When they first announced this show, it was a bit of a curiosity to see that Michael Dorf was putting this event together with guys like John Zorn and Marc Ribot featured prominently in the billing. You could forgive me for wondering: Wasn’t Zorn the one who had all but convinced me that Dorf was the devil incarnate? (And if I seem unnaturally harsh to Dorf herein, it’s only because of Zorn’s words on-the-record…John, just let me know that it’s okay to stop hatin’ and I’ll call off the dogs). Ah, but read the fine print, my man.
The whole thing was a benefit for The Stone, Zorn’s attempts at purity in the dirty, capitalistic game of Survivor known as the NYC music scene. I guess Dorf is pulling an Earl Hickey and trying to cross Zorn et al off his “list.” Regardless, they had me at Medeski Martin & Wood + Marc Ribot — I was there! Hell, I love the Stone and I haven’t even been there yet.
We really had no idea what to expect from the night, but it seemed pretty “can’t miss” to most in the crowd, an interesting mix of old timers, young music-heads and everything in between. Guys who probably spent many a night seeing some way heady shit back in the day rubbed elbows with some kiddies who probably didn’t even know that you could even see jazz at the Knitting Factory. Somewhere along the way — way back at Houston Street or at the Leonard, or maybe when the center of gravity of the downtown scene shifted to Tonic, or now the Stone — we had gotten a snort of the excitement in this music, the something different, the unpredictability…or maybe we all just wanted to see Ribot jam out with MMW.
The night started with a bushel of talent: Roy Nathanson and Joe Lovano on saxes, Don Byron on clarinet, Bill Ware on vibes, Ben Perowsky on drums and [sorry I didn't catch your name] on bass. It struck me right away how much talent and history made its way through the Knitting Factory and its descendants. The evening could start no other way than with some big honking SQUONKS of the saxophone, and Nathanson obliged from the get-go. But the avant-garde blares quickly subsided for some straight-out sublime bopping jazz. Everyone took their turn at a solo while the rhythm section held sway quite nicely — these guys may have started out as experimental avant-gardists 20 years ago, but they’re the vanguard now, and they showed why they’re the pros.
The real gem here was Bill Ware, who inhabited every horn solo with his own intergalactic comping. That delicious vibraphone brought the whole thing up to another level, and when he finally took his own solo it brought it over the top. From our crow’s nest dead front center of the balcony, the vibraphone seemed to be alive and the lights reflecting off the wavering bars sent psychedelic shafts onto the backdrop. It was an all-star jam session, the type that the Knit has probably hosted hundreds of, and a perfect way to start the show.
But, like I said, let’s not pretend the Knit represents all light and good. One man’s trash is another man’s yadda yadda yadda, and despite the thrilling beginnings there was plenty of mediocrity, disappointment and all around shriekitude going down at the Town Hall Thursday night. Zorn did a song — a term I am using loosely here — with Ikue Mori consisting of saxophone squealing and insufferable laptronics that sent my mind wandering to anywhere but where I was. I don’t think this show would have been the same without such a number — it was inevitable, even welcomed, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.
So much of this noise serves to remind me what it is about music that metaphysically makes it music, and not just a random sonic experience. That is, if there is a difference at all. A better example of this was when DJ Spooky came out with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo for a wild duet. Spooky’s contributions were about as base as you can get, musically speaking — drums and cymbals mostly, identifiably catchy grooves. Ranaldo created a sort of negative soundscape with his guitar, completely enveloping the room with distorted feedback until your ears started to pick out the gaps that weren’t filled. He didn’t quite play his axe so much as bludgeon it, bouncing it off the floor, scraping it with a bow and waving it over his head and all but taunting it with the bank of amplifiers behind him. The result was, to me, utterly awe-inspiring, so anti-musical as to come out the other side of the wormhole with everything in reverse tone — positrons replacing electrons all the way down. Someone else might have heard nothing but minutes upon minutes of painful noise, and it was my favorite set of the night.
