Friday, December 31, 2010

Upended Reason and the Christmas Season: An Evening of Carols with the Dallas Family Band

 Photo by Kelsey Foster

On the Sunday evening preceding Christmas, the Dallas Family Band hosted a carol sing at Murray Street Coffee and, meanwhile, solved a linguistic quandary.  The word “folk” has started to irk me.  Technically “folk” means “people” and says nothing specific save what its writer assumes readers’ minds will invoke.  The possibilities are too numerous.  Better to say precisely what kind of folk.  The separate members of the creative, musical cooperative Dallas Family Band have, at different times, all been yoked under the genre's title.  At Murray Street this past Sunday, their community gave me an armful of descriptors to precede it.

The Dallas Family Band are liberal folk, humored folk.  I never tallied the exact number of guitars and strings and drums and noise-boxes.  The instruments were numerous and migratory, given and received open-handed among members.  Musicians arriving late were handed a guitar and seamlessly assimilated into the musical throng.  Mistakes were made, inevitable in such a large group.   Certain Christmas carols are fraught with syllabic complications and we, band and singers, found most of them.  But all the inconsistently timed verse breaks and verbal flubs were absorbed in a swell of boundless mirth.

The Family Band are loving, hospitable, and loud folk.  It was no performance, rather a participatory, band-lead carol sing-a-long.  Nothing would grieve a regular Dallas Family Band member more than to refer to the collective in closed terms or to draw hard boundaries.  The community exists only in the elusive, transpiring present, eternity’s gracious tangent.  The Dallas Family Band consists of all players and any human within earshot who happens to hum a note, tap a worn shoe, clap against their thigh.  This spirit of liberality manifests itself too in volume.  The musicians emptied their lungs into the vaulted room without reservation, red-faced from the exertion and we, the conscripted choir, followed suit.  Sadly, I have never sung in church with quite the abandon that I sang on that Sunday.

Photo by Kelsey Foster

The Dallas Family Band are storytelling folk, believing folk.  They are evocative narrators, even with borrowed material from antiquity.  You could almost feel the promising wind of Palestine, could picture the Family Band as minstrels, leading a trepid cluster of Magi to the toddler Jesus.  You could picture the infant king playing at the breasts of his gracious mother.  You could hear the low-caste sheep herders cowering before the time-shattering announcement of an incarnation.  You could even imagine the Family Band fronting a march of zealous abolitionists with the hymn O Holy Night, loudly announcing their faith in and reason for the end of oppression.  (I was surprised as well, but readers would do well to look up the third verse of the song.  The historical link to the abolition movement, buttressed by Christmas themes amplify what is otherwise a too-familiar, seasonal tune.)  

The Dallas Family Band took songs that had labored too long under childish sentimentality and recovered them as meaningful narratives.  Christmas songs go stale as easily as the season’s baked wares.  The weighty words are often lost among the garish advertisements and vapid self-interest that hold the holiday cruel hostage.  Even the reaction to remember the season’s meaning is nothing but a clich├ęd rhyme.  In Murray Street Coffee, a truer reclamation occurred.  It was perhaps the best manifestation of what happens when musically gifted friends gather as surrogate brothers and sisters, daring and enticing a crowd to prolong their joyous strains.

The Beaten Sea have written an original Christmas Carol.  The year has already revolved around to another beginning, but lend your support to the band anyway and buy this tune for a mere buck, memorize it, and sing it boldly in 359 days:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Radio Moscow - Brain Cycles (2009)

A congregant once queried the Sixteenth Century Reformer Martin Luther, "Herr Doctor, why is it that week after week all you ever preach to us is the Gospel?"  "Well," the bullish reformer calmly replied," because week after week you forget it." 

Radio Moscow is a group that’s likely to be saddled with some of the laziest journalistic punts: “throwback” or “stoner rock” or “old-school,” all of them tending to the ultimate end of describing a band like an artifact.  It’s deceptive and wrong.  Radio Moscow isn’t an Elvis Impersonator.  They aren’t a museum diorama.  They’re much closer to reformers, like our friend the Bull of Wittenberg.  What Radio Moscow does is much more like reminding, resurrecting, reclaiming a craft that should never have been prematurely abandoned, all for the blocky ears of forgetful listeners.

