TEXT/PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY
The last time I saw Richard Buckner play was in 1999 at Maxwell’s on a bill with Alejandro Escovedo, a show which seemed just as stripped down but more raucous than the current one, and at which a lot of alcohol was consumed, both on and off the stage. Tonight Buckner is all unadorned intensity, one guy with an old stool, a battered guitar bristling with strings and a clutch of free verse poetry set to that flutters from burnt out desolation to tentative, fluttering hope. It’s a remarkable, mesmerizing set, one where people are making so little noise that I worry about the sound of my camera, where the connection between performer and audience is so tight that it seems rude to be taking notes.
Buckner starts with “Surrounded,” the title track from his latest album. It’s a rustic jangle of picked notes rising up like bramble vines around his weathered, murmur of a voice. It’s the flat-edge of heart-ache, this plainspoken voice, until it twists suddenly, sideways in sliding flourishes, upwards in near falsetto runs, and becomes almost flowery.
Buckner gets a lot of variety out of his acoustic guitar, putting a hard rock-into-blues spine under “Born Into Giving It Up,” coaxing gentle country-folk picking from it for “Collusion,” finding the slow, Takoma-style silences between the notes in gorgeous “Ariel Ramirez.” You don’t ever forget that there’s no band, but you don’t exactly miss it either.
Not much of a banterer, Buckner does confide, while tuning, that the engine light in his truck had gone off that morning, and far from taking this as a good since, he assumed that it was because his catalytic converter had finally disintegrated and could no longer send a signal that it was ailing. He told the story in the same tossed-off, self-deprecating manner that he sang his very sad songs, as if what could you expect? Things break. People disappear.
The songs aren’t structured in any easy verse chorus way, but seem to run on, free-form, without repeating themselves until they end, and I notice right away, that the last line is the devastating one, the bit of blunt, scalding revelation that the song has been heading towards all along. I find myself writing down these final observations as he goes along. “What will you miss when things are fine?” from “Town.” “It was fine just to lose,” from “Loaded at the Wrong Door.” They’re the kind of lyrics – like the songs themselves – that persist in a quiet way, in your head and in the air around you, for a long time after the tune has faded.
Califone – recently profiled at BLURT – has done a good bit of setting up before the show, but there’s still plenty to do with two drum sets – one for Megafaun’s Joe Westerlund, the other for sometime Decemberist Rachel Blumberg – as well as a mess of guitars, keyboards and one bass. There are fewer non-traditional percussion instruments – no seashells or bottlecaps or children’s toys this time – but that’s because this new configuration of Tim Rutilli’s band is more driving then delicate in its approach to rhythm. Will Hendricks, who has been involved with Califone at least since Heron King Blues sits at a keyboard on the right side of the stage. Rutili takes the middle.
I’m not even sure when they start, because they begin in a miasma of feedback, buzz, drone, beeps and subliminal sounds that sounds, at first, like they’re still tuning. The sound builds gradually, a slow massive crescendo, and then resolves, quite suddenly into the lilt of “Orchids,” the Psychic TV song that Califone first covered on Roots & Crowns.
Califone’s newest album, Stitches, is somewhat lighter on the sound experiments than previous records, but they make up for it live, with most of the big rock-like highlights of that album emerging from a fecund stew of tonal experiment. The dual percussion set up mostly adds power and propulsion, but it also allows for a certain amount of weirdness, as when Joe Westerlund switches to Theremin during Quicksand/Cradlesnakes’s “Michigan Girls.”
The band opens with older material, but spends most of its time on Stitches, beginning an oceanic hum and stick cadences of “A Thin Skin of a Bullfighter,” hitting an early high point with the hard-drummed, rock-pounding “Frosted Tips,” and quieting, a little, for the splayed slides and hoarse ruminations of “Movie Music Kills a Kiss.”
Rutili has a goofy side, which comes out while tuning for “Moses.” He ventures first that Moses liked to party, and then goes onto an extended appreciation of Linda Ronstadt (Moses was a fan, too, apparently), especially she of the roller-skating Living in the USA cover. Later, also during tuning, we hear about Rutilli’s fetish for Amish women. (“Cleanliness and purity,” Hendricks agrees, nodding.)
There is a song I don’t recognize – I think now “Electric Fence” from Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People — and then the long hazy intro to “Bells Break Arms” and “Stitches.” Towards the end, it’s maybe 11:15, people are sneaking out and Rutili calls them on it. “You’re leaving?” he says in disbelief. “Fuck. You, too?” And someone who is not leaving, not really, says, “Can you play ‘Magdalene’ next? I’ve got to go.” Rutili plays with it, his outrage at least partly theatrical (but also, where do these people have to go that they can’t stay for the last three songs?), and everyone’s laughing (nervously) as he vents at a guy who is not really leaving, just playing along. (He stays.)
And then Califone plays “Magdalene,” with its epic, sweeping blues-y-ness, its canted convention, its whispery mysticism, and it thrusts all the silliness aside. What a band. How could you go before this happened?