossible.  Lovely.  But let’s focus on pre blizzard conditions.

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I’m a huge Podcast enthusiast.  I’d venture to say I’m one of the biggest podcast enthusiasts out there.  For years and years, I’ve listened to everything I could get my hands on.  Yes, This American Life and Radiolab, but also some non hipster shit.  KCRW’s The Treatment, Chicago Public Radio’s Sound Opinions,  Jesse Thorne’s The Sound Of Young America.  There’s some great stuff out there, and it will make your commute fly by like one of those bullet trains now outlawed in several states due to environmental corruption regulations (I completely made that up.)

But the main show sweeping the nation and beyond, is WTF with Marc Maron.  Maron, a stand up comedian, interviews all sorts of performers.  Mostly comedians, some writers and actors.  He’s so intriguing.  It might be because so many creative type neurotic Jews identify with his tendencies, but he’s a fantastic interviewer.  He not only asks exactly the questions you want to hear, but get’s to them in a way that doesn’t seem like some pretend journalist on an entertainment show.  It’s a dark and disturbing show at one moment, and completely hilarious the next.  He made Ira Glass erupt with high voiced anger.  That alone is worth the price of admission.

So on Friday evening, we learned he would be at the Comedy Cellar, and figured what the hell.  Its in a douchey neighborhood, probably filled with assholes, but we might get some laughs out of it, so why not.  Its always tricky seeing someone you are so familiar with in one area fairly out of context.  Yes, we know Maron made his name doing stand up, but the majority of people know him from his show. Well, whatever the outcome, we were in it, stuck at the very first table in the tiny basement that is the Comedy Cellar.

It was a typical night of standup, 5 performers and an MC, an experience I’m not at all used to.  Jim Norton showed up and had some great moments.  Others I can’t remember….did not.  It’s really just like watching a musician, only with absolutely no protection.  It’s far easier to hide behind an instrument.  Play a few chords, if you don’t know what to do next, just make some noise, throw in a few extra notes.  These guys have nothing.  If you pause…it’s dead silence.  That would terrify me more than anything.

Maron performed third, and seemed to be a little flustered.  He had just gotten in an argument with another comic beforehand…which no one who listens to the show would be surprised at.  But it seemed to throw him off a bit. A vein in his forehead looked like it was going to explode, and he kept making steady, direct, almost psychotic eye contact with me.  This was noted by others around me as well.  I had no idea what to do.  Do you laugh?  Do you just smile?  Do you look uncomfortable and keep drinking your surprisingly not overpriced beer?  Guess which one I chose.

But still, I was in it with him for the long haul.  I want to see where it goes.  And I mean, I kind of want it to be funny.  It what looked like a millisecond of panic, he told his story of falsely beating mouth cancer.  Yes it’s hilarious, but you have to figure, the show sold out most likely because of this guy.  He has rabid fans, both of the show and of his stand up.  He’s done this story both on the podcast, and Conan O’brien’s show.  Maybe it seemed like the room was full of unfamiliar ears?  We’ll never know. Look, you can even google Marc Maron Mouth Cancer and it comes up:

Is that how comedy works though?  I really have no idea.  Is that like a band playing a song on various media outlets a few times?  Or are jokes a different animal altogether?  Could it also be a product of this rapid availability of information?  If someone were just on late night TV, you have the chunk of people who watch it live, but the majority had no idea it ever happened.  But now, no one sees it live, it floats around on youtube, millions download the podcast….you have to know it’s out there!

Maron is kind of like the Nels Cline of comedy.  Shows up out of nowhere later in his career, and is suddenly a hero.  I wonder what kind of effect this has on one’s performance.  You’ve been honing your craft for years only getting the occasionally spotlight, and suddenly, all eyes are on you.  We all wonder how it will play out.

Sunday, through the magic of thegearpage.net crazy gear head message boards, I drove to Southern NJ and swapped my Swart Spacetone 6v6 for a Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue.  This went very smoothly, and would have been a fantastic journey, had I not become violently ill on the trip home.  And let me tell you, if you’re going to get violently ill anywhere, I’d say a Honda Fit on the NJ Turnpike is probably at the top of anyone’s list.  It’s a mad dash to the next rest stop, and those things are about 36 miles apart.  Good thing I had some angry ranting Jews talking about literature and the downfall of American society cranking out the speakers.  What a lovely way to end the week.

Nels Cline and Marc Ribot

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I believe there was once a famous showtune written in the golden age of song, in which the chorus was “Don’t Believe The Hype”  which is a brilliant statement.  These days when the hype often overshadows the event itself, we must all be weary.

Last week, it was announced Nels Cline and Marc Ribot would play as a duo at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village.  Thats like Picasso and Da Vinci getting together to do a little fingerpainting.  That’s like Steve Jobs and Eric Tarn getting together to build and internet.  The comparisons could go on and on.  Its no secret that I hold both of these musicians in high regard.  If you added Smokey Hormel to the mix, you would have the 3 greatest living guitar players.  So its no secret that I was quite excited to attend.

By complete coincidence, whilst strolling through the west village last weekend, Nels Cline appeared in front of me.  Caught off guard, i just said “Hey Nels!”  I guess when you see someone fairly often, they feel so familiar that a greeting is necessary.  Being the lovely fellow he is, he stopped and chatted with us for a bit, saying he had no idea what he and Ribot would play, which felt like a recipe for some fantastic guitar dueling.

When seeing either of these players on their own, you expect some fireworks.  And it inevitably happens.  Ribot could be playing a solo acoustic performance, but you know there will be that moment where he launches into orbit.  With Nels, its just his thing, he can’t help but be a highly evolved space alien, who carries a brain evaporating space gun with him at all times.

