With a film by Robert Longo: Pictures for Music (1979)
4 February 2007
Electric guitars:
Rhys Chatham
David Daniell (San Agustin, Essentialist)
Electric violin: Spencer Yeh
Electric bass: Cain Blanchard (Black Sarah)
Drums: Jason Stark (Woman)
Tour recording engineer: Eric Block (Semaphore Recording Studio)
Tour manager: Regina Greene of Front Porch Productions
Skull Lab is a space which only just opened last December in Cincinnati and is devoted to presenting interesting music, performances and visual art; it is run by a collective of young artists and musicians. Jon Lorenz of Skull Lab contacted me through MySpace and I put him in touch with Regina Greene of Front Porch Productions, who booked the G3 tour for us.
Now Regina takes great care to know the spaces that she presents her artists in. No one that we knew had ever played in this room before, so we didn't know what to expect. Regina usually doesn't work like this, she likes to be familiar with the spaces her artists are working in to make sure they are appropriate for the technical and aesthetic needs of the performance. But after talking to Jon, who was very enthusiastic and really wanted the show, Regina decided to take a chance and go ahead with booking us there. Another factor was that Cincinnati is fairly close to the south, where Regina is based and where we have many friends. Indeed, because of Skull Lab's location, we were able to invite guitarist Keenan Lawler, a Table of the Elements recording artist. Keenan performed G3 at the Table of the Elements Festival No. 4 in Atlanta this fall and lives in Kentucky, which is only 90 minutes away from Cincinnati. Also, Cain Blanchard and Jason Stark came up to play; they are friends of Regina from Knoxville, Tennessee.
When we got to the space at load in time, things were in a bit of disarray on a technical level in that the sound system hadn't been set up and there weren't enough electrical outlets. Also there was no heat in the space due to a problem with the landlord, and the temperature outside was well below freezing.
Regina almost cancelled the show then and there. But since the feeling from the people from Skull Lab was so good and also since our out of town friends were already there, she decided to go ahead with it. At Skull Lab, the performance/gallery space is on the ground floor and the living quarters of Jon and the rest of the Skull Lab crew is upstairs. And there was heat in the upstairs part, so we just went up there when we needed to get warm.
Another point of interest was the addition of Spencer Yeh to the ensemble. Spencer plays electric violin and came equipped with a digital tuner, and a beautiful Roland amp. Spencer knew Tony Conrad's work quite well and is a minimalist performer himself, so after we agreed on tuning and what pitches he was going to play in the various sections of G3, his sound fit right in without any further instruction from me.
It was 6 pm when we arrived in Cincinnati, and the show was supposed to begin at 8pm with two bands playing before us, so we needed to start the rehearsal straight away. We began the rehearsal while the sound system was being set up.
The rehearsal went smoothly, and after the musicians had run through the piece, we went upstairs to get warm and eat a wonderful dinner that Nina Wright, one of the founders of Skull Lab, had cooked for the three bands that were playing.
There were two other bands going on before us, Times New Viking and Karthik Kakarala Ensemble. So I went downstairs when it was time for them to go on so that I could catch their set. The first group was an energetic rock band called Karthik Kararala Ensemble that was working with specially tuned guitars. I was interested in the music, it reminded me a bit of a piece I had done in the early eighties called The Out of Tune Guitar No. 1, except the drummer was more aggressive (I mean this in a good sense) and there was a vocal line. I liked this band a lot. I unfortunately missed most of the second band's set (Times New Viking) as I had to go upstairs to get warm, but from the little I heard, they sounded pretty good, too.
Soon it was time for us to play. So we got on stage and started G3 as usual, bringing in each of the individual players one by one. We made it to the 3-string section, where we come in on a power chord of E/B/E... and the electricity shut off! Completely. We were in total darkness!
Rather than freak out and stop, it felt right to continue acoustically, so that's exactly what I did. Jason the drummer had the presence of mind to continue also. He figured that if I was playing, he would play, too. And soon the entire band followed. We were playing an acoustic version of G3 with Jason on high-hat and the rest of us strumming our guitars, with the sweet sounds of Spencer's now unamplfied violin fitting right in! I was beating my foot quite loudly in time with the high-hat, and soon the entire audience was doing the same thing all the while shouting in a fashion which reflected their southern roots. Then the lights came back on, and a second or two later our amps kicked in. We hadn't missed a beat, it sounded great. We were having a swell time: HELLFUCKYEAH!
