Monday, March 28, 2005

A Clear and present danger

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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Return of “real” music [to these ears]

Sun Ra Arkestra/DKT (MC5) Royal Festival Hall 25 January
Rodrigo y Gabriela Camden Jazz Café 27 January

A bout of good ol’ live music at the weekend. For all three acts I went in with a tabula rasa – very little prior knowledge of any of the acts, not even a cursory sweep on Google beforehand, so no bias or devotion to their oeuvres. Makes a change from recording what to my ears is the sound of monks meditating on Mars on my one-channel recording programme on the Mac.

Sun Ra must be about 60 by now?” I asked in exploratory help for clues before they came on. It was an offhand ageist comment I’d come to rue as one of our party facetiously reminded me of it (some of them are 60-plus; the chief sun god died over a decade ago). The music, to my surprise and despite all the cosmic trappings of space and escape, is fairly standard modern be-bop, a not unattractive free jazz that sounds even more traditional as time goes by. A 13-strong psychedelic big band, incorporating brass, guitar, percussion and much else besides, contribute to this grounded bop-noise. Despite the afro-extra-terrestrial dress and the dancing routines, few were the times when the strangled notes seemed to leave their roots to float off and be sustained on their own terms. Their most recognisable anthem Space is the Place achieved this the most, with some twisted clarinet taking the song into the final phase and finishing it off in fine style. Last time here they jammed in the bar til 1am; no such luck tonight.

The link with Detroit’s MC5 is a connection of likeminds not musicians of a kind. MC5 like Big Star were one of those NME sacred cows, a “seminal” late 60s/early 70s act that became an easy reference point for bands that did big, trashy or noisy. But I was reading this as MBV innovated so MC5 were just one more band to read about rather than discover properly. Three of the originals were present and correct – Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompson, hence the DKT (Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, husband of Patty, died around the same time as Ra).

Highly disappointing then that their music sits in a murky ditch off the crossroads of route 66, where blues, rock and roll, hard rock and metal crash into each other in unattractive collision. From what I'd read Wayne Kramer and co’s worldview, like Ra’s, was always spot on but that translates badly to the music, though what we now know as hard rock was fairly new at the time of their kicking out the jamms. The accompaniment to insurrection then didn’t fare well in its revived context – and in a two-thirds full RFH they did well to keep even their fanbase on side. For me, and Mike Smunk in particular, the hard strumming riffery delivered nothing but a dirge. If I wanted to go and see a metal act I’d check out Kerrang! This is just another band happy to pick up the cheque for past glories.

Highly gratuitous then that the MCDKT5 took to the stage for the encore when it seemed to have been earned for the best bit of the night after their main set – a mass jam by the Arkestra and the rockers, with Pere Ubu’s David Thomas on suitably deranged vocals.

Most lug-fondling by far was Mexican guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Sunday night soiree on Parkway. This is a boyfriend-girlfriend act who redefine what can be done with two electro-acoustic guitars. The Iberian/Hispanic influence of flamenco, etc are just roots to their sound, so any Latin stereotypes can be dismissed. Gabriela mainly builds the rhythmic undercurrent, strumming and plucking the riffs with intent, or beating the body of the instrument and stamping her feet, offering a clue how producers might add flavour to the sound. Rodrigo then provides the flourish with a dazzling repertoire, never missing or fudging a note. They take standards like Brubeck’s Take Five and rip them to pieces, and to show they’re on top of their sound knock off a riff like or Seven Nation Army or Smoke on the Water as a throwaway bridge and come back in dead on time. In fact, rock and metal, as suggested by Rod’s greaser hair, is a big influence and they intend to release an LP of Metallica covers. The best bit for me was when hot Rod played a passable impersonation of a Roland acid line, working up and down the top end of the fretboard in a brilliant coda to one song. Perhaps they can rehabilitate MC5’s Ramblin’ Rose or Back in the USA.

What may well hold them back is the lack of any vocals and the fact that this is a band obviously best experienced live. But this is virtuoso guitar music that can definitely be taken on its own terms.
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