After a slow start, May should shape up to be a decent concert month. Unsurprisingly, it was a Nels Cline show--and the promise of two new (to me) incarnations of his musical muse--that got me out of the house.
Stinkbug/Fig, 21 Grand Gallery, May 13, 2010: Even when I think I know what to expect of a Nels Cline gig, you can rest assured my head is decidedly in the dark. The Nels Cline Singers certainly have a discography and a catalog to work with, but they can just as easily slip in a surprise cover or some heretofore unknown bit of improv. Nels' shows with Jon Brion are the very definition of a guessing game, and forget about his one-off projects--in which case I'm in so far over my head, the USS Nimitz couldn't save me. Thus, it came as a pleasant surprise to hear both Fig and Stinkbug serving up songs that, though not exactly mainstream, came closer to rock/pop compositions than I'm used to hearing from Nels and his collaborators.
First up was Fig, comprising Nels and Yuka Honda, formerly of Cibo Matto. I'm in no way an authority on Cibo Matto; my main exposure to them is isolated to a couple of high-rotation videos on MTV's 120 Minutes. Despite this ignorance on my part, it wasn't hard to guess at what each of them brought to the songs. Nels, of course, supplied the expert fretwork, which ranged from the fine and ethereal to the frenetic and discordant.
Yuka, meanwhile, came through on the synthesizer and, most dramatically, with the percussion. On many of the songs, she supplied a deep, satisfying rhythm that was nearly irresistible. Even better, I think a lot of the noises came through a device that looked like the bastard child of a Simon Says, a Lite Brite, and a disco ball. And you know what else? It matched her awesome silver lame shoes! [EDIT: The instrument in question is called a Tenori-On (pictured right).]
OK, that last observation was pretty shallow, so let me get to the real details. In all, Fig performed six songs, two with Nels on vocals (not the first time I've heard him take the lead) and two with Yuka on the mic. I don't think either artist would verify that they were fully hatched songs, but they sounded pretty complete to me. Within the set, "Berries" (I think that's the name?) might be the closest to, say, a Nels Cline Singers composition, particularly in its use of looped guitar parts and transitions from the dissonant to the melodic. On top of it, Nels sang, while Yuka furnished the foundational beat. Nels took his other turn as lead singer on the opening "Every Moment," a diaphanous intro if there ever was one.
"Tokyo Night Janitor" may have been my favorite of the Yuka-fronted tracks, even if we didn't get to hear the story that inspired it. Over Yuka's spoken-word delivery, Nels added acoustic notes, but the serenity didn't last for long. Soon enough, they summoned the chaos (and the KAOSS), all leading to a one-chord denouement that may not have been entirely planned.
Their final selection was what Nels called a "not so little" number by the name of "Don't Move." It started as a conversation between Nels' thingamagoop and the bird calls living inside Yuka's synthesizer, but as promised, it grew to much bigger proportions. By the end, it had morphed into a true epic with multiple backing tracks and real rock feel.
Stinkbug, in contrast, played only two numbers, but the first was a sprawling 30-minute movement, and the second clocked in at a relatively short 15 minutes. First, I have to note that it's always a surprise to see Nels as part of a group in which he has the fewest effects pedals and doodads of anyone onstage--which was exactly the case here.
Also surprising was the accessibility of Stinkbug's music; I mean, I'd be hard-pressed to peg Stinkbug to a particular genre, but there was a low menace and an electric buzz to their sound that wouldn't be out of place on, say, alternative rock radio (whatever that means these days). Then again, seeing as this was the first Stinkbug show in seven or eight years, maybe it's a case of the rest of the world catching up with the band.
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