We continued on for a bit and then the lights went off again. We did exactly as before, we kept on playing with the audience stamping their feet and yelling and hollering. It was great. Then the electricity kicked back in with the same affect as before: our amps went back on and everything was in synch.
This thing with the electricity going off occurred at least two more times, and the magic off this happening was starting to wear off. Fortunately, by that time Eric, our recording engineer, had figured out that having 7 guitar amps turned on at full blast and also a PA system was too much for the single circuit of electricity that was powering everything. So we did the second twenty-minute section of G3 (the one with the full drum kit) without a PA.
This turned out to be the right solution. We were able to get through the entire twenty minutes of the second set without the electricity going off. At the sound check we had spent a good deal of time working on our stage sound, so G3 sounded pretty good, even under these less than ideal conditions.
While we had many technical problems with this room, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed playing G3 in a space like this. It was small and it was intense. We made it happen, everyone. Our team, the people from Skull Lab, and especially the audience worked together and through our combined energy and good vibes, turned this evening into one that we will all remember for a long time to come! While the fine folks from Skull Lab had done their best, it was the first time they had put on a show of this complexity, so it was a learning experience for them, and the next time they attempt something like this, they will know what to do. And in the end, everything worked out just fine, and a lot of fun was had by all concerned.
Review of Rhys Chatham in Cincinnati
by Ben Katlin
brought to us by Grant Manship
Professor Ken Katkin, who I mentioned brought Times New Viking to my attention after attending Rhys Chatham's recent performance in Cincinnati, sent me his review of the show. He said I could post the review if I wanted and considering how great it is, I can't resist. Here it is, in its entirety, for your reading pleasure:
Testing the limits of what is hopefully a cease-fire in the City of Cincinnati's longstanding war on genius, Rhys Chatham braved fierce winter weather and the ever-present threat of arrest on Sunday February 4 to perform "Guitar Trio" here. The gig took place in the Skull Lab, a "raw" (i.e., unheated and totally empty) space (probably a reclaimed crack house) located in one of the Queen City's most abandoned-looking neighborhoods (which is saying something). In its primitiveness, the Skull Lab reminded me somewhat of the Gas Station, a one-time venue on the eastern end of Houston Street in NYC, where bands used to perform in an unrenovated room that had once been the service bay of an actual defunct gas station. (I will never forget an amazing David Kilgour gig that took place there). Conceptualized that way, it seemed like an appropriate venue for Rhys Chatham's third Ohio gig in seven months, following three decades of his having successfully avoided the Buckeye State! (Rhys's first Ohio gig took place at the ultra-swank and state-of-the art Wexner Arts Center on the Ohio State University campus, in March 2006. His second took place at Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom just two nights before this Cincinnati gig).
The Cincinnati show was organized by Skull Lab proprietor Jon Lorenz with some key assistance from Cincinnati's heroic and erudite "Art Damage" cooperative, whose members deserve to be awarded seventy virgins apiece for their unflagging efforts to edify the handful of dissenters from middlebrow-ism who inhabit this otherwise hostile and ignorant burg. (The local hostility to genius infects even the commissars of Cincinnati's "alternative" cultural institutions. Earlier this year, the "Art Damage" overnight radio show was kicked off of community radio station WAIF-FM for the second time -- not for any infractions of FCC Rules or station policy, but simply for airing a program that floated too far over the heads of the all-volunteer noncommercial station's board members).
Besides organizing the event, the Art Damage crew also manned most of the positions on-stage during the Guitar Trio performance. While Rhys himself and his tourmate David Daniell handled the two most lead-like guitar parts, local heroes John Lorenz, Keenan Lawler (actually from Louisville), and Chris "Roesing Ape" Roesing discharged their supplemental guitar duties quite admirably. The bass player, Cain Blanchard, and the drummer, Jason Stark, apparently traveled from Knoxville TN to play this gig, and sounded great.
