at the Flywheel in Easthampton,
Massachusetts, Higgins and Kid Millions’ Man Forever project were joined by
Benjamin Miller and Barn Owl.
By Jennifer Kelly
Gary Higgins is the odd man out tonight, the lone melodist
on a night of noisy improvisation. His
shadowy harmonies and blues-leaning guitar licks are at odds with the clash and
clatter and squawk of the other bands on the bill. It’s as if he materialized, straight out of
the 1970s, at a Not Not Fun marathon, and when you think about it, this trick
of appearing suddenly in the midst of avant garde is something he has pulled
The folk singer’s 1973 album Red Hash disappeared almost immediately after its issue (and so did
Higgins, specifically, to jail on drug charges), was whispered and argued about
for decades in internet forums and used record stores, and finally got reissue
from Drag City in 2005, after a campaign that involved telephoning every Gary
Higgins in Connecticut. Admired by free
folkers from Joanna Newsom to Ben Chasny, he joined movement already in
progress, and went on from there, writing and releasing Seconds in 2009, 36 years after his debut.
But Higgins spent his lost years in the same Connecticut town that John Colpitts (AKA Oneida’s Kid Millions) grew up in, so he’s a
late addition to an edgy, improvisational bill formed mostly around Colpitts’
trance-y, transcendental Man Forever.
Man Forever turns a half an hour of drum roll into a spiritual
experience. Gary Higgins does the same
with his flickery, minor key folk songs.
The night starts with Barn Owl, not the drone-y Thrill
Jockey band led by Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras, but rather a local band made
up of Chris Cooper (Fat Worm of Error, Deerhoof) on guitar, Matt Weston on
drums and Andy Crespo on bass. That’s a
standard rock set up, but Barn Owl is anything but standard. For instance, Cooper plays a guitar that lies
horizontally on the floor — attached to a dozen or so effects pedals. He sometimes uses a set of tuning forks to
screw with the feedback. I see him,
mid-improvisation with one small fork dangling from his mouth, another larger one
employed as a kind of pick.
Weston’s unusual drum kit includes a battered timpani, some
toms and cymbals and a couple of kitchen pots that rattle around on top of the
timpani. At one point, Weston leans down
and puts his mouth to one of the drums, eliciting an abrasive blatting noise,
like an armpit fart or a raspberry. He
says later that he is blowing into a bowl-shaped cymbal and that, on occasion,
he has done this not on top of a drum but directly on linoleum. (There are not too many rock venue floors I
would put my mouth onto.) Crespo plays
the bass while sitting, the neck straight up like a stand-up, his fingers
moving rapidly up and down the neck. The sound they make is harsh, chaotic,
leaning heavily on industrial, machine-like textures of feedback and rhythm,
though threaded through with rapid, sinuous, organic-sounding figures of
bass. Two pieces wander on, exploring
frictious, abrasive landscapes, and the three of them seem almost surprised
when the compositions end. Crespo
punctuates the last one with a shrug and a questioning look at the
audience. Are we done? It seems like we’re done.
Barn Owl plays from the floor at the back of the room. Benjamin Miller has, meanwhile set up his
saxophone, video screen, synthesizer and tape deck on the main stage. Miller, who now heads the Sensorium Saxophone
Orchestra (a 20-plus member ensemble, 18 of them saxophonists), got his start
in the 1970s with Empool, a psychedelic noise group whose members included
Mission of Burma’s Martin Swope and Roger Miller (his brother), and Detroit
art-noisers Destroy All Monsters.
Miller has been playing the saxophone since childhood and
tonight’s set explores some of its most overlooked and unusual
capabilities. The sax’s reedy, whispery
tones are looped and overlayed and massed, threaded through pedals and warped
with feedback. Miller tips his
instrument sideways and upside down over the pedals, pouring out a rushing
current of black noise. He puts it down,
momentarily, and turns to a tape deck, eliciting a screech and hiss as coils
and tangles pile up near the wheels.
There is a movie, several movies, playing the back, the music seems to
loosely match them. Wavering images of
blue and grey bring out oceanic waves of tone.
A softer, greener, film (with plants and grass in soft focus) is
accompanied by more lyrical music. A
long piece at the end shows a mostly empty
staircase, people flitting into the foreground in some sort of time lapse
effect, and the music that goes with it is ghostly.
Then it’s Man Forever, Colpitts and his guitar player up
from New York,
an additional drummer, bass player and keyboardist recruited locally and just
for the one performance. Colpitts and
the other drummer sit facing one another over a single snare, and with a nod
from Colpitts the performance begins.
They play fast 16th notes in tandem, sticks flashing in
continuous motion, the sound morphing, as you hear it, from the rattle and
clatter of individual notes into a trance-inducing blur.
Colpitts plays loosely, easily, his head nodding slightly in time. The other drummer is tenser and more focused,
as perhaps, anyone would be, trying to keep up with this runaway train for the
first time. The drum roll is all there
is for a long time, minutes at least, and then the bass player comes in with a
single note, abrasive with distortion.
Later, again minutes later probably, the keyboard player comes in with
another sustained tone. You think about
this, how the natural thing would be to make the bass, the keyboards and the
drums as fast and pointillistically complicated as the drumming, and yet these
instruments exist solely as texture, a bed of tone for the endless drumming to
bound off of.
The guitar player is idle for a good half of the
composition, leaning back and forth into the music, counting maybe. You think about percussionists in orchestras
counting endless measures to play one triangle chime perfectly in place. Colpitts has turned this on its head, with
the drummers constantly engaged, the other instruments waiting for their
e whole thing is unexpectedly
engaging, moving, cathartic. Towards the
end of the piece, the rest of the band is more involved, guitar player slashing
out abrupt notes, bass player
churning long droning notes, keyboard player adding dissonances and texture,
yet it’s the drumming that’s the center of it, temporal by its nature but also
timeless, spiritual, ecstatic.
Gary Higgins takes the stage just after, with just one
guitar player (his son Graham, I think), beginning with “Demons,” a song from Seconds, then moving into Red Hash
material, including “I’m a Picker,” “I Pick Notes from the Sky,” and “Stable
the Spuds.” These are lovely songs,
sharpened and made a bit more emphatic by the slide blues of his guitar player,
sweetened by minor-into-major harmonies that shade the melodies like
cross-hatchings. Higgins also pulls out
an older, unreleased song from his long fallow period, its lyrics about
“working people’s woes,” strikingly appropriate for 2012. There’s not a lot of banter, but Higgins does
tell a story about the 1933 guitar he bought, still inscribed with the name of
its previous owner, Merle Collins of Chelsea, Vermont, and how researching that
name led to a new song. (Which he
Higgins closes with the lovely “Thicker than a Smokey,” the
song that led Ben Chasny to ask, via liner notes, for Higgins to please get in
touch with him, the one that drew people like Zack Cowie into a quixotic,
ultimately fruitful search for the lost folk artist, the one that Higgins has
still never matched for its shades of hope, longing and serene beauty. It’s an interesting, eclectic night,
beginning in turmoil, ending in translucent gorgeousness, and winding through
fascinating places along the way.