Report: Jigsaw Seen/Allen Clapp Live SF

The Jigsaw Seen and
Allen Clapp & His Orchestra enthrall a small mob with uncommon tales of California at the Hotel
Utah on December 2.

 

By
JUD COST

 

You may think California’s all about swaying palm trees
and endless summer. But the Jigsaw Seen, representing greater Los Angeles, and Allen Clapp & His
Orchestra, wearing the colors of the San Francisco Bay Area, are here to tell
you to think again, pal. Both aggregations have new albums (Jigsaw’s Winterland on Vibro-phonic and Clapp’s Mixed Greens on Minty Fresh) that rank
among the best material they’ve ever recorded. And there’s not a surfboard,
go-kart or pair of in-line roller skates anywhere in sight. Their music is more
about taking a long walk in foul weather with your hands jammed into your
windbreaker to keep warm. And you’ve probably just lost your girlfriend, too.

 

Because
they have a grinding drive ahead of them before tomorrow night’s pit stop in San Diego, the Jigsaw
Seen are slotted as the evening’s opener. With their longtime rhythm section of
bassist Tom Currier and drummer Teddy Freese back in harness, singer Dennis
Davison and guitarist Jonathan Lea, the perennial core of the group, have never
played a better set. And, believe me, I’ve seen plenty of their live
performances over the past 20 years. “This is our career
retrospective,” Davison says only half-kidding over a beer upstairs in the
tiny minstrel’s gallery of the Hotel Utah. “You know, that means the only big
musical event left is your memorial,” I tell him. “Hopefully, not for
a while yet,” he smirks.

 

The
set is composed mostly of material from their last three albums-Zenith, Bananas Foster and Winterland-the
stunning trilogy that’s put the band back on the map just when it seemed it
might be time to play out the string. “We just finished a short east coast
tour,” says Lea, “and we had large crowds of young kids everywhere we
played. Totally unexpected.”

 

Jigsaw
jumps right into the fire with “Where The Action Isn’t,” one of their
rockers that everybody loves whose title is a play on a ubiquitous Dick Clark
TV show from the ’60s. “What About Christmas?” replaces traditional
Yuletide icons like Santa Claus, sleigh rides and Frosty the Snowman with loneliness,
isolation and depression. The cryptically titled “Snow Angels Of
Pigtown” is Davison’s mythologizing of a working-class district of
Baltimore, his hometown. “Fiddlesticks” once again exhumes the story
of mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who, unfortunately, was not a
vegetarian.

 

They
wind things up with a devastating one-two punch to the jaw and you’re down for
a mandatory eight count. “My Name Is Tom” is the manic tale of a
sinister peeping tom making his midnight creep, done up in a bone-rattling
raga-rock style that’s never been topped. It’s such a great vehicle, you can
close your eyes and hear John Coltrane wailing away on it with his soprano sax
for at least half an hour. Freese on drums is a revelation all night long. He’s
not Elvin Jones, but he may be the closest thing I’ve seen to Keith Moon since
I first witnessed the real item back in 1969 at Fillmore West.

 

Keeping
the holiday season in mind, “Tom,” the usual set-closer, is followed
by a rousing, yet accurate, reading of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,”
featuring Davison’s patented, slightly evil choirboy vocals and Lea’s ripping
sitar-like fretboard work.

 

Kudos
are due to the Hotel Utah, who apparently have upgraded their sound system
recently. But the curb appeal of the joint, not so much. As the boys are
loading their gear into the van on the Bryant St. side of the club, the garbage
from six large refuse cans, stuffed to the brim and lined up on the sidewalk
like giant tin soldiers, is blowing over our heads. “Hope you enjoyed your
trip to San Francisco,
and have a safe drive home,” I tell Davison and Lea after a stiff gust
pelts us all with an oil-stained paper bag full of styrofoam peanuts.
“Hey, don’t feed the monkeys!” says Davison in a parting shot.

 

I
get back inside the Utah
just as Allen Clapp, dressed in a festive orange, brown and white-striped bulky
sweater, is trying to get a decent soundcheck for his new, seven-member combo,
now re-christened Allen Clapp & His Orchestra. This is where I came in with
Clapp, 17 years ago at an off-the-map S.F. venue called 21 Bernice, a place
that hasn’t been heard from since.

 

The
soundcheck, as Clapp is finding out tonight in the new band’s debut Bay Area
performance, is easier said than done. Large chunks of what sounds so good on
the band’s new LP, Mixed Greens, are not making it into the mix. Clapp looks
nervous most of the night, making uncharacteristic onstage remarks that aren’t
quite up to his usually buttoned-down Bob Newhart stand-up style. Perhaps he’s
expecting too much from a live show that still has to shake a few kinks out of
the garden hose.

 

In
addition to Clapp and his wife, rock-solid bassist Jill Pries (the only Orange
Peels holdovers) the Orchestra features co-front person/ukulele-wielder Karla
Kane, lead guitarist Khoi Huynh, baritone guitarist KC Bowman, William Cleere
on piano and Charlie Crabtree on drums. All but Clapp and Pries also serve time
in squeaky clean rockers the Corner Laughers and its psychedelic alter-ego the
Agony Aunts. They do not throw TV sets out hotel windows when they are on tour.
Which they may be doing shortly if Clapp’s plans to buy an old school bus for
cross-country jaunts pan out. All they’ll need to complete the plan is a few
snapshots of “Furthur,” Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus, and a
battered old copy of the Who’s Magic Bus LP for inspiration, along with a few cans of dayglo paint.

 

To
ease into uncharted waters, Clapp opens with the familiar. “Mystery
Lawn,” one of his earliest numbers, was a staple of the Orange Peels, the
outfit that’s flown his autumnal flag for years. But then he’s off and running
into the lovely new stuff: “Downfall No. 3,” “All Or
Nothing” and “Treeline.” They’re representative of Clapp’s
daring venture into a bold new world of soulful sound dominated not by guitars
but by keyboards, with most of the set finding him perched behind a bank of
ivories that includes a Fender Rhodes electric piano, an organ and an iPad
Mellotron.

 

Clapp’s
added a good half octave to the top end of his vocal range, and the total
effect is something like Brian Wilson wailing away late at night, hunkered down
in front of his piano, pouring out his heart a la Stevie Wonder. Or Todd
Rundgren from his “Hello It’s Me” days with the Nazz and later solo
ventures like Something/Anything? It
feels like a direction he’s always meant to take: walking through virgin
forests, half-blinded by New World sunsets of uncommon beauty. 

 

 

 

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