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The set started out very mellow, Nels on a Dobro, Ribot on an old Gibson acoustic.  The first few songs were spent feeling out some territory.  Very melodic, slightly haunting.  No shredding solos. Further into the set, Nels moved to lap steel, ribot played what sounded like a baritone electric, and things got crazy.

In this setting, with no additional instruments, no rehearsal, you can really see the true character of each musician.  Yes, they played a lot of notes, but no toes were stepped on.  It was not just shred for the sake of shred.  It was a conversation, all very tasteful.  Sure, the conversation was about things mere mortals such as us will never be capable of understanding, but a tasteful conversation nonetheless.  The lap steel portion bordered on country, spooky and western sounding.

The evening’s explosion came, as expected, when each musician moved to their most familiar instrument.  Nels to a Jazzmaster, and Ribot to what I think was an ES-125.  Their voice was immediately recognizable.  Ribot with the clangy edge to all his notes, and nels with a pure and focused tone, even when covered in all sorts of distortion.

In the end, it wasn’t a pissing match of epic proportion, or a chops display.  Really, none of us should have expected something like that from musicians of this caliber.  Lets hope somehow this was recorded, or leads to more collaborations like it.  On the other hand, the selfish elitist in me hopes this was a one off, so in 30 years, I can look back and say “yep, I was totally there, young child who now plays all music on a futuristic tablet like device, people used to play wooden boxes with strings on them!”

Nels Cline Sits In At The Living Room

Its just any other Monday in New York, a city whose cultural magnitude is 2nd only to that of Jersey City, NJ.  The workday has ended, and I have retired to my abode to work on some music, when I get a text message from Web Master T Bone.  Apparently Nels Cline is playing at The Living Room sitting in with Jim Campilongo, you know, just some random stuff.  So, my plans adapt.

Campilongo plays every Monday night at The Living Room on the Lower East Side.  There is no doubt that he is a straight up virtuoso, unrivaled by about 96.5% of guitar players on earth.  I took a lesson with him once, and he certainly knows his stuff, and is a flawless player.  Having said that, he just isn’t my thing.  I cant explain it, but it just doesn’t connect with me, lots of notes and bending.  Nels Cline on the other hand, well, we know how I feel about Nels.

Nels In The Greatest Suit Ever
Nels In The Greatest Suit Ever

This show was clearly the place to be on this particular monday, many notable NY musicians were in the crowd, it was standing room only, the one waitress could not nearly get to everyone.  In recent years, as my twenties have passed the halfway point, I find myself getting less and less excited over my childhood guitar heroes.  I don’t know what it is, maybe its just harder to be enthusiastic as we get older.  In my early days I would go to a show hours early to get right up front and do the guitar dude thing…ya know, checkin’ out the pedals…but these days, I feel more comfortable in whichever seat has a good view and is not surrounded by loud people.  That all kind of went out the window when Nels walked in, I felt like a kid hanging around his favorite pro athlete or something.

Anyhoo, the Campilongo trio went on, and um, as their name indicates, they played for a loonnnnng time (sorry, had to do it) before Nels came on.  The first few songs were entertaining, full of virtuosity, clearly a tight band.  But after a while, the crowd thinned out a bit…I saw one dad and his kid leave around 11:30, the kid looking clearly disappointed he did not get to see Nels play.  I mean, its a monday man, come on.

Eventually, preceded by a long disclaimer about how they were ill rehearsed…Nels came to the stage.  Some ridiculous hippy looking kids in the front row just completely lost their shit. Screaming, headbanging, fist pumping, just going nuts.  In this one instance, I’ll forgive them, because this shit was just crazy.  Well, the first song The Beatles’ “Yer Blues”  was a little sloppy, but really, who cares.  Its supposed to be sloppy.  Next, a cinematic sounding western instrumental standard I do not know the name of, featuring a tasteful solo by Camilongo, followed by a short one by Cline…and they closed with Third Stone From The Sun by Jimi Hendrix (not to be confused with 3rd rock from the sun, the John Lithgow comedy classic)

That’s pretty much where it all exploded.  Nels was just hanging in the crowd looking antsy before he came up, and he seemed to let it all out on this tune.  They did a short noise improv intro, in which he picked up some type of mini megaphone and would scream into the guitar pickups, sending feedback throughout the tiny club.  The bass and drums segued into the classic Hendrix rhythm section riff, and they took off from there.  Campilongo just got out of the way musically, and Nels took over.  I’m fairly sure he began to levitate, as his guitar shot out flames of psychedelic fire, covered in diamonds, towing a trailer full of centaurs each playing their own flying V made of solid gold.  Yes, that’s exactly what it was like.

All completely accurate descriptions aside…It really did feel like watching a player with no equal.  Sure, anyone could play the same notes (well, not anyone)  But you instantly know it was Nels style.  I imagine this is what it was like to watch someone like Hendrix play.  He inflicted such emotion into everything he did, If he had spontaneously combusted on that stage, I would have completely understood, left, got a crepe, and gone home.

In this day of whatever the fuck passes for popular music, its very reassuring to know that there are still masters of their craft alive and well.  Nels may be in his fifties (although he looks about 35) but no one is playing stuff like that, past or present.  He had some weird cheapo Danelectro type guitar, played through a few pedals into whatever the house guitar amp was, so it’s clearly not any specific gear that makes his sound, he could have picked up an ESP Screaming Skull through a Mesa Triple Rectifier, and would still have sounded like himself.  The question that comes up these days, is why did it take until he joined Wilco in 2004 for the world to discover him?  Not that I was at all ahead of the curve, The first time I heard his name was about his 8th show with the band at Irving Plaza.  But if it took Jeff Tweedy to bring the world a guitar hero, I’m fully ok with that.  What I want to know, is when will they release his signature video game?