I guess that was the point of this whole thing. There was no way you could have loved all of it, just as there was no way you could have not loved some of it. Existence personified. DJ Spooky prefaced the number with a passionate intro to a movie he was going to screen during the music, but the projector never got working. Since we were sitting right behind the box where the projector was, I was able to watch a protracted effort to get this thing going, complete with text on the big screen behind the stage like “S-Video No Input.” That was actually entertaining to me and had this weird meta-movie aspect to it that reminded me of this Mr. Show sketch. It perfectly captured the spirit of the music, probably better than the actual movie they wanted to show. It was the music about the music, and if you put these two mirrors next to each other… whoa! trippy!.
There was a second quintessentially Zorn moment (and, by the way, the disjointed haphazard nature of this review is entirely intentional and is meant to convey the WTF nature of the show itself) immediately following the first, when Marc Ribot hopped on stage with Trevor Dunn and Calvin Weston joining him. That’s 3/4 of Electric Masada, quite possibly the best band ever (seriously), and Weston is a plenty good replacement for Kenny Wolleson/Joey Baron — hey, where were those guys, by the way?
Anyway, they settled into their seats for about a millisecond, and Zorn held his hand up in his way of being both band leader and cult leader, then dropping it and clearing out to sidestage. What follows is either five minutes, or an eternity depending on your reality at the moment. The music that came from the stage for that period was the equivalent of hopping in a taxicab in Manhattan and having the cabbie step on the gas (“pedal to the metal” is how we used to phrase it as wee lads) and proceed to drive through crowded city streets at circa 100 mph without regard for other cars, pedestrians, general traffic laws or the safety of anyone anywhere at anytime…
…Except after a moment or two of extreme fear you realize “My God! He’s doing it!,” and as he weaves in and out of traffic without contact and negotiates 90-degree turns with precision, and the sweat of fear dries up and you’re just plain giddywith delight. Holy shit! Weston/Dunn/Ribot put the POW in power trio! Pure kinetic energy that I didn’t want to stop, and yet didn’t know how much more I could take. But really, I wouldn’t know how to put it into words. And just as my tolerance had calloused over and I was ready for another decade of pure sonic bliss, Zorn rejoined the trio, blew some over-the-top “take me back downtown” Zornishness and they were done…gone in a flash. Whew! The best part about that — the thing you have to realize — is that even if Zorn wasn’t even in that cab for that whole stretch, he was undoubtedly the one driving that thing.
Let’s see, what else, what else? Oh yeah, Lou Reed was there. That’s right, that Lou Reed (I told you this shit was all over the place). He played two songs with an all-but-superfluous guitar player and Jane Scarpatoni on cello. I’ll say I enjoyed it at a level. Was it the level that said “Hey, that’s fucking Lou Reed in leather pants and leather t-shirt!” or was it the one that said “This music is [synonymous with good]?” Can’t say, but Zorn came out for the second number and getting to see him support someone else and having that someone else be Lou Reed was something. Something indeed. Another word to describe the Lou Reed portion of the show is interminable. This would be a good time to point out that our vantage point offered a good view of male pattern baldness at its finest: Twenty years is a long time. Metaphors abound….
Steven Bernstein popped up here and there and probably deserves more of a mention than he’s getting. He seemed to understand what was needed when he was up there, planting the seeds of “good music” every time he blasted that trumpet — whether those others around him could water and bring it to fruit is another matter. If nothing else, he and Marc Ribot were unsurprisingly delectable in pretty much everything they did, which was some, but not enough.
What was surprising was Laurie Anderson, who’s one of those maybe I should know but, hey, kill me, I don’t. She started off the second set, straight off a well-timed seven-minute set break (I won’t even get into the ridiculous faux-military precision they tried to convey on the sets and changeovers — who the fuck are you kidding, Dorf?) following Lou Reed’s meh-ness. At first she kind of caterwauled over some Casio-esque chording, and just as I thought the entire night was one chili cheese dog away from gastric disaster, she zig-zagged away from her off-key “song” and veered into something different altogether and, once again, sort of redefined what it was to be music.
She continued to kind of hit a note or two on her keyboards as she, reading entirely off paper, went into a very long quasi-monologue. For me to get into the details of this would be too painful for the reader, and yet for me to paraphrase would be to sell it short. Let’s just say that it dealt with experts and problems and had a poetic pacing that built from the close and intimate to the global without missing a beat. Where Reed dragged on in his offbeat monotone, she worked a steady musical jaunt with similar tools. You look at Anderson and see this short-haired, slight woman and your first thought is: angry. She was angry…and catchy and mesmerizing and, most of all, funny. She was the Goldilocks of the night: Some acts were fantastic and too short, others were craptastic and too long — Laurie Anderson was just right.