When I first saw Radio Moscow at The Doublewide a couple years ago, there was almost no one there.  I had gone to see them based entirely on the fact that they are from Ames, Iowa.  Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead is set in the same inconspicuous state, written in the voice of its fictional narrator, the affectionately named John Ames, and I was reading the novel at the time.  John Ames is a congregational minister and I like to imagine some alternate universe in which he is a big fan of race-geared, deafening rock, so I essentially attended a music performance out of literary curiosity.

There were maybe half a dozen people in the room when the string-haired Parker Griggs clicked on his amplifier.  The ensuing shock tore the roof off the sucker (Mr. Clinton, I wish you could have seen it).  As I listened, I twisted my head around two or three times to take in the room's vacancy, at once quaking with the awe of a Pentecostal congregant and becoming gloomily annoyed that there were one and a quarter million minus six Dallasites who would never see it.

Embarrassed for my city of alien residence, I offered to buy the band a round of drinks and I think Parker might have asked for a Blue Moon, which I thought was ironically the sissiest thing he could request.  They stayed at my place that night for lack of other accommodations save their van.  Bassist Zach Anderson actually slept in his headband and I marveled at his commitment to aesthetic.

At the time, they were touring in support of their debut, self-titled album.  They’ve since released a second album Brain Cycles, which I bought on their last trip through Dallas a couple months ago.  They performed at Nightmare on Elm, every bit as firebrand as two years ago and to a larger crowd.

That album has sat on my shelf ever since, book-ending the chronological rearrangement of my picayune vinyl collection.  I made a foolhardy journey from start to finish, beginning several months ago with Jimmie Rodgers.  I only today achieved Radio Moscow’s Brain Cycles, which stands as a clear accusation that I have yet to purchase a record made in this year.

In truth, I haven’t even heard all of Brain Cycles yet and I’m telling you it needs to be your next purchase if you have any faith left in rock.  I listened to exactly one song, the opening “I Just Don’t Know,” before deciding it was absolutely necessary I write this review.  One track was evidence enough that Radio Moscow serves up in megawatts what other bands teaspoon to us.  Just don’t imagine that it’s the kind of bombast you get from double-bassed speed metal.  It’s more akin to what James Newell Osterberg might have deemed “raw power.”  Like Samson with a jawbone or a savage trio of barbarian Irishmen swinging shillelaghs: ferociously spare.

Parker Griggs is a demigod of riffage, a doctor in the study of chop-ology.  His furious attack of the instrument, the shrieking, fleet-footed licks are what gives Radio Moscow’s sound so much meat.

There is an overabundance of vegetarian music these days.  A while ago, there was a great deal of buzz surrounding Vampire Weekend, particularly when they played SXSW and I just didn’t get it.  Sure, Vampire Weekend is great, if you don’t mind panting your way through life with an iron deficiency.   

Parker said on his last trip through Dallas that the European audiences are overwhelmingly more responsive to Radio Moscow, to rock in general.  This admission fits easily into one of the oldest human habits of shunning hometown prophets.  We don’t love our blues our country our rockabilly or our rock and roll with the same conviction as the French; just try to reconcile that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ryan Thomas Becker - 27 Sep. 2010 - Opening Bell

It had been a long day, one of those days you feel embarrassed to be calling long. After all, what right do any of us have to be calling those hours of sitting and typing and pensiveness anything that resembles labor. But it is our ill habit, in this age, to feel the inexplicable, psychic drag of some days.

It was just that sort of day when I walked into Opening Bell at Southside still wearing my interview clothes, feeling odd in tie and dress shoes. And it may seem hackneyed to say so, but I felt my gloomy, urban anxiety go slack when Ryan Thomas Becker hummed his first note.

The curative power of music: an oft-repeated idea to make it nearly insipid. But there it stands like a faithful truth, like restful Sundays or the sleep of deep night, steadfastly routine. A proper tune arrives just as timely, a word said perfectly, a few notes down and up in a particular order to make the nerves smooth again.

A lot of music is just perfect, very on-the-nose. Ryan Thomas Becker is not. His music is beyond conceivability, so much that an idea like "perfect" can't really precede it. Most people, I think, believe in something at the bottom of their living, beyond the obvious, and in their inability to get at it. Everybody wants to crawl between the molecules and pull the universe over themselves like bedcovers. Ryan Thomas Becker helps us prospect in that direction.

