By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
As you know, the current music scene is in the doldrums: Little new ground is being broken, and the bands receiving the most popular acclaim are either rehashes of old groups or the old groups themselves. But even as we head toward the low end of the quality cycle, strong, exciting music can still be found. After witnessing recent gigs by Lee "Scratch" Perry and Stereolab, I'd suggest you look for it on the margins.
A recent Westword profile subject ("Learning From Scratch," November 6), Perry has never had a Top 40 hit in this country, and odds are good that he will not score any smashes in the future. However, his personal take on dub, a form of studio-tinkering that transforms reggae tracks into aural environments, has been influential; his pioneering example has inspired artists who specialize in rock, electronica, hip-hop and plenty of other genres. That he also acts loony (and very convincingly, I might note) is an additional bonus, particularly in a live setting. On November 8 at the Fox Theatre, a capacity crowd discovered just that. Many attendees arrived expecting a dub workout, particularly given the presence on the bill of the Mad Professor, a younger and equally innovative dub practitioner. Instead, Perry came through with a more standard set of reggae songs featuring several live musicians whose work was subtly refashioned by the Professor, who used the Fox's splendid sound system to its best advantage. Hence, the concert was less musically adventurous than it might have been, but it was infinitely more accessible.
Perry, looking strangely like actor Sam Jaffe as he appeared in Gunga Din, was clearly the star of the show. He wandered around aimlessly, wearing a cap covered in mirrors and carrying a small noisemaker that he honked at the least expected moments. As for his delivery of the tunes' lyrics, it was just as eccentric as his between-song raps about aliens, the writing of "Funky Reggae Party" and whatever else popped into his ganja-saturated frontal lobes. But such vacations from reality were a large part of the fun. When Perry stuck a long pink balloon between his legs, poured water onto its tip and chanted "Jesus Christ is coming," the effect was oddly charming. After all, Perry wasn't trying to be blasphemous; he was merely hoping to provide his Lord and Savior with as entertaining a time as he was furnishing for the mere mortals before him. When you get to heaven, ask the Big Guy if Perry succeeded.
Stereolab, which headlined at a sold-out Bluebird Theater show on November 17, was far less sexual than Perry, despite its mixed-gender lineup and lead singer Laetitia Sadier's remarkable resemblance to Isabella Rossellini. The combo's approach, which mates artsy keyboard and synthesizer tones with minimalist melodies and contrapuntal vocals by Sadier and Mary Hansen, is deliberately cool and frequently astringent. It's an intellectual blend that owes something to both Steve Reich and Astrud Gilberto, but at the same time, it's strikingly individual. Only rarely does a band's music so completely subsume its component parts that the results seem entirely fresh, as Stereolab's does.
In terms of performance, the members of Stereolab, including conceptual mastermind Tim Gane, keyboardist Morgane Lhote and utility man Richard Harrison, didn't do a whole lot; rather than running around and exhorting the ticket-buyers, they rocked and swayed in a casual manner, giving every indication of being completely lost in the compositions. Whether they were surveying a coy ditty like "Miss Modular" (from this year's quietly alluring Dots and Loops) or driving, post-Can experiments such as "Metronomic Underground" and "Percolator" (first heard on the brilliant 1996 disc Emperor Tomato Ketchup), they demonstrated aptitude and confidence. Even when the various synths were whooping and screaming chaotically, the players remained unflappable. They called to mind white-jacketed scientists calmly explaining the effects of atomic bombs as one detonated in the background.
This delicate balance was lost at the evening's end, when Gane and company magnanimously allowed Mouse on Mars, an electronic duo that preceded them to the stage, to hijack the encore. (As the extended collaboration between the two outfits wound down, the Stereolab musicians were reduced to spectators. Sadier watched the proceedings for a moment before taking one last sip of beer and ambling into a back room.) But even this miscalculation couldn't spoil the mood. While sampling such a wonderfully basic, strangely complex potion, you could imagine yourself being transported, body and soul, into a mid-Sixties Francois Truffaut film in which the people are beautiful, the sky is overcast, and the conversations are all about love and death. Given the sorry state of pop music in 1997, it was a hell of a nice place to be.
In an article about the soon-to-appear local hip-hop publication State of the Union ("United They Stand," November 6), I mentioned that a profile of the Denver-Boulder rap scene by journalist Mark Armstrong was scheduled to appear come January in The Source, one of the style's best-known journals. Well, the editors there apparently had some space to fill, because the piece, titled "Hip-Hop's Heartland," can be found in the current issue. To paraphrase Vaclav Havel, Czech it out.