Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jandek (Chapel Hill Sunday)

On Sunday, February 22nd, Jandek played at Gerrard Hall, UNC, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with John Darnielle (better known as the Mountain Goats) on keyboards, Anne Gomez on bass and saxophone, and Brian Jones on drums. Jandek played electric guitar, and, on one song, harmonica.

I have listened to Jandek albums before, so had a rough idea of what one might expect, but the albums I heard were strictly guitar and vocals. This show was amazingly heavy and loud. At times it recalled (to me) Sonic Youth or late 60s/early 70s Miles Davis. The volume was incredible, but the sound remained clear. The vibrations penetrated the body and rattled the eardrums, literally, like you would hope for at any raw rock’n’roll show.

Jandek’s idiosyncratically-tuned guitar had an almost industrial sound at times (again I couldn’t help but think of other musicians for context, maybe Neubauten, though he predates them somewhat), and his sound shone through even in the setting of the backing band, who were all clearly versed in the history of free jazz and other avant-garde music. He tended to build a sort of hypnotic groove, which the rhythm section punctuated and built on, while Darnielle’s keyboards seemed mostly to add background color. Jones’s drum playing was savage and aggressive and impressive, and occasionally included a bit of xylophone.

The electric piano came to the fore a bit more on the harmonica song, sounding suddenly something perhaps like a Wurlitzer. Jandek’s harmonica playing was blues-based, and provided the backbone for the rhythm section to once again take things to another level. Throughout the set, in fact, it was obvious that Jandek had encouraged Gomez and Jones to cut loose and go all out, even when it meant they dominated certain parts of the songs. He seemed to enjoy being part of an improvisational band allowing for everyone to take their turn. The band would often build to a crescendo led by the rhythm section, then release it, letting Jandek’s guitar take over once again.

Gomez not only played bass and, on two songs (if I remember correctly) saxophone, but added screamed vocals to one. Here she counter-punctuated Jandek’s lines with intense shrieks, which reminded me of Linda Sharrock on the first two Sonny Sharrock albums. Her sheer talent in all three of these modes was obvious.

But of course, Jandek remained the focus of the performance. He stood, often with his back to the audience when not singing (or really, intoning) lyrics into the microphone, and got loose to the rhythm of his own playing, dressed in black and wearing what must by now be a trademark hat. In some ways he appeared a classic bluesman, in spirit. In sound he is unique despite my inclination to contextualize him. His sound is naturally dissonant, and hypnotic. His lyrics are often more like poetry than song, and he tends to deliver his words rather like delivering lines of poetry. I would like to read a book of his.

Jandek, who is sometimes referred to as the representative from Corwood Industries, seemed like he could be in his late 40s even, or 50s. But I suppose he could be 60 too — it was hard to tell. There was no talking on stage during the set (for that matter there was no stage), and he never said anything to the audience either. However, it seemed like he briefly said something to the other musicians as they were walking off at the end of the show. But otherwise there was no talking at all. Lyrical themes ranged from the body as the ultimate definition of identity, to a satire of the excesses of the rich, to the notion of being “stable” versus “unstable,” to change as the only constant in life.

Much has been made of Jandek as an enigma. That he gives no interviews, and nobody knows anything about him, or even knows his real name for sure (it is surmised to be Sterling Smith), has created a sense of legend about him. I don’t really care about any of that stuff, though on the other hand I guess it is interesting in a lot of ways. But what matters more to me is if his music is any good, and it certainly is, and this show was really great.

[Photos of the show by rchurch74 on Flickr]

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Begnal in review of Salmon anthology

The Spring 2009 issue of An Sionnach: A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts (Creighton University Press) reviews the anthology Salmon: A Journey in Poetry, 1981-2007, and singles out my poem (and collection) “Ancestor Worship” for especial note.

The review is by Drew Blanchard, who says of the anthology, “What the book does present, though, is a look into a contemporary record of Irish, Canadian, US, and European poetry. In so doing, the anthology looks both forwards and backwards in time. A recent Salmon collection by Michael S. Begnal, Ancestor Worship (2007), is an admirable book by a younger Salmon author; and the book’s title poem, included in the anthology, does this work: it looks back at multiple histories as it represents one future of poetry.”

Blanchard then gives the poem in full, and continues on: “Begnal, a dual Irish/US citizen identifies with both countries in ‘Ancestor Worship.’ The power of this poem, though, moves beyond notions of citizenship, beyond ties to nations and ancestries, and questions, in the end, ‘the right hook of history,’ asking, ‘Who’re you?’ or ‘who has history made you out to be?’ While Begnal smartly calls history-creation into question in this poem, ancestry, whether poetic or national or indefinable, is important to him, of course, in many ways. In the past, Begnal has noted the poetic influence of the Irish poet James Liddy who passed away in November of 2008. Liddy, who also had dual citizenship, was born in Dublin in 1934....” (The review then goes on to discuss Liddy and the rest of the book.)

I could not have said it better myself. And I liked the parallel Blanchard draws between Liddy and me. Incidentally, An Sionnach (which means “the fox” in Irish, for those who don’t speak it) is always worth ordering, and ditto the Salmon anthology and the Ancestor Worship collection....