Here we go – again... up to London this time to see Jandek at St Giles in the Fields off Denmark Street. The Poet's Church, apparently... A smooth journey down and booked in to a new hotel in Bayswater that I found on the net – seemed ok, although a bit rough round the edges and no internet connection! Apparently they had just taken over the place and were still having teething problems. But the guy I spoke to on the desk seemed cheerful enough and the room was fine - as good as and cheaper than the one I had in the Regent Palace the other week. Went out to get some food and quickly found the Black Lion where I had a late lunch and was planning on doing a gallery or something – but suddenly felt wrecked so went back to the hotel and had a kip. Still feeling the after-effects of my foray to the Variety Club in Basford, Notts, a couple of days before – a wild and wooly afternoon about which I will write at a later date when I can decipher the notes on bar mats and scribbled at speed in my notebook.
To the gig – walked off down Bayswater road a way but realised that it would take a fair stretch of the legs and decided not to risk fatigue more than necessary so tubed it from Lancaster Gate to Tottenham Court Road and wandered down Charing Cross Road to cut off down Denmark Street and look in the guitar shops as I was early until I came to St Giles – and saw a queue already there. It was only 7 pm and the gig wasn't supposed to start until 7.30 pm so I thought I'd get my ticket from the desk (pre-booked) and slope off for a drink. But once I got inside I hung about instead – realising that there was only one toilet and drinks before gigs could mean being stuck in the long queue which was there most of the evening. Bog very clean - on a par with the Stone Club in New York for solitary splendour. Went and grabbed a seat in a pew and sat looking round the renovated church interior as some ambient-ish laptop stuff played – pleasant enough, going into at one point what sounded like a didgeridoo looped through a distortion effects unit.
More or less on time the first act came on - unannounced– Angharad Davies and Rodhri Davies – violin and harp. A stark unadorned sound – long violin notes and at times very quiet textural detail against clangs and bangs and more abrasive timbres from the harp being played with various implements at times (I couldn't see what he was using so had to try to figure it from the sounds produced – an interesting experience). The acoustic of the church lent itself very well to this austere improvisation. Of course, these two are stalwarts of the scene – but I had never seen them live before and enjoyed their music. There is a steely, Kierkagaardian almost, core, (cor!) to their performance – especially given no compere or introduction or a word spoken until they silently acknowledged the applause and left the stage.
I read in the Wire last issue interview with Mark Wastell et al that the Davies duo had got fed up with playing in churches and were now doing gigs at home which was interesting and prompted the thought: what would this sound like in a more intimate space, what changes to the acoustics and the mind-set would be provoked? The contrast between high-ceilinged spacious resonance and the emotional vibe of being in a church, no matter what spiritual background and beliefs one has -if any- to the closeness of friends and more enclosed acoustic/spiritual space - unless you live in a barn or converted church I suppose? Context provokes it's own challenges...
Then came Jandek... I wasn't really sure what to expect as my only acquaintance with his music is a couple of tracks from the seventies I half-listened to a few weeks ago and did not really register, to be honest, as I was busy doing something requiring my full attention. He came on – unannounced and spoke not a word during his performance. Tallish, thin man wearing a black hat tilted slightly so that from where I was sitting it was difficult to see his face. Or his playing technique – so I had to rely on my ears.
Jandek, on this initial encounter, seems to come off the blues... and maybe that rolling Lightning Hopkins fluid free blues not marked off by 12 bar choruses and chord changes are where the performer decides to put them in emotional/contextual response rather than formal obeisance to conventions. (I always loved the Lighning Hopkins remark – or razor-like put-down, rather, to a young Billy Gibbons – so the story goes - who queried his knowledge of chord changes to a friend, unaware of Hopkins standing behind him: 'Lightnin' change when Lighnin' want to.') The structure comes from within – form is never more than an extention of content, boys and girls, as Creeley put it. (And I see a lot of blues players as precursors of that mid-century move into 'open field' composition that is usually seen in a more academic guise, no matter the 'rebellious' credentials of those involved: beats, Black Mountaineers, painters, modern jazz musicians and contemporary composers et al). For someone to play off the blues heritage – and them white – presents many problems – aesthetic, technical... over-reverence and imitation or to boldly attempt to go through into the feeling and core of the music – or what you perceive that can be for someone born outside the African-American cultural experience, no matter what sympathetic overtones ring in your head and body.