One man with a worn voice and an acoustic guitar on an otherwise innocuous, overwrought Monday, and suddenly I'm ok.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Doug Burr – 16 September 2010 – Church of the Holy Cross

You could hear every foot shuffle resonate last night in the sanctuary of Church of the Holy Cross. An obligatory solemnity managed to overtake the audience and everyone but Doug Burr was wary of breaking the delicate silence. Burr was performing his album The Shawl in its supposed entirety; although, I failed to absolutely confirm this. The Shawl, as I’ve written previously, is the simplest musical collection of Biblical Psalms, unmodified in their meticulous English translation* save for a multiple refrain here and there. Burr has apparently been soliciting area churches for space to perform the album and Father Will Brown, Rector of Church of the Holy Cross, was eager to accommodate.

Church of the Holy Cross is an Episcopalian church; moreover, an "Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Parish" by emphasis, which could explain the accidental quiescence. There are traditions of worship – I am intimately familiar with one – in which clapping is a frightful experience. Anglicanism is frequently one of them and their architecture, along with their cultural heritage of punctiliousness, reinforces propriety, solemnity. The results are often beautifully weighty, as was largely the case last night. Doug Burr was flanked by two accompanying musicians, all three standing just beyond the altar gate. His characteristic white shock of hair stood up, as if he were one peculiarly marked by God. A candle representative of creation’s eternal light, the uninterrupted announcement, flickered behind him.

Burr’s voice is precarious. His song often comes out more a cautious pace than a reckless sprint. The methodical words are not always entirely understood and, if you’re in a crowded din, the experience is frustrating. The case here was different. There are those who are compelled, and I am reasonably sure Burr is similarly compelled, that the words of The Shawl are uniquely efficacious. Christ-haunted, Doug Burr plays something of the ghost himself. Not a note The Shawl is very sharp, but its gravity is already beyond the norm, so all of it is imbued with an ineffable collision. In some ways, The Shawl feels like one long prelude to Burr’s most multiplied and unmistakable refrain: “surely there is a God who judges.” A strange comfort; a bloody grace.

The Psalms are a long tradition, not only in Judaism, but in Christianity too, where they are interpreted in the light of the Christians’ dawn. They’ve gone largely neglected in Christendom, where a troublingly many compose music in the undignified hubris that they have created something sacred. Burr’s approach evokes something, I think, closer to the original. A dusty-footed Palestinian of the first century, standing in the dim light of his or her old synagogue, singing aloud the fifty eighth of an ancient book of songs, bewildered with the newness of every word, strangely and fearfully assured.

*New American Standard

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Field Goal Percentage

This morning found me at Buckner park, watching my over-inflated, composite basketball careen off the rim at a tantalizing variety of angles.

Do you think I could start a rap war between Daniel T. Hall and Dem Southernfolkz? Hall has made some of the more frivolous plagiarism charges I've ever heard, but I'm desperate for material. Plus, Daniel T. seems like the kind of guy who would bring a log-chain to a gunfight, so I'm game to try.

Friday, September 3, 2010

90210 - The Cavern

My friend was gracious enough to point out yesterday's date: 90210. This assumes, of course, that you're punctilious enough to include the preceding zero of the day, but not the month. Suspect.

I was sloshing back Ziegenbock in a plastic tumbler made to look like a legitimate beer glass wondering if the night held some sort of compensating experience. Xry (pron. "cry), the duo from San Antonio, placated me. A warped bass sound and electro squealch and very short shorts. It is at times like those that I regret my staunch, Baptist upbringing. Some twisted kind of nurture has left me with a level of self-consciousness too severe to ever dance when I feel like it.

Muhammad Ali from Houston spoke that neanderthalic rock language in which I am fluent. It is a tonal, confusing, but austere, nearly brutal language. It is nearly unintelligible and practically incommunicable, but vital to me. It is simplistic rock that defies logical measures of art, but somehow surpasses it.

I have heard a lot about Leg Sweeper in the past couple of months. A drums, guitar, vocals duo that follows closely in the vein of other drums, guitar, vocals duos; thankfully so, if you were to ask me. Everybody crowded around the Cavern stage, which is something I haven't seen for a while: the emptiness existing behind the crowd, in the back of the room. "Energy" is bound to come up in all of their reviews, so I mention it here reluctantly. But there was a sufficient hyperactivity to obviate technical deficiencies.