As much as I mythologize that city to the south, there's no place like home. I'm duly reminded of this fact by concerts such as this: the Nels Cline Singers recording a live album over two nights at Cafe du Nord.
Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009: I've seen plenty of shows that have been filmed for TV, video, or movie purposes, but to the best of my recollection, I haven't attended the taping of a live album--at least none with real release plans. It was just a matter of time before my concert plans and an artist's recording plans intersected. The fact that the Nels Cline Singers would furnish this opportunity was a welcome coincidence.
My knowledge of live albums is mostly limited to--honestly, Duran Duran's Arena, but I have a passing familiarity with the Budokan, Royal Albert Hall, and prison recordings (among others) of note. One of the questions for me was how the abundantly improvisational Singers would present themselves on, in essence, a set document.
For one, they stuck to a similar--though not identical--setlist over both nights. They bashed through a number of originals, some unreleased, some reaching far back into their catalog, and others of more recent vintage. One of the new songs was provisionally and aptly titled "Build." They referred to another as "Thurstonius," subject to change before it reached its final form. The nod to its potential namesake was clear, but its rhythm and melody reminded me of a different Wilco/Sonic Youth project--specifically, Loose Fur's "Laminated Cat." Speaking of Sonic Youth, the Singers opened the two-night stand with their cover of "Mildred Pierce," killing time while the crew worked out technical issues.
But back to the earlier question about the experimentation of the Singers vs. the formalities of a live album: There was no reason to worry. The trio at no point held back, whether on the tentatively titled "Metalgasm" (or "Gee, I'm White," according to Nels), the psychedelic middle ramble of "Blues Too" on the second night, or either performance of "Fly Fly." It wasn't all discord and din, however; in between, they tempered their push with more hushed works from Carla Bley and Andrew Hill.
Then again, it wasn't all business as usual. For starters, there was the tireless presence of producer Ron Saint Germain, who dropped in frequently to adjust microphones or let the band know when each round of technical difficulties subsided. Those electronic bugaboos interrupted both nights' proceedings, though to a much lesser extent on the second go-round. However, they also brought out Nels's inner Goulet, to borrow his phrasing, as he made ample use of the microphone to chat, vamp, and generally await Ron's thumbs-up.
Striking a more joyful note (no pun intended) were Greg, Satomi, and John (who I didn't recognize at an earlier show with Nels) from Deerhoof, who dropped in on the second night--Bay Bridge closure, be damned!--to reprise their performance from last November, first on a Weather Report song, then on the Singers' own "Suspended Head." For the former, they raided Scott Amendola's extensive percussion kit; on the latter, Nels called Greg back to the stage to take the mic.
One more aspect worth mentioning, for both its unexpectedness and because I'm not sure how much of it will make it to the released recording, is Nels's loquaciousness. Even he admitted he had never spoken so much at a show. I can't begin to list all the topics that he covered with mic in hand, but I wholly believe Scott Amendola's comment that now we knew what it felt like to be on tour with Nels.
Ava Mendoza opened both shows, and she impressed the room with her lyrical guitar playing, bringing to mind the likes of Django Reinhardt and M. Ward. She was far from the typical girl with an acoustic guitar, which is not a bad thing at all.
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