Jandek is dark, alright. His free-falling songs also remind me of the meander, the snatched-out-the-air quality of John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins laced with the more tragic of Bukka White's stark laments (albeit that he is apparently reading the lyrics from a music stand in front of him). In performance, the accumulation of material is the point, rather than individual songs as they all adhere pretty much to a similar strategy. Sharp, angular acoustic guitar accenting the bass E and A to ground the music (so that he is not, technically 'atonal' as one writer has said - there is, most of the time, the standard tonal centres of acoustic blues when played in conventional tuning, the bottom two strings used as bass anchor. Or out of tune, as has also been alleged – his guitar was in tuned-in accurately standard concert EADGBE). Over that – he is playing a very vertical sound, crushed, minor seconds and semitone-displaced chords resonating off open strings, clusters of notes that unsettle the implications of the bass, much more complex chords than would be encountered in the old country blues but inhabiting the same timbral area of the acoustic/steel National guitars of the masters. It's a clever take on updating the tradition and the raw, biting, acoustic sound of the guitar complements and underscores the weirdness of the vocals... This is the area, I guess, where Jandek either takes you with him or not... He does not sing in any conventional sense his songs that equally do not adhere to conventional structures but – what? - keens almost, sliding across the notes in a high lonesome psychotic melisma as he tells of strange stories of heartbreak, depression and loss, mysteriously hinted at through the opacity of the words. This is one disturbed man – Edvard Munch gets the Texas Blues maybe...
You could also argue the point about how much of this was performance and how much genuine psychic/emotional disturbance. Depression recounted at leisure and distance - or the immediacy of despair re-entered in catharthis. (For a couple of interesting articles that serves as a good intro to this and other info about Jandek go here and
I realised about half and hour in why I had felt some nagging incongruity in his appearance – it was the fact that he kept his hat on in church. Such are the post-modern times we live in, but from an American it seemed an odd thing, in some way. Given the darkness of the emotional area being inscribed, maybe the wearing of the black hat was an interesting signifier – there was little transcendence or spiritual relief inside this music. You felt that the Poet's Church would offer no consolation in this life or any other to this doomed gunslinger who always seems in his songs to be in the position that Leonard Cohen describes in 'Hallelujah': 'Now maybe there's a god above/but all I ever learned from love/is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you...'
Performance or catharsis - he took me with him... I was fascinated by his guitar playing, as it touched on technical and emotional areas that I've gone into myself and with my collaborator Murray. I suddenly realised at one point what else he reminded me of and it was during a section where he was doing his dissonant upstroke/downstroke in a manner that flashed up Sonic Youth – and a song that Murray and I recorded where some of the inspiration on guitar was coming from that area. And that's a beat out of the Velvet Underground if truth be told – think 'I'm Waiting for my Man' to get the 8/8 rhythm (although they were little touched by the blues). Along with a fast strummed chorded section that reminded me of Derek Bailey briefly – the same verticality and occasional pinging overtones but more evenly rhythmically stressed.
So you could say – it was all one song – but that is a criticism you could aim at John Lee Hooker or Lighning Hopkins. Or Bukka White. In that narrowness of furrow one can dig deep and deeper. So. You either dig it or you don't. I dug... So did the packed church who applauded him vigorously(to the heavens...?)
The last act rocked the evening out in a blast of youthfully energetic free jazz hoo hah... The Rauhan Orkestri (here's an album review) come out of the Finnish free jazz scene and are a young quartet of drums bass, two horns doubling up on various what we used to call 'small instruments.' They started at full tilt – the alto player running up and down the church blatting out sqwarks and yelps in the now time-honoured fashion with his colleague responding on soprano. Yet there was a freshness and vitality to their playing – and a sense of fun which had not been much in evidence throughout the rest of the evening. They were a refreshing change of emotional gears and capped the night perfectly – even though half the audience had gone after Jandek loped off to the crossroads or wherever. Maybe a compere would have helped – just a thought, but not everyone was aware that there was more music on as the main act doesn't usually fetch up in the middle of the show. That aside, actually an inspired piece of programming, the way it fell out... The Rauhan group displayed a wide range of texture and sonorities – from the alto/soprano double sax hit running round the church as if testing the acoustic and testifying to whatever spirit moved them and putting the audience inside the music literally at times to quieter passages that gave their set a dynamic range from full throttle wahoo to almost inaudible delicacy. My only problem was that from my pew the bass sound seemed muddy and undifferentiated, the drums not quite sharp enough. A shame as the acoustics for the other two acts had been pin-point sharp. Problem solved by noticing that the queue for the sacred loo had disappeared so I went for a piss and came back to stand very near to the action and was able to hear them a lot more clearly to the end of their set. To much applause from the remainder of the punters.
And: hats (black or otherwise) in the air for the promoters who provided an inspired show...
The problem: 10.30 pm and no desire for searching out late bars and the hotel had none. So: the cunning of the old fox – over to Sainsbury's on Charing Cross Road for a couple of cans to be secreted in my shoulder bag, then a quick pint in the Leicester Arms at the top of Soho then back to Bayswater to find an internet cafe for a half an hour followed by a stroll around for the flanêurism that was in it and, finally, a slow drink in the hotel room. Slightly bolloxed by the Sainbury's rule that you have to buy a 4 pack at least (unusual logic – maybe only winos and street piss-artists buy Stella by the the can?). So I was weighed down by the bugger but made the Leicester Arms, eventually got a seat and started to write up my first impressions of the gig. Then the heavens burst... I got soaked going down to the tube and thought: fuck it – straight to hotel, no nocturnal explorations of Bayswater/Queensway tonight. A can, an interesting documentary on photographer Robert Capa. And kip...