I heard from a 70 year old homeless man that today was the vernal equinox, 12 hours of day, 12 hours of night, marking the begining of spring.
I think this is an helpful symbol for tonight's show. The dark night part was that during the show John had some pretty annoying technical obstacles. The day part was he is continuing on his unprecidented journey to new musical frontiers and bold experimentation.
The first act of the night was a band with two female guitar players, and one male drummer. Both of the girls had short blonde hair. The drummer wore one of those puffy Britney Spears hats. One of the girls sang more than the other. The bass player wasn't missed, their guitar parts were very interesting and they played through the same type of amp so they had a very interesting effect, like one 4 armed guitarist. The parts interlocked and were very clever. The drumming was very good too. I enjoyed them, quite a bit. They had the skill level of someone who had been playing guitar for about 6-9 months, choppy rhythms (all downstrokes), drifty tempos, but it was all very clever. One of the girls and the drummer looked familiar from last week, they were hanging around with the Fugazi guys over at the Knitting Factory. I don't know if they were a discord band or something, maybe just friends.
Finally after having to listen to that sublime record for the second time of the night John just magically appeared on the stage. Josh wandered in a moment later. On the stage was a standup bass, and orchestral bass drum, John's bandmaster amp, two keyboards, another keyboard setup and Joe's bass rig. He seemed in a much better mood tonight and was smiling quite a bit when he came out. Tragically the place was only about 2 thirds full! He crouched down under the center stage keyboard area and started a sequencer, Josh came closer and sat on a stool slightly behind him. No guitars on anybody, the sequence pounded out a Depeche Mode/Shadows Collide version of "Beat Down". It was very cool, almost funny. I got the feeling that they thought it was kind of funny too. He stood and sang the first verse and the drum machine stopped! He calmly kneeled down and adjusted some settings and was laughing about the whole situation, quite a departure from the last few times that I have seen him. He stood and made some jokes to the audience about how "the right way to do it, the professional way to do it, is to make a CD and then sing over the CD, but we do it the hard way, we hook up this drum machine and play the keyboard with it and then everything goes wrong (big smile) and this band is all about things going wrong!" Then he started again. Josh sang some great background parts and John reached over and played a high sustaining note on the keyboard on the chorus. It was a really fun song and there was a certain honesty and humour in this performance. The keyboard/drum sequence was going through his amp and it sounded all overdriven and wild. It still had the feeling of fooling around in your living room even though there were 800-1000 people there. The fact that he was just standing there singing without his guitar was kind of funny too. I am not casting a light of funny as peculiar, but he seemed to be smiling an awful lot and laughing between verses. He was really having a great time. You just couldn't help but laugh with him.
Then Joe and another guy came out. Joe plugged in a beatle bass into a 8x10 cab and some rackmounted preamp/power amp deal. The other guy picked up the large acoustic bass, it was plugged into at least 6 or 7 pedals, fuzzes, flangers and one of those Boss RC-20 loop pedals into an Ampeg combo amp, the one with the exposed tubes and guts sticking out of the top and blue shiny cloth covering. Josh retreated slightly backwards to the percussion set up, a small orchestral bass drum, a synth drum trigger and a snare drum. John plugged in his coral red jaguar, I didn't see any pedals. Once everyone was settled in John started playing some lonely single notes and everyone kind of fell into the vibe. It was pretty amazing, I think it was Salvador Dali who famously stated that comparisons are odious, but I will make one for your benefit. The closest thing I can think of to describe it is a piece from the Syd Barrett album Opel. It is the instrumental track on the begining of side 2, lanky (part one), spooky, moody, haunting and muscular. They painted frightening soundscapes. The acoustic bassist bowed the strings, he whooped and swooshed through the dark night. John soared weaving wonderful melodies through the pulsing and marching and droning. Josh measured out giant elephant stomps and castle doors slamming shut on his very low drum. He pounded it with his mallets like a Japanese Takio drummer. The synth drum was set to a sound much like on the Performance 4. Other times it reminded me of The Velvet Underground, particularly songs like Heroin and Venus in Furs, due to the fact that the percussion was being played standing up and the droning bowed tones of the acoustic bass. At one point he got up and asked John something, and then ran off the stage for a pretty long time. He eventually came back. Joe plodded out his brand of geometric melodic architecture, he was occasionally sounding like the bass solo of Hendrix's 1983. The guy is mister mellow, unshakable, very solid and focused.