Mike Doughty was on the bill, seemingly because he used to tend bar and stamp hands at the Old Knit. The music didn’t really fit in and was really neither here nor there for me… not that it was bad, it just took up time that could have gone to someone more, shall we say, deserving. His banter was swell from an historical viewpoint (his first night of work was the Motian/Lovano/Frisell trio that continues to plow new ground, but now way uptown at the Village Vanguard), but it was just that: banter. No one else felt the need to say anything, and he didn’t really shut up. I find it interesting that there were two people who used the word “humble” during the night (repeatedly, I might add): Doughty and Dorf. Wilbur the pig they ain’t.
So, yeah, MMW. They’re the guys that are gonna make it all alright! The reason we’re really here. Right? Well, with time running out, the stage clears and we’ve got an M… and another M… and an announcement that Chris Wood would not be in attendance. My lord, if you ever wanted to hear what the collective disappointment of a couple thousand music lovers sounds like, this was your chance. It was a collective d’oh! that made me feel good only in the fact that I know I’m not the only one who bows down to the altar of bassy goodness courtesy of Chris Wood.
Oren Bloedow filled in for him and did a pretty good job on the first number, which was, you know, that really killer funky one from “End of the World Party.” It wasn’t MMW, but at this point, I was just happy for a consolation prize and was ready for a short but sweet no-dancing dance party. They really did kill it with Bloedow kind of just laying down a slinky easy bass line and John and Billy stepping up as you know they can.
In retrospect, they should have just ended it there, but Oren announces they’re going to do “song music” which may have been a more moronic utterance than the “I’m really humble” crap we had been subjected to early. So he did a song where he sang about “Does love really exist?” — I shit you not. If the Chris Wood shaft was getting dumped by your dream girl, this was watching her turn around after breaking your heart and slashing your tires with a switchblade (the blade that you got her for Valentine’s Day, no less!).
At this point, I’m thinking about Apollo Sunshine, Mofro, Wayne Krantz, The Office and Survivor — oh, sweet Thursday night, why have you foresaken me!?!? Gary Lucas, another pure-downtown cat came out for a little more avant jam session with the band, which was another one of those appropriately Knittish Knitting Factory moments, but completely disruptive to the direction I personally would have liked to have seen things go. Except I have to point out that Trevor Dunn, who “is in the conversation” with Wood for me, hopped on stage at this point. Why he wasn’t there from the get-go is beyond me… I mean Medeski, Martin and Dunn is something I might pay money for.
But that was nothing, nothing compared to the finale they had in store. Words like “clusterfuck” and “crime to humanity” get thrown around all the time. But, my friends, let me tell you what a clusterfuck really looks like. It looks like about 30+ musicians who have been brought together in the name of experimental music playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in a way that had Ringo Starr rolling in his grave.
There are so many things wrong with this from a philosophical point of view that maybe could have been forgiven, but the actual execution thereof was a desecration of all things holy to music in the western world. Pretty much sum up every name I’ve thrown out up there and add in a few more that I probably missed or glossed over and have them take the chicken out of the coop and cut its head off. No, they didn’t butcher this poor animal, they beheaded the damn thing and let it run around the stage of Town Hall for a (precisely timed) five-minute stretch.
Sure, Bernstein and Ribot and maybe Medeski tried their best to add something of value to it, but there’s a reason there was a line out the door to the bathroom afterwards: Everyone was frantically scrubbing their ears with scalding hot water and antibacterial soap trying to erase the memory of this grand finale.
As I made my way back to the train station shuddering for a pillow and some sweet dreams I realized something: That was exactly the finale that the Knitting Factory — the Old Knit, Zorn, Dorf, the whole dang downtown aesthetic — deserved, topping off the birthday party that it undoubtedly asked for. A big, fat, messy hunk of experimental birthday cake. It really couldn’t have been any other way.
(But it was for a good cause!)