Sunday, August 08, 2010

Jandek (Pittsburgh Thursday)

On Thursday, August 5th, Jandek played a show in Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. It was a good venue for a show — an outdoor patio enclosed by a tent-like structure. I have now seen Jandek twice (and have written about the other show here). For an ostensibly reclusive musician, he actually plays out relatively often now. I suppose he has had to wrestle with the opposing concerns of maintaining his personal privacy and getting his music out to a live audience. I think it is possible to strike that balance, and from what I could tell the Pittsburgh crowd mostly left him alone. When he finally exited the stage after playing for two-and-a-half hours, there were no autograph hounds, no groupies rushing up to meet him. The kind of person who would go to see Jandek knows what he is like, and hopefully respects the fact that he doesn’t want to be bothered.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. Before the music started, I was in line to buy drink tickets and overheard one local fan remark to another, “I never thought this day would come.” There was real appreciation of this show. There was also a something of a “scene” element to the crowd — every “outsider” music fan in Pittsburgh must have been in attendance — still, there was a range of different people there too, including also poets, aging revolutionaries, a couple of children, parents, fellow musicians, artists (one woman, wearing a large bow tie, was later to be observed sketching the band as they performed), and perhaps a few curious onlookers. All of this being said, it was not quite a capacity crowd, which meant that there was a comfortable lack of jostling or jockeying for position closer to the stage.

Jandek suddenly took the stage, walking through the crowd, at about 8:15 PM. Whereas he played guitar when I saw him last year, this time he played keyboards. The backing band consisted of Pittsburgh musicians Dean Cercone on guitar and percussion, Spat Cannon on upright bass, and Andrew McKeon on drums. The quartet opened with an instrumental, and there seemed to be some concern about whether Jandek would sing or not. After this intro, though, Jandek intoned lyrics to every piece. He does not sing per se, but rather reads in an idiosyncratic manner over (and in complement to) the music. The subject matter seemed largely to deal with the ways in which people alienate and are alienated from each other in contemporary society.

Musically, I would describe this performance as ambient, but not in an electronic sense. Yes, Jandek’s keyboards occasionally had a synthesizer sound, but mostly they sounded like an analog piano or sometimes an electric organ. Spat Cannon’s bass, as previously mentioned, was the big old-fashioned upright instrument and hinted at jazz. McKeon used brushes (and their wooden nub-ends) on the drums. Cercone’s guitar playing — often executed with a drumstick — reminded me at times of Thurston Moore’s, though this is possibly a superficial observation. The sound was generally atonal — the band seemed to play in response to each other rather than together (which I do not mean as a criticism), but occasionally there were convergences. At one brilliant point, Cercone suddenly matched the note of Jandek’s held, off-kilter vocal with his guitar. Cannon occasionally fell into a hypnotic, rhythmic bass figure, which Jandek would briefly entrain with. But overall the sound was jagged and disjointed, which accorded well with Jandek’s words. After a whole two-and-a-half hours of such improvisations, Jandek unceremoniously began to pack up his things and walked off the stage, back out through the crowd, to the musicians’ rooms somewhere downstairs in the Arts Center building.

The show was organized by the novelist, poet, and publisher of Six Gallery Press, Che Elias. Pulling off the unwieldy event was a small triumph on his part, and at one point, not long into the set, while there was still some daylight and before the colored lanterns hanging from the ceiling of the tent were turned on, I observed this image: The sun had started to go down and hung low on the horizon; it had suddenly become visible (but for only a few minutes) at a long angle through a window flap to my left, bright red-orange so low you could look upon it and not have to avert your eyes in pain or blindness; it was this brilliant bright glowing pre-twilight red orb, glowing right above Che’s head as he stood there momentarily rapt in this music of Jandek which he had helped to bring to this place and point in time. For me, the image sums up the feeling of the night.

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