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.
The slew of album-release celebrations this week can mean only one thing: I'm about to get even further behind in my reviewing. First up, on Thursday, November 20, at Brendan's, is bluesman supreme Otis Taylor, whose latest recording is called When Negroes Walked the Earth. Two nights later, on Saturday, November 22, at the Bluebird Theater, veteran Denver guitarist Emilio Emilio (who's twinned his first name to differentiate him from just plain Emilio, a popular Tejano performer), commemorates the reissuing of two previous discs, Beyond and Back and Texas Tone Live, the arrival of a third, Cultura, and his parents' fortieth anniversary. Whew. On Sunday, November 23, Betsy Joy introduces the listeners at Littleton Town Hall Arts Center to her just-completed self-titled CD. And on Wednesday, November 26, Seraphim Shock headlines at the Ogden Theatre to tout its long-awaited full-length, Red Silk Vow, and a music video made to accompany the platter's first single, "After Dark." You won't have to fight for the right to party, but you may have to pay a cover.
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According to Dave Hartman of My Blind Alley, he and his bandmates found a novel way to replace a recently departed drummer; after trying and failing to find a new timekeeper, they convinced their previous percussionist, Dave Hanlen, to return. See the combo twice this week--on Friday, November 21, at the Market St. Lounge, and Wednesday, November 26, at LoDo's Stars. Also doubling up are cHUCK dA fONK and the Mile High Funkers, who entertain on Thursday, November 20, at the blueroom, with Askimbo, and Tuesday, November 25, at the Mercury Cafe, and Richmond Fontaine, which drops by Cricket on the Hill on Thursday, November 20, and Nick's in Boulder on Friday, November 21.
Pity the following acts--they're getting only one plug in this column. On Friday, November 21, Buzz Bomber and the M-80s fly over the Lion's Lair; Chuck is on a first-name basis at CU-Boulder's Club 156; and the Indulgers splurge at the Skyline Cafe. On Saturday, November 22, the Iowa-based House of Large Sizes, inked not long ago to a contract with Boulder's W.A.R.? imprint, goes to the Market St. Lounge; DeSoto Records' own Dismemberment Plan cuts and runs at the 15th Street Tavern, with the Sleeping Brotherhood House Band; and the Sundays mix up their dates at the Ogden. On Monday, November 24, Eric Burdon, of Animals and War fame, spills the wine at the Fox Theater. And on Tuesday, November 25, the Lunachicks go off the deep end at the Bluebird Theater. Come on in, the water's fine.