Perhaps the unique contribution of Cincinnati to this tour was the presence in the lineup of C. Spencer Yeh (a/k/a "Burning Star Core") on the electric violin (an instrument that does not figure in to Rhys's original composition/conception of Guitar Trio). While apparently some bowed stringed instruments were also incorporated into "Guitar Trio" in Toronto a few nights earlier, I wasn't in Toronto a few nights earlier to hear it. But I can report that Spencer added some amazing textures to Rhys's minimalist manifesto; more John Cale than Tony Conrad IMHO. And Spencer's presence was especially welcome during the multiple moments during the combo's first Guitar Trio run-through in which the electrical demands of seven electric instruments at full-volume overwhelmed the Skull Lab's unrenovated crack-house wiring. During each of those 30-second-to-one minute lulls before someone could flip a circuit breaker, Spencer and the drummer (who needed no electricity to be heard) continued to play in the dark, maintaining the trance-like minimalist Guitar Trio vibe, while also having a chance to shine individually. When the power would come back on, the rest of the band would resume playing without missing a beat!
After limping through all these electrical problems to Guitar Trio's finish line, the band jettisoned any unnecessary electrical usage (i.e. unmiked the drums, turned off all lights in the room except for one incandescent 40-watt table lamp onstage, canned the slide projector that was being used to project slides of Robert Longo artwork onto the wall during the performance, turned town the gtr amps somewhat), and then started over. Proving again the caliber of genius that is Rhys Chatham, these reductions in electrical usage turned out to calibrate perfectly with the needs of the room, so that the second run-through of Guitar Trio proceeded from beginning to end without incident, electrical or otherwise. The minor loss of volume didn't hinder anything much: it was still plenty loud, and actually it was nice to be able to hear Spencer's violin more clearly. Although I will never know what I missed by not seeing the Longo slides, I enjoyed watching Rhys rise to the occasion of being more of a visual "frontman" in their absence. I didn't expect to see someone of Rhys's age and gravitas prowl around onstage and drop to his knees while soloing and the like, and I got quite a kick out of seeing it. (He didn't act like that when he conducted the ensemble that performed Die Donnergötter at the Wexner Center in March. But maybe it was not just the missing slides, but also the challenge of avoiding frostbite while playing a room that never got above forty degrees Fahrenheit the whole evening, that kept Rhys moving around).
After running through Guitar Trio for the second time, the ensemble performed The Out of Tune Guitar for an encore. (This was also the encore at the Wexner Center show in June). The Out of Tune Guitar was fun, but a relatively minor pleasure compared with the right-brain+left-brain=majesty of Guitar Trio. Overall, while this gig may not have equaled the unbelievable heights reached at the March gig at the Wex (in which Die Donnergötter was performed under perfect conditions by a crack touring ensemble that included Chris Brokaw, Doug McCombs, and ex-Modern Lover Ernie Brooks, among others), it was still a remarkable pleasure to attend.
To my amazement, the 80-to-100 of my fellow Cincinnatians present at the gig seem to have agreed. This attendance figure was all the more amazing when one considers that: (1) the weather outside was subzero (rare in Cincinnati); (2) not a penny was spent advertising this gig; (3) the gig took place in an unheated space in an area that many Cincinnatians (including me) had never set foot in before, and which enjoys a reputation for homicide and mayhem; (4) the gig took place late on a work night, which was also Super Bowl Sunday night; (5) only one record store in town even carries Rhys Chatham records; and (6) no radio stations in town play Rhys Chatham records on-air (except when WAIF-FM intermittently allows me to do shows).
Columbus, Ohio's hot combo-of-the-moment Times New Viking opened. I had not seen them before, though I had heard plenty of praise for them from reliable sources, and also had visited their myspace page and listened to tracks that are posted there. When I heard the trio's online tracks, I thought that the early Pavement/ GbV comparisons were quite fair and apt. Live, however, I could see why the band chafes under those comparisons. Times New Viking certainly incorporate the Swell Maps-derived shamblingness associated with early Pavement and GbV, but they also express the kind of feral faux-dangerousness of bands like Pussy Galore or, most on-point, Columbus's own lamented Vertical Slit/ V-3. (Fittingly, Times New Viking's LP was produced by Columbus psych/punk/grunge legend Mike "Rep" Hummel, of the Quotas). I was impressed enough to buy some records from them, and will watch for them in their (very bright) future.
Standing from left to right: Eric Block, Cain Blanchard, Roesing Ape, David Daniell. Kneeling from left to right: Jason Stark, Jon Lorenz, Spencer Yeh. Sitting from left to right: Rhys, Regina Greene © Rhys Chatham
Photos legends:
Action shot #1 © Nebulagirl
Action shot #2 © Nebulagirl
Jason Stark after the performance. He really exerted himself! © Nebulagirl
G3 performance at Skull Lab