This was very ambitious, very. They played for 12-18 minutes. I would have to say that I do not think there was any plan or road map involved, I think they just went for it. No net. I thought it was fantastic. The John people who were there screamed of course, there were a lot of "I love you John", awkwardly and randomly shouted by guys who seemed like they would have a hard time saying such a thing to their own mothers. It was a lot of fun, everyone was in a great mood.
John's playing was very elegant. He was plugged right into the amp (no pedals I think). His sound was clear and fluid. Seeming to favor the neck pickup, mellower and rounder sounding. Pushing the amp slightly into the Roy Buccanon zone. Even hitting some of those classic harmonic minor licks. He has a way of playing a lot of guitar without seeming like he is playing a lot of guitar. One never thinks 'oh, he sure has been soloing for 10 minutes now', he always leaves enough space and just plays melodies, not licks like most players do. You always feel like you are following him somewhere, a place to where he doesn't even know where we are heading. Bruce Lee would call it 'soloing, without soloing'.
Who is driving the bus John? Who cares, it is beatiful. After a while John went around and whispered to everyone to take it down, they crept along for a moment like that, every little creak of the bow, tap on the drum skin and warm atomic tube hum could be felt rippling through the air. Then John played a high sustaining tremolo picked chord and everyone exploded into thier instruments! Massive drama, opera, a sonic Hiroshima! Everyone went nuts. Josh smashed his stuff knocking it all over like a kid Keith Moon. Applause, applause, applause...
Then everybody but John and Josh left the stage. Josh sat on the stool again and played one of John's little martin acoustics and John stood and sang again. The sequencer kicked in and they played a new song that I did not know. It was very good as well, it was very post SCWP sounding in the way they performed it. Healthy doses of Depeche Mode. It sounded vintage and modern at once. It was cool like the way 'Sweet Dreams' by The Eurhythmics is cool and cool like the way "The Slaughter" is cool.
My report would not be complete if I didn't mention a few of technical problems that seemed to nag them throughout the performance. I was very dissappointed in the technical staff and quality of the venue's sound system. The Henry Fonda Theater is located on Hollywood Blvd. about a mile down the street from the Knitting Factory where the rest of the Performance shows have been. It is a large concert hall venue, with a very large lower level and a 400 seat balcony. The stage was 6 feet above the floor and the stage was shrouded in large velvet curtains. There is a lot of open air above the stage (3 stories), there is also an outdoor patio on the roof with speakers and a movie projector showing the stage on a giant wall (kind of neat). I must say that John got a raw deal from the soundman, compared to the headliners Blonde Redhead (whose sound was crystal clear and without incident). I found this to be very annoying. But I didn't dwell on it. In addition to the overall crappy sound and frequent soundboard distortions the bass drum mic was touching the drum head for about the first 5 minutes until a stagehand ran out to adjust it, this caused an unpleasant vibrating sound everytime the drum was struck. Then poor Joe's amp blew up about half way through the number. John was very quick on his feet, he grabbed Joe's cable and plugged him into the other channel of his Fender amp. Problem solved! All without missing a beat. And finally the acoustic bass microphone or microphone cable was shorting out, so pretty much through the whole performance there was crackling, unintentional drop outs and long periods of nothing from the bass. I don't think anyone but John was aware that this was happening, even still, he didn't let it get to him. I was very happy to see that he was relaxed and enjoying playing. I was just listening to some of the 2001 acoustic shows yesterday and noticing how much fun he was having during that period, he was very funny and engaging with the audience. In the last few shows that I have seen he seemed very reserved, agitated, tempermental and nervous. Tonight he was back to the old mellow, open funny guy we knew before. It was only 3 songs and seemed a little on the short side (of course I wish it had been longer) but it was still amazing.